Spotlight On Rev. Greg @ Oberlin
We’ll be running a “Spotlight On” series, featuring the variety of Unitarian Universalist (UU) presences we have on college campuses. This will include group and individual profiles. Kicking us off is Rev. Greg McGonigle, the Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Oberlin College.
According to our count, there are only two Unitarian Universalists serving as Director’s of Religious Life at colleges or universities and two chaplains who are paid by their respective schools. Greg is one of the two who fits into the former category. He’s an amazing UU leader, and we hope you enjoy learning more about the great work he’s doing out in the world!
I’m Rev. Greg McGonigle and I serve as Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, near Cleveland, OH. There are several streams that have flowed into my calling to the work of religious leadership in higher education. One is my personal journey, as a boy who grew up in a devoutly Catholic and traditional household, whose spiritual searchings became influenced by Emerson and Thoreau which led me to a deep in interest in world religions. What I read in the prophets about social justice and compassion coupled with my emerging gay/queer identity also simultaneously made me a liberal. These developing differences between myself and my family with whom I wanted to remain close yet from whom I was becoming different in important ways, taught me things about adolescence that I thought might be helpful to others. I also loved studying, and found that spiritually, intellectually, politically, and personally, higher education could be a place of freedom and exploration, and I knew that I wanted to live in such a community when I grew up.
I found Unitarian Universalism while I was in college at Brown studying religion, and I went on to graduate school at Harvard first hoping to become a professor. Getting more involved with First Parish in Cambridge and thinking about how to combine my interests in religious scholarship, human care, and social justice led me to discern a call to UU ministry. As much as I valued congregations, I wanted my ministry setting to be higher education. I did a hybrid internship in parish and campus ministry at the UU Church of Davis, CA and was able to stay on three more years at UC Davis as a campus minister at an ecumenical and interfaith ministry. Serving on the multifaith council at Brown, the Harvard UU Ministry for Students Board, and two interfaith campus councils at UC Davis were all helpful. In 2008, I did a national search for a position working directly for a college to lead its multifaith religious life, and I found a great match in Oberlin College.
I was called to Oberlin to implement a new multifaith model of religious and spiritual life here. It involves three major elements: supporting particular religious and philosophical identities and communities, educating about religion in society and the world for the whole campus, and promoting multifaith dialogue, understanding, and engagement. Oberlin has some 15-20 campus religious and philosophical communities, and I either support the work of the affiliated campus ministers who work with them or advise those communities myself.
Much of my public work involves creating experiences–lectures, panels, vigils, celebrations, workshops, and courses–to help educate our campus about religion in society and the world. Distinct from the mainstream formal study of religion, I seek to offer opportunities that engage local and intersectional religion as it is lived by practitioners and activists today. This often involves the arts–such as music, dance, poetry, film, and food. Finally, I work to encourage multifaith engagement through my work with our Interfaith Faculty and Staff Council and Interfaith Student Council. Through meetings, discussions, service projects, forums, conferences, and other venues, I seek to bring people of all faiths and no faith together to learn about each other, build friendships, and work together. My work also involves some pastoral care, weddings and memorials, and administrative duties. Having an amazing mentor in my own college chaplain, Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson at Brown, and participating in the professional associations of higher education deans of religious life and chaplains (ACURA and NACUC) have been very important in teaching me what I have needed to learn to be successful in this field of ministry.
One of the great things about academic chaplaincy is that no day, no week, and no year is alike. Priorities shift constantly based on the rhythms of the institution, student, faculty, staff, alumni, and community interests and needs, and the changing issues in society and the world that impact what is on people’s hearts and minds. One week could involve reviewing the spiritual interests of the incoming class, composing an electronic bulletin of upcoming programming, preparing and teaching a seminar, leading a faculty, student, or community interfaith council meeting, coordinating a lecture, concert, vigil or celebration, composing or reviewing proposals for grants, mentoring a colleague or a student on a professional or personal issue, responding to death in the community, securing renovations or equipment for the chapel or multifaith center, organizing a field trip or an internship, writing a recommendation letter, or advising the leaders of a student group.
One of the great blessings of this work is the variety of people, communities, ideas, and activities that combine to form this ministry. One of the potential challenges of it, and of all forms of chaplaincy, is that it can draw one away from one’s own religious community–so it is wise to pay attention to balance the service of others with maintaining one’s own spiritual life and community. UUs’ knowledge and appreciation of the wisdom of multiple religious traditions is a definite asset in this work, although we can have our own blinders when it comes to conservative religions or perspectives that do not share our unitarian and universalist views. Still, I would think that many UUs would be natural in the work of academic chaplaincy. It is an exciting field and truly fulfilling work, and I believe more campuses would welcome the multifaith leadership that UUs could provide for them.