The Falcon | Volume 83, Issue 53
Published 5/29/13 | Log In
Leaders ‘faithful with a little bit’
By MATT WOODS, Copy Editor
Published: May 28, 2008
The 300 students, staff, and faculty in attendance at the April 22 Presidential Chapel saw Carissa Lemos pluck the strings of her red Fender Telecaster as she led a gentle, rolling version of "How Great Thou Art," with her voice pleading as she sang, "I scarce can take it in."
What they, and most of the more than 4,000 other members of the SPU community, did not see was the set-up, tear-down, practice sessions, team meetings, one-on-one meetings, and staff meetings that Lemos put into the Chapel, giving between 25 and 30 hours on a typical week.
Lemos, a junior studying sociology, serves as the student Chapel worship coordinator, a position she applied for at the end of last year after a year on the Chapel team.
Since a campus-wide e-mail in October of 2006 in which President Philip Eaton told the student body, "I want you to come to Chapel," the Chapel leadership has sought to make Chapel the one place where the entire SPU community (students, faculty and staff) comes together, filling First Free Methodist Church.
However, junior and Chapel deacon Adri Matheus, who tracks attendance, said that when there is not a special speaker in Chapel, she sees more or less the same 250 to 300 people at the Tuesday services.
So, Lemos's mantra for the 12-student team this year was to be "faithful with a little bit" in the hope that their reach may increase, drawing hope from the Parable of the Ten Pounds in Luke 19.
Lemos said that she would like to see better attendance in Chapel "not just for the numbers, but to better reflect the kingdom."
She said that she feels for her team members, who did so much behind the scenes to make Chapel happen.
"It's heartbreaking, because they've put so much work into it," Lemos said.
She said that they have to remember that their work is not for people, but rather a gift to give away to God.
"It's discouraging, but it's bigger than us," Lemos said.
The "vicious cycle"
Sophomore Mike Zosel, who will be next year's residence hall ministry coordinator in Ashton Hall, thinks that one reason why many students do not attend Chapel is that the pews-and-pulpit style seems "antiquated."
"It's from a different era than a lot of students are used to," Zosel said.
Sophomore Katie Litzenberg, a student ministry coordinator on 1st East Ashton, said that low Chapel attendance is a "vicious cycle." She thinks that when students try Chapel for the first time, it feels bare and empty, so that missing energy keeps students away, which in turn keeps the energy and the attendance low.
Both Litzenberg and Zosel identified the early morning time of Chapel as a more basic but very real reason why many students do not attend.
"To the faculty and staff, 9:30 probably seems reasonable, but to a college student, it can be a struggle to get to that 10:30 class," Zosel said.
Matheus said that there is a faculty showing at most Chapels, particularly from the theology and history departments. She added that Eaton has been a regular attendee.
How Chapel got here
Chapel attendance is entirely optional at SPU, a change that occurred just this year. Many Christian schools around the nation require chapel attendance, including Westmont College, Baylor University and Biola University, where student ID cards are swiped at the doors.
Professor of Christian Scriptures Rob Wall said that in the '80s, Chapel at SPU was required three times a week. He said that because a higher percentage of students lived on campus, and because of a time schedule in which most classes were held daily, Chapel became part of the rhythm and the routine of life at SPU.
"It was really the place to be," Wall said.
Chapel was entirely faculty-led in both worship and preaching, Wall said, adding that it was the vitality of campus life.
"When Chapel was attended, it was a fantastic experience," Wall said. "We have lost that."
Since that time, Wall said, Chapel was cut back to once a week, and then only partial occasional attendance was required with the introduction of Group and the Christian Faith Exploration (CFE) program.
The honor-based CFE program replaced a Scantron-enforced "Chapel requirement" because most students were petitioning out of or ignoring the requirement, former Dean of Chapel Tim Dearborn wrote in a 1999 editorial for The Falcon.
Dearborn wrote in the article that the transition to an honor system was made because the Scantron system "created a slightly coercive atmosphere."
Current Chapel Advisor Deb Nondorf said that after a few years under the honor system, a 2004 Chapel Task Force did a comparative study of chapel programs from schools across the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They followed that up with focus groups of SPU students in 2005.
"I think our Chapel system was broken," Eaton said in an interview. He added that the CFE program "felt burdensome to students, and they resented it."
The result was this year's elimination of the CFE program, which discarded requirement at a certain number of worship gatherings per quarter, as well as reflection essays written on Banner. University Ministries was re-organized, and its vision was recast into three categories: gathering together (under which Chapel falls), building relationships, and investing in the work of the world.
Calls for change
Lemos said that there are many bodies on the SPU campus that have an opinion on what Chapel should look like, including the President's Office, University Ministries, the Center for Worship, the Faculty Senate (particularly the theology department), and the student team.
President Eaton re-emphasized his vision for Chapel to be the place where SPU students, staff, and faculty come together as a community at the Presidential Chapel two weeks ago.
At the Chapel, he said, "If we are going to be committed to community, then we need to gather," adding that ambivalence is the biggest hindrance to this process.
