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Facing changing spirituality on campus, historic chaplain groups merge

The merger is a response to increasing diversification of spiritual life at American schools, with students, faculty and staff pursuing not only a wider range of faiths but also no faith at all.

The Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education. Courtesy image

(RNS) — Two august chaplain organizations that serve the spiritual, ethical and religious needs of college campus communities have agreed to unite to form a single organization, the Association for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Life in Higher Education or ACSLHE (pronounced ‘Axle’).

The merger, between the 73-year-old National Association of College and University Chaplains and the Association of College and University Religious Affairs, founded in 1959, will take effect on March 8 at an inaugural two-day conference.

The new group’s inaugural meeting, titled, “Imagine the Possibilities,” will feature keynote speeches by the Rev. William Barber II, founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, and Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University. 

Maytal Saltiel, associate chaplain at Yale University and vice president of ACURA, said, “I’m thrilled that our upcoming conference can be a time for ACSLHE to celebrate the merger of ACURA and NACUC and to set our new vision and priorities as a professional association.”

The merger is a response in part to this increasing diversification of spiritual life at American schools, with students, faculty and staff pursuing not only a wider range of traditional faiths but incorporating questions of identity and the meaning of belief into their spiritual development. Chaplaincy on campus has also been complicated by the growth of the “Nones” — those who claim no particular faith but may nonetheless see themselves as spiritual. 

In this new reality, chaplains are expected to be a resource for their schools not only to serve individuals or small groups, but to help form these various spiritual and personal identities and faith groups into a single campus community.

“The work of college and university chaplaincy today is a very hybrid kind of work,” said the Rev. Greg McGonigle, dean of religious life and university chaplain at Emory University. “Chaplaincy today requires many of its historic meanings of leading worship, prayer and meditation, offering pastoral care, and celebrating holidays and rituals and vigils, but it is also a crucial aspect of campus diversity work, community-building efforts, and deeply connected with the university’s civic engagement mission,” McGonigle said.

The leaders of the two existing chaplaincy organizations believe a united national body will allow chaplains to become acquainted and share their knowledge. “The merger helps to ensure that these professionals are united and equipped to respond to the evolving landscape of campus spiritual life in ways that ensure global equity, justice and humanity,” said Kanika Magee, assistant dean for student affairs and special assistant for interfaith programming at the Howard University Chapel.

Saltiel said the merger represents a turning point for campus chaplains, whose work has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, like much of their institutions’ instruction has been over the past year.

“I hope this can be a time of celebration in the midst of a very difficult year across all campuses and the world,” she said, “and give us a moment to reflect on how we’re doing the work and what we can learn from each other.”

(The author of this article, a former associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, was an ACURA official in the early 2000s.)

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