Vanitha Williams, Women’s Christian College

Chaplaincy in Changing Times

Dr. Vanitha Williams of Women’s Christian College

For much of their history, Christian colleges in India were likely to have several ordained priests on faculty, who could serve as an institution’s chaplain. Now, however, there are few priests among the faculty, and institutions may allocate only limited resources to support the chaplaincy function. As a result, faculty from a variety of disciplines are recruited to fill the gap, typically serving as chaplain on a part-time basis for two to three years.” “They are good Christians,” says Rev. Dr. Maher Spurgeon, the United Board’s regional program consultant for South Asia, “but they are not trained theologically, and two or three years is too short a period to bring about influential change in campus ministries.”

Vanitha Williams, a zoologist by training, served as the chaplain of Women’s Christian College in Chennai from June 2014 to May 2017. She was surprised when she was called to serve. “To be honest, the first thought that came across my mind was, ‘Will I be able to live up to this role as a Christian leader?’” she recalled. “Truly, I felt very humbled and accepted this responsibility promising to do my very best for God.”

For Dr. Williams, doing her best meant balancing the demands of teaching with the duties of chaplaincy, which included organizing worship services, student and faculty retreats, and the distribution of gifts to orphanages and palliative care homes. She also counseled students. “When students came to me, I would spend time listening to them and try my best to give guidance,” she said, but she wishes some formal training in counseling had been available to her.

United Board Regional Programs Consultant Maher Spurgeon, left, encourages training programs for chaplains.

Currently serving as WCC’s dean of academic affairs, Dr. Vanitha joined a consultation on chaplaincy training that the United Board convened in May at St. Christopher’s College of Education in Chennai. Participants discussed ways to deliver training in counseling and pastoral care, knowledge of world religions, and liturgy and preaching. The group outlined plans for a postgraduate diploma course in Christian studies for chaplains, to be delivered over the course of a year through online training, residential study, and site visits. The Institute for Advanced Christian Studies at Madras Christian College is preparing the initial course outline, and training for a small group of colleges will start in April 2018.

Dr. Spurgeon points to the words of an eighteenth-century prayer, used by many Indian institutions as their college prayer, to make the connection between chaplaincy and whole person education. “O Thou, who in days past didst put into the hearts of good people to found Colleges; for the imparting of sound learning, the building of character and the spread of spiritual truth….” The chaplaincy training program, it is hoped, will strengthen “the hearts of good people” to help the spiritual and emotional needs of young adults.