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Chapel Services at Seminaries: Questions worth asking

Chapel at your seminary is likely different than seminary worship is for your peers at other divinity schools. A feature story exploring different chapel practices and sharing a model for planning worship on campus.

Think praise songs and a message…morning prayers in Korean…up-tempo Pentecostal worship…Lutheran vespers…Eucharist three times a week or never…pipe organs and robed choirs…seven-minute homilies by nervous newbies…sonorous sermons by famous preachers.

How often people gather, how long seminary chapel lasts, who plans and leads it, who comes, whether music or liturgy ever varies—it’s all over the map.

If you long for deeply engaging chapel worship on your seminary campus, Ron Rienstra suggests starting with basic questions. Rienstra has led chapel apprentices at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He teaches preaching and worship at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

“On many seminary campuses, there’s not much thinking about worship or how it’s structured, says Rienstra, who recently surveyed chapel practices at Protestant seminaries in the U.S.

Who is your seminary constituency?

Rienstra says which chapel questions you’ll talk about most will depend on your constituency.

Is your seminary rooted in a denominational or theological tradition? If so, does it mainly prepare leaders for its first constituency, as Calvin (Christian Reformed Church), North Park (Evangelical Covenant) and Covenant (Presbyterian Church in America) do? Or is your seminary branching out to a more ecumenical student body, as the theological schools at Southern Methodist University and Drew are?

Look at the hymnals, songs, customaries (local variations of denominational prayer books), and prayers used most often in chapel. How well do they reflect your student body or the congregations they serve or will serve?

Perhaps your seminary, like Regent or Howard University School of Divinity, has always provided nondenominational graduate education.

Look at how your chapel services manage the tension between denominational identity and ecumenical unity. Do you have a single unified midweek service? Do you offer niche worship opportunities according to language, musical idiom, or theological heritage?

“We need to be careful in seminary how we shape students to lead worship. If we’re going to honor different denominations and traditions that the Holy Spirit has worked with, then we can’t say there’s a certain theological chapel structure appropriate everywhere,” Rienstra says.

Who is chapel for?

How clear are your seminary’s expectations about who may or must attend chapel? Some schools, such as Dallas Theological Seminaryand Erskine Theological Seminary, require students to attend chapel to meet graduation requirements.

Rienstra’s survey notes that student chapel attendance seems linked more to faculty attendance than to service frequency.

James Abbington, who teaches church music and worship at Candler in Atlanta, says that for students who commute in from Alabama and North Carolina, chapel break may be their only opportunity to study while on campus.

“As a faculty, we are encouraged to attend as time permits. It’s essential for the worship life of the Candler community and as a model to what we’re asking students to do. Sometimes the sermon is breathtaking. It was heart touching to see students light candles in memory of folk at an All Saints Day chapel. I’m always impressed with how well-balanced and planned the music is,” Abbington says.

Martin Tel fondly recalls chapels during a summer he spent at Luther Seminary. “Bells rang. Windows closed at the registrar’s desk. My perception was that the whole community—including staff, administration, and support staff—made a beeline to chapel. There was a feeling that we’re all part of this institution. All our gifts weave together in worship.

“That’s what I long for here,” says Tel, who is director of music and helps plan daily chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary. He explains that Princeton sees chapel “as a learning enterprise and support staff are here to support that enterprise.” So support staff is welcome to attend but must subtract time spent in chapel from their lunch hour.

Some seminaries plan evening chapels so families and neighbors can more easily attend.

Expressive? Formative? Both?

Given that seminarians likely belong to an off-campus congregation, what is chapel for? Your answer will reveal the connections you see between campus worship and academic curriculum.

Discussing ways chapel is formative or expressive “can start a good conversation because the distinction is evident. But it’s too simple a dichotomy,” Rienstra says.

“Lament is characteristic of worship among those who think worship should primarily be formative. It’s almost always absent from worship where people think of it as mostly expressive. We learn how to lament well, to contextualize our sorrow in context.

“To not lament in church at all is also formative…some might go so far as to say it malforms us by not giving us appropriate context in which to express our sorrow,” he says.

Michelle Baker-Wright, a Ph.D. student and assistant director of chapel at Fuller, sees the value of linking chapel and coursework. She meets weekly to plan with the chapel director, chapel arts coordinator, and four M.Div. students. Students from worship classes take turns sitting in.

Baker-Wright recalls planning a chapel that would include a Korean speaker. “We were trying to be sensitive to our Korean population, assuming they’d want things done really differently. Two students sitting in that day were Korean.

“They opened up issues we wouldn’t have seen on our own. We hadn’t realized the range of influences, issues, and generations, like 1.0, 1.5, and 2.0. Many praise choruses we sing here are sung in Korean American and South Korean churches.

“Koreans are a significant part of our student body. We decided to weave that into the character of our worship—instead of making assumptions about ‘all Koreans’ and having one niche chapel,” she says.

Rather than keeping chapel and academics separate, Rienstra recommends training seminarians “how to think theologically about new expressive styles. We need to nurture curiosity about people and how God is working in people’s lives. Eagerness to explore draws people to seminaries. It just doesn’t find its way into chapel worship as often as it could.”

Barbara Day Miller on the POWR Chapel Worship Planning Model

If you help plan chapel on your seminary campus, you’d rather hear some comments more than others. Less of “Ryan, you forgot to ask someone to turn off the lights when the screen rolled down” or “guitarsagain?” More of “chanting those psalms gives me a taste of praying without ceasing” or “I’d never thought of all those aspects of Psalm 23.”

Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta draws seminarians from more than 50 denominations. Its worship life is marked by chapels ranging from services of word and table to evensong and contemporary Kairos services.

Worship means many things for different people. Our vision is to help congregants value one another’s experiences while more clearly articulating their own traditions and practices.

