By Grace Beckner
A student-created petition with more than 300 signatures to end mandatory chapel attendance is circulating after an email was sent last month to students who had not yet met 50 percent of required chapel attendance.
The email was sent by Justin Jose, the newly hired director of leadership and community engagement who also oversees chapel attendance, to over 330 people who were not blind-copied, allowing recipients to reply-all to the email.
That was when students began voicing concerns and opinions. The email chain ended up 23 messages long over the span of almost two hours.
“I simply think 24 [credits] is way too many. I live in Murfreesboro and having to sit in traffic for an hour isn’t the most fun thing there is, especially if I have a class at 10:45, which at that time traffic has slowed down,” said one student in the email chain. “I have a job like many students, and although it is not an excuse to not show up, it should be something taken up in consideration for at least half exemption.”
The petition was posted on Nov. 3 by Trevecca freshman Sophia Hickman and has garnered 337 signatures as of Nov. 30. According to the petition description posted on change.org, Hickman urges people to sign if they “want that freedom to choose” whether or not to go to chapel.
“Ever since I’ve come to Trevecca I’ve always taken issue with the chapel policies, but I’ve never said anything because I thought it was an unpopular opinion,” said Hickman. “So, seeing hundreds of people all saying, ‘Hey, I completely agree,’ or ‘This has been really hard for me,’ that’s really what prompted me to make it, because I am not the only one who feels this way.”
Hickman said abolishing mandatory chapel attendance entirely would be her ideal scenario, but she realistically would like to see a decreased number of required credits and more alternatives to chapel available for students.
“Community service would be great because it still aligns with Christian values, you know, getting out and helping people. That’s very Jesus,” said Hickman. “I feel like community service could really be a great way to still maintain the Christian value, but also not make it to where people are almost being forced to worship, in a sense.”
Erik Gernand, university chaplain, said conversations about ending required chapel attendance altogether are a “non-starter.” To alter this requirement would go against the university’s mission and goals, which are formative activities for things like accreditation.
“Right at the heart of our mission, our educational goals, are that we are a Christian community providing education for leadership and service,” said Gernand. “But written into that are some very clear, formative statements of what we want students to experience and be shaped and formed by while they’re here.”
He said there are both academic and spiritual components in which the university hopes to contribute to a student’s formation, and the accrediting body judges the school on how they carry that out.
“So, if you just pull the plug on a requirement, that changes the whole dynamic on how we go about meeting those goals and would fundamentally alter some of the key missional goals of the university,” said Gernand.
Gernand said it might take some time for the community to settle back into rhythms and traditions that were disrupted during Covid.
“This year, it does feel a lot like a rocket re-entry into the atmosphere,” said Gernand. “There’s some pain in getting back into a practice that will ultimately be healthy and formative for our community but feels foreign to us.”
Many of the stories shared in the email chain highlighted commuter experiences, especially those who work or have other obligations.
“I am also a commuter, so [chapel is] not really a viable option for me right now. I worked it out so that next semester I will have time [to attend chapel], but I think it should be an option for commuters who work to at least be able to attend half through virtual,” said another student in the email chain.
Gernand said the chapel team responsible for planning services, made up of himself, his wife Ashley Gernand and several students, are trying to incorporate different perspectives and faith backgrounds into the 46 to 48 chapels offered each semester.
“A regular, top three conversation that we are having is to try to give students handles for ways they can engage that are options outside of a typical worship and word,” said Gernand. “That being said, while we try to be sensitive to style differences and create variety there, that is always going to be an element because it has been a practice for followers of Jesus and the church for generations.”
Gernand said the process to receive a chapel exception had been messy and too broad in the past before Covid, so they were told to cut back the number of exemptions allowed and reserve them for specific situations.
“We want students to learn to see the importance of chapel at the same level they would understand class attendance,” said Gernand. “The idea of ending mandatory chapel, for us in our minds, is a parallel to ending mandatory class attendance. It is the same kind of conversation.”
Gernand acknowledges the pressure commuters are feeling and wants to be responsive to their situation. The only automatic exemption currently offered is for commuters who do not have a class before 12pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, said Gernand. To receive this exemption, commuting students need to apply during the first two weeks of classes with Ronda Lilienthal, the associate dean of students for residential life.
Lilienthal said admissions would provide information to new students about the importance of chapel attendance at Trevecca during campus visits, but pointed current students to the handbook. She said the student handbook provides all the necessary information, “including the fact that chapel at Trevecca is considered to be on the same level of importance as academic classes, both requiring attendance.”
“Those have been attempts by the people who run [chapel attendance and exceptions] to be responsive to the differences commuters have, and the pressures of their schedules,” said Gernand. “So we are aware that there are conversations about it. I don’t want them to feel ignored. It is something that we roll around in our minds and are always happy to receive feedback.”