I have been trying to work out why I can not find a direct answer to the question, ‘What does a chaplain do?’ or ‘What exactly is Oasis?’
I am in complete sympathy with the questioner, genuinely wanting or needing to know. I should have an answer. But I can’t seem to nail it.
I have tried to console myself that if you ask a person to describe what a banana tastes like, they would have great difficulty explaining. But as the Oasis Coordinating Chaplain, shouldn’t I know what Oasis is? Shouldn’t I be expected to reel off a cogent answer?
My problem has come to the fore again, because we have begun to meet with the Campus Planner to work out what needs to be done with architects and builders to fit out the ‘new Oasis’ – starting only with the shell of the building we have been moved into.
At the same time, the new Director of Student Services needs answers to that question to become confidant that what the university is providing for students fits in with the university’s strategic plan, is comprehensive, and its elements are not unknowingly being duplicated by different student service agencies. Fair enough!
And the University of Tasmania are flying me over to Hobart in April to consult with them about what we have been doing at Flinders, and what is this ‘Oasis’ thing?
As a result, I have been beating myself up of late for not having some clear answers.
But I am beginning to see what should have been obvious from the start – there are no neat answers! The defining question is incompatible with the very nature of Oasis, and also with chaplaincy. Or put another way, the nature of chaplaincy and Oasis is likely to be incompatible with the culture of a utilitarian, segmented, consumerist, institutionalised bureaucracy. Universities have become competitive, multi-million dollar businesses. Chaplaincy may easily be seen as small fry of little consequence.
Chaplaincy evolved out of the church’s need to provide religious services to those geographically displaced from their local church – those in hospitals, prisons and armed services, for example. There is no such need in today’s universities because most religious needs can be met in the local community.* The days of traditional ‘looking after our own’, sectarian chaplaincy in secular institutions are numbered. Such chaplaincy is of little consequence to a modern university,
At Flinders the changed role for university chaplaincy emerged from the internationalization of the university. Harmony on a pluralist campus requires attention to social cohesion in the face of difference. This attention to the quality of relationships, a concern quite central to religions, broadened the scope of an inclusive multifaith chaplaincy to attend to the whole campus – pastoral care to all, regardless of faith or no faith.
In an ideal world, all university staff would be pastoral carers, customizing every situation and conversation to individual students – students who come from highly diverse cultural, national, religious and academic backgrounds. In a pastorally caring university there would be little need for chaplains or for a centre like Oasis. But the pressures of the modern university have created new needs – we do what the university would normally be expected to do but is unable to do.
To take up such opportunities requires a major shift in thinking for chaplains – no longer the ‘rescuing’, ‘telling’ salvation paradigm, but the hospitable, listening, empowering and long-term-committed mentoring (‘walking beside you’) paradigm.
It means being closely connected to the life of the university but not meddling in it, filling gaps collaboratively, connecting the disconnected, doing what needs to be done without taking over, enriching, enabling, and avoiding the turf wars and ego games.
Because Oasis is adaptive, continually responsive to the expressed and unexpressed needs of the university, it might be thought of as an ever-changing, process-centred community responding contextually and existentially to presenting situations. That’s a mouthful!
So there is no neat answer! Just an evolving, fluid narrative.
I think ‘God’ is comfortable with that!
Whether universities are, remains mainly to be seen!
* (The exception might be Muslim Friday Prayer, because the Muslim ‘holy day’ is a Friday, a working day. And the provision of Muslim prayer rooms is a priority because of the logistics of prayer five times a day.)