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Lafayette College Chaplain Gary Miller gained insights into the changing role of chaplains at private liberal arts colleges and universities through research he conducted at eight undergraduate institutions last semester.

Through the support of the Office of the Dean of Students, Miller visited Bates, Bucknell, Davidson, Hamilton, Johns Hopkins, Queens, the Puget Sound, and Wesleyan. He interviewed chaplains, administrators, faculty members, and students, attending worship and programs to see the creative work that chaplains are doing at other institutions and gauge the climate for religious life. Three themes emerged from his research that he included in a report.

“First, I found that chaplains in each of the institutions I visited were responding creatively to an increased religious diversity on their campuses,” says Miller. “Diana Eck has called the United States ‘the most religiously diverse nation on earth,’ and colleges and universities are now finding religious diversity expanding in ways that their founders would never have imagined.”

With a religious majority a thing of the past at campuses like Lafayette, a chaplain’s work is “very ecumenical,” according to Miller.

“College chaplains who are typically Protestant are helping Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu organizations to form; are hosting seders and iftars; are working with interfaith councils; and are bringing people of diverse religious identities together for dialogue,” he says.

“Another relatively new phenomenon is the student or faculty member or staff member who regards herself as ‘spiritual but not religious,'” notes Miller. “While these terms were once considered synonymous, now increasing numbers of individuals are opting for a more private and individualized spirituality that does not necessarily include engaging in public worship or membership in any religious organization. This presents a new challenge for chaplains who are more accustomed to working with religious joiners than spiritual loners.”

Offering hospitality appears to be the most effective response to this phenomenon.

“Providing quiet places for reading, reflection, and prayer, offering gathering times that are free from doctrine and proscribed ritual, and sponsoring open-ended discussions, like our Chaplain’s Office Brown Bag Luncheon Program, all present opportunities for people to express and deepen their spirituality without having to make a commitment to a particular set of religious beliefs and practices.”

Miller also examined how chaplains are engaged in creating community in an age of individualism when increasing fragmentation characterizes many college campuses. He cites the conclusion by Arthur Levine and Jeanette Cureton in When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today’s College Student that “today’s undergraduates think of themselves in terms of their differences rather than their commonalities.” As colleges like Lafayette become more diverse in religion, ethnicity, class, etc., chaplains may have to work much harder to create a sense of community on campus.

“Chaplains are usually at the forefront of building community on their campuses,” says Miller. “They sponsor events that bring diverse groups together for discussion or action and they form coalitions to address campus concerns. They may mediate disputes and they often oversee campus-wide events in times of crisis. Building community isn’t solely a religious function, nor the responsibility only of the chaplains, but chaplains bring an important perspective to this task and can be instrumental in building bridges to create a greater sense of unity on college campuses.”

Miller’s complete report is available at He welcomes comments on it.

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