November 2021
Pastor Matthew Marohl and Father Chris Collins
St. Olaf Pastor Matthew Marohl (left) and St. Thomas Father Chris Collins

Campuses and campus ministry have changed significantly, but much of a college chaplain’s work involves meeting unchanging spiritual needs. Father Chris Collins, vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas, and Pastor Matthew Marohl, college pastor for St. Olaf College, discussed changes to campus ministry and how college chaplains continue to play an important role.

What does your work as a chaplain look like?

Marohl: As a pastor of the St. Olaf Student Congregation, which is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I lead worship, Bible studies and service projects. I am also the chaplain to the entire college community. I lead an interreligious college ministry team. In that role I assess the religious and spiritual needs of the people who are on campus and how can our office meet their needs.

Collins: I oversee the Office for Mission, which covers two departments: Campus Ministry and the Center for the Common Good. With respect to chaplaincy, there are three Catholic priests on staff at Campus Ministry [in addition to a Muslim chaplain, a rabbi and a Protestant chaplain]. We take turns with Masses, liturgies, confessions, retreats and so on.

How has the pandemic affected your work with students?

Collins: It’s been challenging trying to ramp up our service activity. People got out of the routine of volunteering. The same goes for liturgies and prayer services. Some of the small groups are doing well; there are faith-sharing groups all over campus. But the larger retreats and Masses are lagging. We have to work hard to get personal invitations to students and think of different ways to communicate.

Community-building is more urgent than ever, given the social distancing of the pandemic and the alienation and mental health challenges that come with that. We’re cognizant about trying to reach out more constructively and creatively to get relationship-building happening among students and, with respect to chaplaincy, in relation to God and students’ faith traditions, too.

Marohl: Like many workplaces, we moved to virtual. In some regards that was an easy move because the kind of pastoral care that we offer can be done virtually. But there wasn’t a sense of casual interaction.

We are now seeing that student participation has changed. They either aren't participating in the same things that they might have in the past or to the same degree that they were. I think everybody’s assessing, “What are the things we want to hold on to, and what are we okay letting go of?”

What have you noticed about changing student needs over the years?

Marohl: Mental health awareness and resources offered by the college have increased. Discussions around equity and inclusion are different than they were 10 years ago. We are not today where we will be in 10 years, but we are learning together how to be an antiracist institution.

Collins: Students kept a frenetic pace before the pandemic. A lot of what they do is good, but they need balance. Obviously that’s different after COVID. I think it's not as frantic as it had been, but then again there are different sorts of stresses now. Certainly there’s an ongoing need for relationship-building and a sense of belonging within a community. St. Thomas is introducing a two-year residency requirement for freshmen and sophomores, so there’s a lot of energy on the Campus Ministry team to expand the offerings for campus life and activities.

What do you think spiritual care for students might look like in a decade?

Collins: A lot of the basics don’t change. Much has been written about the rise of the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation. At the same time, if young people come across a faith-based community of any kind that is welcoming and that gives a sense of purpose, draws out heroic virtues and inspires service and love, they will definitely engage. That hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of how to create the space and the opportunities to experience that kind of community in a faith context. We have to get out into the “field,” as it were, and not just wait in the church for people to come.

If you encounter vulnerable or marginalized people, there’s a lot going on at the heart level in that experience. That’s an opportunity for us to ask: What does faith have to do with this? Where is the presence of God? We can seize those moments to give some language to the things that are going on. Those things don’t change. We just have to work harder at connecting the dots to what those moments have to do with a life of faith and a relationship with God.

Marohl: St. Olaf is nourished by Lutheran tradition, but only about 20 percent of students on campus are Lutheran. Almost half of the countries in the world are represented in our student body. That means that there’s great religious diversity, and a sizable chunk of our student body does not identify as religious. College, and because of that, chaplaincy, will continue to look more and more diverse. We’ll have greater connections with people who are non-religious. As one of my colleagues observed, some people might think of that as a contraction. If we're becoming less religious, we might think that college chaplains will be serving fewer people, but that's not the case. In 10 years, we will still be asking: What are our students today? The answer will look different, and so will what we do to meet the needs of the students that are on campus.

We define spirituality as meaning-making. Whether or not they place it within a religious framework, college students are interested in meaning. They want to feel like they’re engaging with community, with themselves, and possibly with something higher. That process of meaning-making, that discussion of spirituality, is what we’ll always be about.

By Kate Norlander