Reaching Out From Across The Hall

August 24, 2004

This fall, some 4,200 students -- strangers to one another -- will pour into Baylor residence halls and try to find community. For some, it's an easy transition; for others, it's uncomfortable and difficult. Fortunately, most of these students will have a resident chaplain just down the hall to help them find friends, find themselves and find their calling.
On the following pages, Jackie Inouye and Ben Davis share spring semester experiences of two resident chaplains -- Lisa Williams and Mark Charbonneau.
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Junior Alicia Reyes was in tears last fall when she picked up the phone to dial Lisa Williams, her resident chaplain. "I went through one of the most difficult times of my life," Reyes says. "I needed someone who had a relationship with the Lord, and I just thought of Lisa. I really appreciated the fact that she wasn't giving advice. She just listened." Reyes and Williams prayed together and read Scripture. "We tried to hear what God had to say," Reyes says.
Three years ago, Reyes' recourse would have been to contact the University chaplain or the Counseling Center for help. Now, a student in almost any campus residence who needs to talk to someone during a personal crisis only has to walk down the hall. 
The resident chaplain program, implemented in 2001, grew out of a perceived need for more vocation-related guidance and personal pastoral care for students living on campus. University Ministries Dean Todd Lake had been impressed by similar programs at Notre Dame, where nuns and priests provide residential counseling, but knew of none offered at Protestant universities. At Baylor, Lake and his staff teamed up with Campus Living & Learning to develop a program that would reflect the University's heritage as a Christian institution. 
The concept is simple: A second- or third-year graduate student at Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary lives in a residence hall. Resident chaplains provide a 24/7 resource for the students. They help plan formal and informal gatherings, provide campus and local ministry opportunities and encourage involvement in campus activities with the purpose of helping students discover their vocations.
They also offer pastoral care to students who are experiencing spiritual struggles or difficult life experiences such as the death of a loved one, failed relationships or health problems. Lake says that the RC program helps University Ministries provide more individualized care to Baylor's students. "We deal in our office with 900 students a year who are out of class for a medical or personal reason," he says. "The resident chaplain already knows these students, so it means so much when they can stop by the room or run by the hospital."
The program is paid for in part by a grant for the Baylor Horizons Project: The Exploration of Vocation for a Life of Service, funded by the Lilly Foundation. Horizons' purpose is to help students better understand the theological idea of calling, God's summons to a life spent serving others, Lake says. 
The RC program also addresses the second imperative of the Baylor 2012 Vision -- creating a truly residential campus. The project began with five RCs, and this past year had nine. This fall, the new North Village will have an RC, moving the program closer to completion.
Resident chaplains receive a yearly stipend, free housing and a meal plan. But more important, they can apply firsthand what they're learning in seminary. "They're living among laypeople," Lake says. "The kind of real-life issues they face in talking with young Christians and non-Christians informs how they study in seminary."
Elizabeth Wallace, CL&L director for personnel and resident learning, adds that the RC experience can help seminarians identify their own calling to ministry. "It's a great partnership that helps the students define, 'This is where I want to be,' especially if they have a calling to work with college-age students," she says. 
Resident chaplains report weekly to their residence hall directors, who are their immediate supervisors. They also meet regularly with Steve Graves, director of missions and mentor for the resident chaplain program in the University Ministries office. In their meetings, they offer each other accountability and support and discuss the best way to address difficult issues. Once a month, they receive training for helping students with crisis situations such as severe depression or thoughts of suicide. In turn, RCs assist in the training and spiritual development of Baylor's community leaders (formerly called resident assistants), upperclassmen who live on each floor of the residence halls. 
Most parents and students have welcomed the program, says CL&L's Wallace. A survey conducted by her department in fall 2003 showed that most students know who and where their RC is -- no small feat for someone who might have 500 residents under his or her care. Students surveyed -- male and female alike -- also said they would feel comfortable talking with their RC. Although all RCs are Christians, students of no faith or of different faiths have responded positively to the concept, Wallace says. Students recognize that the RC is there not to judge but to help them, regardless of the student's level of spiritual interest, she says. 
Wallace and Lake hope that the RC program will lead students back onto campus and into community. Says Wallace: "It's through relationships that we find our authentic selves and really become people of calling."