When the Rev. Ashley Mangrum was hired as Sewanee’s assistant chaplain for pastoral care and interfaith support in February 2021, she was given a specific challenge: create a program that offers seminarian-led, one-on-one spiritual guidance to undergraduates from all religious and non-religious walks of life. Mangrum, ordained in the cooperative Baptist tradition with a background in campus ministry and hospital chaplaincy, worked quickly. Two months later, the University chaplain’s office began fielding applications from the School of Theology’s second-and third-year seminarians. Sarah Hess, T’22, and Chris Schwenk, T’22, were brought on as chaplains in late 2021, and a pilot version of the Chaplain in Residence program officially launched at the start of the 2021–2022 academic year.

Hess says she was motivated to apply for a chaplain position, in part, by earlier experiences at Sewanee. “As an undergrad at the University of the South [C’16], I wish I’d had the opportunity to talk to a trained, supervised chaplain,” she says. A previous iteration of the student chaplaincy program shared some features with the current pilot, but chaplains were given little structure and training, and no oversight. Sarah adds, “I’m very passionate about bridging the gap between the School of Theology and the college, and the chaplain role has provided a great opportunity to be in both places.”

Schwenk sees the Chaplain in Residence program as valuable preparation for ministry. “I think college is a unique time with of lots of major transitions,” he says. “I was excited by the pastoral opportunity to work with this age group.” He also notes that the work-study compensation, annual stipend, and free housing are a big plus for a “starving graduate student.” Chaplains in residence are expected to work 15 hours a week supporting multiple residence halls. They live in apartments within dormitories where they can collaborate with undergraduate proctors and build trust with the student community.

Mangrum, Hess, and Schwenk all acknowledge that there has been a learning curve with the pilot program but every hurdle has brought the chance to strengthen their outreach. “We have learned that it’s fundamentally important to develop good relationships with the proctors because proctors are typically the first ones to identify a student’s need,” Mangrum says. Hess explains that when she started her chaplain position, she reached out to proctors as a group and tried to arrange meetings, but, she says, “I was also mindful that wasn’t in their job description.” In the end, she found it more effective to let relationships form naturally through day-to-day conversations.

Connecting with dorm communities, too, has taken time. Schwenk notes that, at the outset of the chaplaincy program, he, Hess, and Mangrum worked with residential life to host events, but attendance was generally low. “We found that, between classes, extracurriculars, fraternities, sororities, and athletics, students are overprogrammed,” he says. “But we also learned something about student life—which is that students are overwhelmed in terms of their schedules. That helped us sharpen strategies for student engagement.”

Mangrum meets with Hess and Schwenk individually every week, and biweekly as a cohort, to discuss challenges and engage in ongoing chaplaincy training. She believes that the program’s rewards have far surpassed its obstacles. “I think the big questions of meaning, purpose, and belonging are deeply spiritual questions for all of us—these existential questions of ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Why does it matter?’” she says. “And 18- to 22-year old students are asking these questions in a unique way, as their identity is being formed . . . [The Chaplain in Residence program] is an intentional effort to say, ‘We are meeting you where you are, and even living among you, to say that these questions you’re asking matter, and we can support you while you ask them.’”

Looking ahead, the program has hired three student chaplains for the upcoming academic year, and plans for its expansion are in the works depending on the availability of dorm apartments. The program will soon be under the leadership of Rev. Peter Gray, University chaplain, as Mangrum and her family are moving from Sewanee this summer. Gray has begun the search for another chaplain with extensive clinical experience to lead the program.

Though Hess and Schwenk will graduate soon, they both say that the Chaplain in Residence program has shaped their future paths. As Schwenk says, “[The program] has built the sense that, even though Sewanee is up in the clouds on top of a mountain, there are always opportunities for ministry. There is always the chance for Christian ministers and spiritual leaders to connect with people and help someone along on their spiritual journey.”