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Campus revs keep pace with changing world of students

By Paul Titus

As young peoples’ interest in spirituality grows and New Zealand becomes more multi-cultural, university chaplains are taking a more prominent role in the life of their campuses and communities.

Like ministers everywhere, university chaplains have a wide variety of responsibilities. They provide pastoral care and counselling to students and staff, lead worship and memorial services, take part in graduation and other public ceremonies, support student Christian groups, and facilitate between different faith groups.

Most NZ universities and polytechnics have chaplains, and currently Methodists serve at two of them. Rev Uesifili Unasa is at Auckland University and Rev Greg Hughson is at Otago University.

Greg also chairs the Aotearoa NZ Tertiary Chaplains Association (ANZTCA). He says ANZTCA has around 40 members nationally, many of whom work in team ministry.

“Team ministry is important because we model inter-denominational and Catholic-Protestant respect and unity. Tertiary chaplains are often at the coalface of multi-faith relations, as well,” Greg says. “Chaplains are valued by the universities for our public presence and pastoral work.”

While all tertiary chaplains play similar roles, their specific duties vary. For example, chaplaincy at Auckland University is unique because it focuses on the Maclaurin Chapel.

Uesifli explains that the Maclaurin Chapel is endowed by the Goodfellows, a prominent business family with strong links to the Presbyterian Church. The Goodfellow family provides financial support for both the Maclaurin Chapel and its chaplain, and Goodfellow family members sit on the trust board that oversees them.

Uesifili is the second Methodist to serve as Maclaurin chaplain; his predecessor was Methodist Rev Terry Wall. A Samoan-NZer, Uesifili is also the first Pacific Island minister to fill the post.

“Each Maclaurin chaplain approaches the position in a different way, according to their own interests. I am trying to encourage a more public ministry.

“Being the Maclaurin chaplain is like being in charge of a church on campus. The chapel is available for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and weekly services. Small prayer groups still use it but the nature of Christianity on campus is changing.

“I am taking a bigger role in the university’s major public events and in the life of different departments. Another way the chapel serves the campus is the multi-faith Peace Day service we hold each year. Speakers at the event have included Ahmed Zaoui and Harmeet Sooden” Uesifili says.

The Maclaurin chapel also works with community churches near the university. For example, this Easter university students were among those who made a march of witness that visited five inner city churches.

The responsibility of the Maclaurin chaplain encompasses Auckland University’s four separate campuses – the main campus in the central city, the Tamaki and Epsom campuses, and the School of Medicine in Grafton. Together they have more than 40,000 people.

Uesifili makes pastoral visits to each campus. At the School of Medicine he holds a unique blessing ceremony at the beginning of the academic year, lifting the tapu (whakanoa) on the cadavers that anatomy students use to explore the human body.

The University of Otago has no dedicated chapel. There is, however, an Upper Room alongside the chaplain’s offices in the University Union building where many meetings are held.

Greg shares his chaplaincy duties with another ecumenical chaplain, Rev Mike Wright, who splits his time between the university and Otago Polytech, and chaplaincy assistant Lyn Meinders. Greg also works closely with the Catholic chaplaincy team.

As part of their pastoral care, the Otago chaplains have prepared a homesickness booklet that is updated yearly. A copy goes to every first year student in residential colleges.

“Other chaplaincy resources we have at Otago are grief booklets, and prayer booklets, developed with the financial support of the Methodist Communications fund.

“I support the Otago Combined Christian Groups committee. Each year we produce an attractive map of Dunedin for students. It shows the location of the city’s churches and lists the Christian groups on campus,” Greg says.

“A major event for us each year is the Student Christian Movement’s book exchange. This year it grossed $50,000. The SCM donates a portion of the proceeds to local charities such as Rape Crisis and Lifeline.”

Greg chairs the Dunedin Abrahamic Interfaith Group, which Dunedin’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders formed after 9/11. The group encourages solidarity among the three religions and expresses their common heritage.

It holds inter-faith dialogues and educational events at the university, sponsors an annual peace lecture, and visits to schools to promote peace and discuss religious issues.

Funding for Otago University chaplaincy comes from local and national churches. The Otago Tertiary Chaplaincy Board is currently inviting regular or one-off donations towards the cost of paying its two ecumenical chaplains. It is also establishing an endowment fund to support chaplaincy long-term.

To contribute to either fund, contact board chairman Professor Paul Trebilco at 03 479 8798 or