DEAR THEO: YDS needs a chaplain

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[A note from the author: I submitted this letter Thursday April 25 through the proper student government channels where it was approved, but ultimately blocked by the administration from publishing because of "inaccuracies." The Dear Theo process is supposed to be an avenue for students by students unmediated by the administration to address the whole YDS community on issues of importance. However, the process is in fact gate-kept and censored by the administration. Whether you agree with the content of my letter or not, it was important to me to expose this censorship flaw in the Dear Theo system. -- o.M.] 

Dear Theophilus,


I fear that the content of this letter is coming so late in the semester that it may not matter, or may be resigned to drown in the fleeting thoughts of finals and graduation. And yet, perhaps its timing amidst our season of stress is apropos.


I remember learning at BTFO about the “happy couch” in Julie Kelsey’s office. It was an outrageously floral IKEA couch with a well-stocked box of tissues, and the warm smiling face of a soul who was available to share in your deepest pain and your most acute joy. Despite my initial skepticism about the brightness of the fabric, and despite thinking that seminary would be a walk in the park which I could handle on my own, I have since shared countless days of stress, pain, shame, grief, and have even confessed my sins and received the blessed assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness on that holy settee. I know I am not the only one in this place with stories of the Happy Couch and Julie’s care. Julie was functionally our chaplain, and God bless her for it.


It seems that the sidelining of Julie Kelsey, and lack of any clear chaplain role, was purposely and quietly swept under the rug by the Administration. It was advertised to us when we arrived for BTFO where to turn when we needed just a touch of spiritual support, or an advocate for our mental health journeys, and now it is unclear to me where students should turn for this care. As a meticulous reader of all emails, this should not be the case. I know it is not an announcement I merely missed. It appears to the average Elihu that this was a political move of some variety, hoping that it may go unnoticed by being unannounced to the student body in a place where institutional memory is short. Julie Kelsey is no longer in her position. Students were not given the opportunity to celebrate what she has meant to us and mourn her leaving. Rumor has it the school has determined that Divinity Students do not need any special readily-available spiritual care. This is inappropriate and extremely shortsighted for an institution attempting to form spiritual leaders. I call on the administration to reassess this stance and publically appoint a Spiritual Care provider for this community, and to address the rumors about their ambivalence toward our spiritual wellbeing.


Now of course, a place like Yale Divinity is teeming with kind souls able and willing to offer kindness and listening. However, many of those souls — the professors and administrators — are in evaluative roles of us. It seems to me an inappropriate navigation of boundaries to tell my struggles to someone who, try as they might, are in a position to judge me for my handling of them. The bounds of pastoral confidentiality are blurred in reference letters and Mid-degree evaluations.


In a place so small and close, rumors have circulated about these matters.


There are rumors among the student body that the administration will try to weed out those in the admissions process who seem inclined toward any type of emotional distress. While this is partially expected in an admissions process for any institution — you want to bring in those who can naturally thrive — to expect that no one will have emotional or spiritual difficulties during their time here is an absurdity. No application process can account for the suicide of a family member, the spiritual pain of racial aggression and microaggressions, or the shame of one who has sinned against their neighbor. It is in the unexpected moments of life which even the most well-adjusted among us can find ourselves spiritually thin and pained and in need of temporary support.


Furthermore, it has been rumored that members of the administration suggested students can receive all of the emotional support they need from Yale Mental Health. Anyone who has navigated that system will surely laugh with me about this rumored claim. I hope this is not the case because wait lines are often long and it can be difficult to find a therapist mid-semester. It recently took a friend of mine 6 weeks to receive their callback. Usually, you can only be assigned mid-semester if you call the emergency line in some kind of certifiable panic and dire need. The grief of a lost family member or the worry of a gravely sick friend does not qualify one for the shortened queue. The system of YMH is flooded, even with continually hiring new people yearly, and is not designed to handle the temporary problems which may still require support beyond the first couple of weeks of the semester. And of course, no therapist can offer an absolution of sin.


Finally, it was rumored that the administration has already weighed these matters in committee. Despite the strong advice and encouragement of faculty, staff, students, and other Yale affiliates, the administration deemed that students in need of spiritual care can travel down the hill to the University Chaplain and that YDS did not need one for itself. Rumor has it this was bewildering and deeply disappointing to many of the involved souls. By definition, a chaplain is a part of the community they serve, the Chaplain’s office is not involved in our community. The uniqueness, distance, and enclosure of YDS seem to dictate that we need Spiritual Care from someone within. I personally get the impression the Chaplain’s office is overwhelmed by undergraduate needs, but even if not, the Administration has not made it clear that this is what students are to do in the absence of Julie Kelsey. Even as an inadequate idea, it was a poorly communicated one.


I believe that Yale Divinity students need a chaplain:

 

  • Because of the particular way that stress or grief or conflict can trigger feelings of shame.
  • To remind me of my belovedness in ways that no theological tome nor my therapist can when the shadows of that shame encroach on me. 
  • To interrupt the performative displays a place like Yale intrinsically encourages with piercing questions about your wellbeing. 
  • To embrace the answer to that posed question.
  • To be present and available when therapy appointments are far away.
  • To advocate for the scheduling of those appointments and to make referrals when necessary.
  • To pray with you where your therapist can’t.
  • To walk with you the bridge between your soul and your mind.
  • To guide your soul through the difficult discoveries of family systems or theology or ethics which may unexpectedly crop up in your studies.
  • To discern with you.
  • To guard against friends who, with good intentions, can ham-handedly practice their pastoral skills on you on days or in circumstances when you need to not be the subject of experimentation.
  • To trust in the spiritual companionship with someone who is in no way in a position to need to judge the interaction for a future evaluation.

Finally, the student body needs a chaplain because a chaplain’s attention to the spiritual heartbeat of the institution promotes joy and happiness. Happy students with great memories of an institution are likely to be generous and life-long givers. I worry about the future participation of YDS alumni in the life of this institution if they remember their time as one of unmet spiritual need. Students who feel that YDS is fully committed the many facets of formation in ministry will be enthusiastic philanthropic partners and powerful advocates for YDS’ reputation.


I write all of this not to disparage the new Wellness Role or the work of Jeanne, of whom I have only had the best interactions and of whom I have heard only the best things. I want to make that abundantly clear.


To reiterate, I call on the Administration to address the spiritual concerns of the student body in a clearly communicated way, to be transparent about the processes that have clearly occurred, and to appoint for the student body a Spiritual Care provider within YDS.


I have had many conversations around the student body about this matter, and I know I am not alone in my concern. I encourage the student body to cosign this letter as a kind of petition of support. It will God-willing be posted on the Student Government bulletin board.


In Faith and Hope, your sibling in God,


ὁ Μεριμνητής



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