“Early on we saw we needed a more common vocabulary for planning and leading ecumenical worship,” says Barbara Day Miller. She is assistant dean for worship and music and lectures on liturgical practices.

Clearly pedagogical

Because Candler students come from and go to such varied ministry fields, Day Miller describes the chapel committee’s working definition of worship as “very broad and Trinitarian.”

She explains, “We are the community gathered to praise God, to celebrate and experience the risen Christ in and through the Holy Spirit. For some, Christ’s presence is sensed most strongly in Eucharist, for others in the preached word, and for others in times of silence.”

Chapel services follow a pattern—gather, hear, respond (with communion on Tuesdays and Fridays), and depart—yet are never the same.

“That makes it fun and exciting. Chapel is crucial to what we are doing—training leaders for the church. Candler is an academic institution so chapel is pedagogical. We want to give students opportunities to plan and lead.

“You have these moments when you think, ‘Everyone gets it!’ And then you graduate a third of the congregation. Like in the local church, what everyone gets are the small things, like planning so that the words of a prayer reflect words in the hymn or sermon,” Day Miller says.

With scores of students and faculty planning and leading several kinds of chapels per week, planning used to feel choppy.

People would get together to make creative plans but morph into details: “Okay, now we need an opening hymn…here we need to plug in a prayer…” Day Miller and key chapel staff stay involved from week to week. But students and faculty didn’t used to meet after chapel to reflect on the worship they’d helped plan and lead.

POWR: plan, order, worship, reflect

Day Miller came up with the POWR model of seminary chapel planningto make it more circular and reflective.

  • Plan: Three weeks before a service, worship planners meet with the preacher and music leader to read scripture texts. They brainstorm themes, messages, images, visuals, and music options.
  • Order: Two weeks before the service, they figure out logistics such as finalizing songs, training readers, rehearsing dancers, and drafting the bulletin or script of worship.
  • Worship: Though planning team members help prepare for and facilitate a chapel service, not every member has a leadership role during worship.
  • Reflect: The team meets to reflect on how their preparations helped or hindered making space for the Spirit of God. They discuss moments of surprise and how the congregation is growing closer to God and each other during chapel worship.

Day Miller oversees eight planning groups at a time. Teams work at different speeds. A Maundy Thursday service with foot washing and Eucharist needs more logistics and ordering than planning.

“The POWR planning model has made planning less frantic. We discovered that leaders in worship want to be prepared, trained, and confident. Teams have time to build trust. They become covenant groups for prayer and deep conversation.

“And they love meeting later to connect, reflect, and participate in meaningful dialogue about the transformative power of Christ—and how that gets articulated in myriad worship styles,” Day Miller says.

From seminary campus to local churches

Since implementing the POWR model, Candler chapel attendance has increased by 30 percent. More than 200 students and faculty help plan or lead each semester—preaching, praying, presiding, reading scripture, liturgical dance, singing, music, drama, visual arts, baking bread, and serving communion. They carry what they learn into local churches.

Students and faculty more easily integrate worship practice and classroom reflection. James Abbington, who teaches church music and worship at Candler, invites Day Miller to lecture on the POWR model in his public worship class. Though he encourages students to do field observations in local churches, they may partially meet the requirement by reflecting on chapel worship.

Day Miller says that having a common thread at the core of worship helps students recognize that “good worship” happens in many ways. “International students led a Lenten chapel with African prayers, drumming, twirling, and Korean dancers so amazing that people were gasping.

“All our choirs participated during an Advent Hanging of the Green chapel. We had music ranging from a Stephen Paulus hymn by the Candler Singers, which I direct, to gospel choir responses,” she says.

Candler offers five or six Episcopal chapel services a year. “By the end of the year, people who come out of small town southern Methodist churches can chant the sursum corda. We don’t even have to put the chant line in the liturgy. They just stand up and do it.

“A recent graduate is now an associate minister in a United Methodist church in Virginia. Her senior pastor was amazed at her fire pit design for an Easter vigil. Gathering outside in predawn light and lighting the new paschal candle from the fire is something she learned here,” Day Miller says.

Learn More

Find out what Ron Rienstra learned from his survey of chapel practices at Protestant seminaries in the U.S. Learn highlights of a June 2007 gathering of scholars and seminary professionals about worship on seminary campuses.

Use these questions by Ron Rienstra and other seminary experts to begin a chapel discussion at your seminary. Peruse seminary chapel web resources and connect with peers who plan seminary chapels. Get ideas on designing campus worship at colleges and universities.

Candler School of Theology’s worship website offers online details on its POWR modelservice bulletins,chapel slideshows, and other liturgical resources.

Watch, listen to, or download seminary chapel services or messages from AsburyDallas, Denver, Gordon-ConwellLuther, and Southern Baptist.

Browse related stories about congregational singingdesigning worship together, planning contemporary worshipschool chapel services, and worship drama.

Start a Discussion

More deeply engage your seminary community in chapel worship:

  • How much information does your seminary website give about chapel services? What does the scope of online information say about how chapel functions in your seminary community?
  • Discuss tensions or imbalances you see on your seminary campus between worship as expressive and formative; diversity and unity in worship; the “gathered people” as chapel congregation and as seminary.
  • How much connection does your seminary have between people who plan chapel worship and those who teach worship classes? What changes would you like to make?
  • Should chapel be a place of experimentation…or only something led by experts?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to explore or define what chapel is for—and who it’s for—on your seminary campus?

  • Did you design a participatory project that helped people in your seminary community assess what chapel means to them, what they find most nourishing about chapel, and how they see the link between worship and learning about worship? If so, will you share your results with us?
  • Which methods have worked best for planning chapels at your seminary? Who came up with the method and how did you use it to involve more people in planning and leading chapel worship?