Growing Campus Population Brings More Resident Community Chaplains

by Sam Hodges

Charles and Kantrice Robinson have church jobs, a full load of courses at Perkins School of Theology, and three young daughters.

    Kantrice and Charles Robinson are Perkins students serving
     as part-time chaplains at SMU's Kathy Crow Commons.

But the clergy couple willingly includes another ball in their juggling act, that of serving as chaplains at Southern Methodist University’s new Kathy Crow Commons.

They’re in that residential hall two or three times a week, meeting with staff or just making themselves available to students.

“Just knowing that they have someone they can talk to confidentially is reassuring for them and helps them to be secure in their life on campus,” said Charles Robinson, a third-year master of divinity student and associate pastor at Meadowbrook United Methodist Church in in Fort Worth.

The Robinsons are part of SMU’s Resident Community Chaplains program (RCC), which began on a pilot basis in 2007 and has always relied on Perkins students.

They don’t live in residence halls, but they’re present 8 to 10 hours a week. They get experience in chaplaincy, and they get a stipend.

And they provide a service deeply valued by fulltime chaplains at SMU.

“We felt from our end that it was extremely important that we take seriously the transitional difficulties our students can face, particularly our first-year students,” said Judy Henneberger, associate chaplain for SMU. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for a resource person, to listen, to answer questions, to help them through those bumps in the road.”

This year, fourteen Perkins students – the most ever – are serving as chaplains through the program. The need has grown with SMU’s on-campus student population.

SMU leaders concluded that requiring sophomores to live on campus, as well as first-year students, would enhance the school’s vibrancy and sense of community.

The school added a complex of five new residence halls this year, meaning another 1,200 students living on campus. SMU also adopted an Oxford-like “commons” philosophy, with faculty living in the residence halls, and with residence hall professional staff working to create a sense of identity for each commons by establishing traditions and holding regular events.

Chaplains are a part of the mix, and provide a listening presence to students struggling with academic pressure, relationships, homesickness or other stresses.

“I love the fact that we have many ways to connect with our students and make sure they’re supported during their experience here,” said Lauren Anne Cove, Residential Community Director at the new Armstrong Commons.

Cove has worked for three years with RCC program member David K. Johnson, first at Shuttles Hall, now at Armstrong.

Johnson was on staff at Texas Tech University for seven years before going to seminary, and chose Perkins in part because of the RCC opportunity.

 “It was a way to make some money to pay bills, but it was more the experience of working with college students,” said Johnson, who hopes to be ordained as a United Methodist minister and lead a Wesley Foundation on a college campus.

Johnson makes it a point to attend the meetings of student leaders of the commons, and he attends some social events, such as barbecues before home football games.

   Tiffany Cradle Richardson (left) is residential community director 
   at SMU's Kathy Crow Commons, and works with Kantrice and Charles 
   Robinson, Perkins students who serve as chaplains there. 
   They visited during one of the Robinsons regular visits to the commons.

If the opportunity presents itself to engage in discussion of religious faith, he does so. But the Perkins chaplains are there mainly to listen, offer support, and point the way to campus resources students might need.

“I see David regularly, and I consider him a colleague in running this commons,” Cove said. “We’re lucky to have him.”

Johnson considers the good fortune mutual, and Charles Robinson too feels lucky to be working with SMU undergrads. He’s planning to continue as a church pastor, but the experience – and challenge – of relating to college students will come in handy there.

“This is another demographic that I can add to that pastoral care skill set,” he said.

For Henneberger, in her 26th year of ministry at SMU, the RCC program is a good thing that could be better. If funding and space became available, she’d like to see the Perkins chaplains living in the residence halls, thus greatly extending their availability for support.

“That was always my vision,” she said.