by Micah Wilkins, web editor
Jeanne Sommer was officially appointed the Ralph W. and Orlean B. Beeson Chaplain and Chair of Religion and Director of Spiritual Life in late October. As Chaplain, her primary role is to “provide care for students and employees as needed,” according to Dean of Students Deb Myers. Sommer will also continue to lead the Spiritual Life and Social Justice Work Crew, teach courses in the Religion Department, and convene the Spiritual Life Committee.
Since she was hired at the college 16 years ago, Jeanne Somer has seen the school change in many ways, especially in regards to the religious identity and background of the institution and its students.
According to college pastor Steve Runholt, in the past, the chapel was a “central feature of life on campus.” For many years, service attendance was required from students every Sunday. In the ‘70s, the college student body started to become more diverse with regard to spiritual and religious life.
According to Sommer, the college and the church are essentially two different communities today.
“As the college has grown and changed, the college community and the church community have rapidly become largely two separate constituencies,” Sommer said.
Thus, serving the church as a minister is no longer synonymous with serving the needs of the college, according to Sommer, as the two communities no longer overlap.
In 1972, the Presbyterian Church turned over the oversight of the college to an independent board of trustees. From that moment on, chapel attendance was no longer required according to Runholt. The congregation is now made up mostly of people outside of the direct campus community.
According to Julie Lehman, Director of Development and Faith Relations, the relationship between the two institutions, the church and the college, resembles a “parent/child relationship in its evolution.”
“The church gave birth to the college, provided for its needs, instilled it with its values and eventually let go as the college gained its independence, officially with the first board of trustees,” Lehman said.
The role of the college chaplain has changed this year to fit the school’s evolution and separation from the church. According to Lehman, the newly established Beeson Chaplaincy and Chair of Religion position now held by Sommer is a “welcome change.” As opposed to how it’s been in the past, the role of college chaplain is now “coordinated and fully incorporated into the life of the [Wilson] community,” Lehman said.
“Having our chaplain also be a member of the faculty helps all to understand that she is there to represent and care for the well-being of the whole community,” Lehman said.
According to Sommer, by definition, her duty as chaplain is to care for everybody, “not just other Christians.” Sommer sees her new role as chaplain as “providing for a safe place for people to be themselves.”
As Chaplain, in addition to her duties to “provide a ministry of presence” to the campus community, as the job description states, Sommer hopes to more successfully tie together the different aspects of religious and spiritual life on campus and in the surrounding community. With her involvement in organizing interfaith celebrations like the Festival of Lights and informational meetings with Muslim groups for the University of North Carolina, Asheville, Sommer attempts to not only celebrate students’ religious affiliations but also enlighten others through education.
“It may be finally at a way structurally [where] the Chaplain can bring together the disparate parts of religious studies, spiritual life, working collaboratively, so [students] can go deeper in [their] understanding,” Sommer said.
The campus community has changed notably in recent years regarding religious makeup, and Sommer hopes to bring her experience as an educator to her new role as the college Chaplain, in hopes to “bridge a lot of the [ideological] differences we have within our campus.”