Farewell, Fr. Ron

May 1, 1998

Donna Soper

After 20 years of serving as a campus chaplain, the last 11 of which have been at Tulane, Rev. Ron Clingenpeel has accepted another calling. Last month, the chaplain for the Episcopalian Campus Ministry became the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Louisiana, or, in lay terms, he's the assistant to Bishop Charles E. Jenkins III, who was installed as the diocese's new bishop in March.

Though he'll continue to celebrate Sunday services at the Episcopal chapel on campus through the end of the semester, Clingenpeel left his familiar office at the campus chapel on Broadway on April 15, moving to the diocesan offices, which are located behind Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue.

While he looks forward to working alongside the bishop in a diocese that serves 20,000 Episcopalians, Clingenpeel says there are several things he will miss about his ministry at Tulane, primarily the students.

"What I'm really going to miss is the vibrancy, enthusiasm and the intellectual inquiry that comes from being around the academic community," Clingenpeel says. A 1975 graduate of the University of Nebraska, Clingenpeel made his entrance into campus ministry while studying for his master of divinity degree at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York.

Once he was ordained to the priesthood in 1978, Clingenpeel was assigned to Trinity Cathedral in Omaha. After two years, he was sent to Montana State University in Bozeman and then to Kansas State University in Manhattan for five years before coming to Tulane in 1987.

"When I came here, I knew I would be here for a long time," says Clingenpeel. "The relationship between the university and the religious life staff is, if not the best, one of the best at any private university in the nation," he says. In his estimation, Martha Sullivan, vice president of student affairs, has a lot to do with that. "Martha Sullivan understands and appreciates what the religious community brings to the life of this campus," Clingenpeel says. "I know chaplains who work on other private campuses who are envious of the relationship we have with Tulane."

Considered a non-paid staff member of the university, Clingenpeel and the spiritual leaders of 10 other campus ministries form the Tulane religious staff association. The group, which meets once a week, elects its own chairman and that individual serves as one of Sullivan's department heads, attending biweekly meetings with the other student affairs' department heads.

Clingenpeel, who's served as chair of the association three times, says "it's really the place where you can effectively make interactions with the rest of the university for the religious staff. Deans or vice presidents are more willing to call on a department head rather than someone they don't know."

Sullivan credits Clingenpeel with having a positive effect on the working relationship between her office and the religious life staff.

"During the last number of years, we've worked more closely with the religious life staff," Sullivan says, "and Ron's had a lot to do with making that relationship closer and stronger. He's a real honest-to-goodness mediator and has been a tremendous asset to this university."

At their own weekly meetings, the religious staff association leaders discuss common issues and develop ecumenical or interfaith programs. "If you want to find out what the ecumenical Christian movement is about, go to any campus to see who's working together," Clingenpeel says. "Every week I am in contact with eight other Christian ministries plus two Jewish ministries. So, I'm not only doing ecumenical work, I'm doing interfaith work."

Furthermore, the association has developed a chaplaincy system whereby each member of the group has been assigned to one of Tulane's schools or colleges and a residence hall, particularly to help out in special situations.

"In the 11 years that I have been here, chaplains have been called on in numerous situations," Clingenpeel says. "There was one semester, not long ago, in which we had a police officer killed, a suicide, two students killed in automobile accidents and a student who died of meningitis, all within four or five weeks. In every one of those situations, there was a chaplain on this campus involved in either dealing with students, families or faculty and staff in academic departments."

Dealing with tragic situations, however, is only one aspect of a campus chaplain's job. For Clingenpeel, ministering to and developing a community with the 60 to 100 students he sees regularly at the chapel or at ministry-sponsored events has been the most rewarding.

"We're a huge community of folks who like each other, who find support with each other and who have fun with each other," he says. "Out of that community grows a whole bunch of programs--Bible studies, Cajun dance lessons, and crawfish boils, where we raise money for a mission in Africa--to name a few. Some of what we do is deeply spiritual, but some of it is social."

While many of the students who attend services at the chapel or participate in programs grew up in the Episcopalian tradition, Clingenpeel says there are others who started coming with their friends or were just curious.

"They may go around to several of the campus ministries and then land here for whatever reason, because at this time, this is what's feeding their spirit. They're finding answers to their questions, and they're finding comfort here."

Clingenpeel says he welcomes that kind of theological inquiry, and wishes there were more such opportunities--such as a religious studies program--for students within the academic setting.

"My biggest disappointment, and I'm not sure if it can ever be completely dealt with, is that too often the academic life and the spiritual life don't come into contact with each other to talk about things," he says. "I think that theology and science are not at odds. Religion and science are very much trying to seek the same sort of thing, and I think we ought to talk about that together. "We forget in America that the modern university is the great-grandchild of the monastic community," he says. "There's so much that the academic constituency has to gain both by being honest about its history and honest about current theological thought."

While he'll be working not too far from campus, Clingenpeel says he doesn't expect to make frequent appearances at the chapel, especially after his successor arrives, hopefully by July 1. "I've done my 11 years here. They can't be relived. All the good things we had, let's celebrate them. All the mistakes we've made, let's celebrate them. And let's say, 'It's a blessing,' and let the new person come on board and really go about his ministry."

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