Eaton described his experience at Whitworth College, where he was a professor of English for 17 years. He said that he attended their chapel twice a week at Whitworth, and when he left, he cried because that time of gathering had shaped him so much.
At the Chapel, Eaton identified his main concerns as he continues to shape his vision for Chapel at SPU as keeping Scripture at the center and asking the opinions of the youngest members of the community, the students.
In an interview, Eaton added that he hopes for better attendance from both students and faculty.
"The faculty aren't coming, and they know I'm teed off about that," Eaton said.
In response to concerns about the time of Chapel, Eaton said that there have been discussions about the possibility of moving Chapel to Wednesdays at 11 a.m. However, due to the class time schedule being created far in advance, this change would take some to institute.
Eaton said that Chapel ought to be a "first-rate experience of worship." He said that he has noticed an improvement in the quality of the music at Chapel this year, and he expects that to continue.
Ultimately, Eaton said that a more successful Chapel program will require a "culture change," creating a culture at SPU that encourages people to attend and makes them want to come.
"We don't have all the answers. We're still exploring," Eaton said in Chapel.
Eaton also said that the administration has "toyed with the idea" of requiring Chapel, but he has resisted going in that direction.
"I am a firm believer in required Chapel," Wall said in an interview.
With the thinking that students are better educated theologically if they have a strong experience in worship, Wall believes that Chapel should be "institutionalized," though that would mean that the entire campus would have to commit to shutting down during that time.
Wall also thinks that Chapel should be deeply Wesleyan and faculty-led once again. Still, he said that the theology department and University Ministries are on the same page with what currently happens in Chapel, after what he said were some difficult years in the past.
"We now have that kind of solidarity," he said.
Stephen Newby, the director of University Ministries and the Center for Worship, agreed that Chapel should be rooted in the Wesleyan idea of communal worship, adding that the importance of that community being multi-generational and multi-cultural.
Newby identified his "ABCs" of communal worship: an attitude of coming to give, not to get; building relationships, and doing so with intention; and crossing the comfort zone.
"I do sense the revival. Students are getting fired up," Newby said. Recognizing the efforts of student-leaders such as Lemos, Newby believes that students will begin to show up, one or two at a time, as God transforms their hearts.
Regarding how to balance all the voices that want a say in Chapel, Newby said, "It's like musical counterpoint. Everyone brings their voice in. They're singing different notes, but they're on the same page, singing in harmony."
With all the voices involved, Nondorf, who said she "doesn't speak the 'arts language,'" considers herself the liaison between the visions of the staff and the student teams.
As the adviser to the Chapel team, Nondorf has weekly meetings with Lemos and Newby to discuss vision and logistics. She also has one-on-one meetings with Lemos, which she said are more about encouragement and support.
"They're really a gift to each other, product-wise and process-wise," Nondorf said.
Lemos emphasized the need for grace and humility when working with all of the different voices on Chapel.
"I'm humbled by the grace with which they treat each other," Nondorf said. "They have the whole 'servant heart' thing down."
Lemos said that she wants to see Chapel leadership be "more grass-roots than top-down."
"Because we want to serve our community, we want to hear from our community," Lemos said. She believes that this approach will make the team "able to fully embody what the purpose of Chapel is."
Lemos said, "How can we [Chapel] be what they [students] are about, or if not us, how can we empower others to be what they're about?"
Lemos said that she has a "heart to see worship on campus, not just in Chapel."
She identified one way to encourage worship throughout the campus as having the Chapel team be involved in the residence halls, partnering with Student Ministry Coordinators in floor worship and hall worship events.
Lemos believes that many students need an opportunity to experience worship and to practice it, so going to them, rather than waiting for them to come to Chapel, is a good way to provide that opportunity.
Also, Chapel should be different than class, she said. For this reason, Lemos wants more student leadership in selecting Chapel speakers, branching outside the usual faculty speakers.
Zosel, who regularly attends Chapel, said that he appreciated the variety of speakers this year, recognizing the effort to bring important voices in Christianity to the venue.
Lemos said that she has to remind herself to "let it take as long as it needs to take," stepping back at times to re-examine the purpose of Chapel itself.
She said that it is important to invest in her staff, "purposely pursuing students who would seek to carry this change out."
Junior Nate Berends, who has taken on various roles on the Chapel team this year, was recently chosen to be next year's student Chapel worship coordinator.
Berends said that working on the Chapel team this year has been humbling, as Lemos and the team have given much of their time and effort to a very slow process of change.
"Carissa told us that visions take time," Berends said.
He also emphasized the importance of continued student input, hoping that the Chapel program will "capitalize upon the interest of students putting together worship services that are meaningful to students, staff, and faculty."
Berends said that Newby has done an extraordinary job at recognizing the depth of resources in the student body.
Berends recognized the challenge that Chapel faces in a community with many different faith backgrounds and styles. He said the challenge is to find respect and value in all of them while not simply compromising, but he "wouldn't change that [challenge] for anything."
"I have a hope for Chapel," he said.
Berends said that he plans to tell his team next year that they can only be "faithful with a little bit."
"I stole that from Carissa," he said with a smile.