Interview with College Chaplain Donovan Graham

Lookout Mountain, Georgia (April 16, 1999)-For Covenant College Chaplain Donovan Graham, chapel should not be something you attend, it should be something you actively experience. And during his three year tenure as chaplain at Covenant, he has actively sought to implement his views during the five-days-a-week mandatory chapel times.
A native of Illinois, Donovan Graham became a believer while studying at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. It was also there that he became involved with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), through his membership at University Presbyterian Church. Subsequently, he found his way to the campus of Covenant College, the denominational school of the RPCES and now owned by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He has been here at the college since 1972.
Since that time, Dr. Graham has filled a number of posts, including Dean of Faculty, Dean of Students, and faculty member in the Education Department. Since 1996, he has been the college chaplain, in addition to continuing to teach some classes.
Reflecting on his transition to chaplain, he traced the history and evolution of the position. When Dr. Graham arrived at Covenant, the college chaplain was the Rev. Mr. John MacGregor, a former military chaplain, several of whose children attended Covenant. Mr. MacGregor was responsible for scheduling the chapel programs, with the focus being on the speakers. After his retirement from the college post, there was no chaplain for several years. Then, Professor Charles Anderson took the job for a few years, before he, too, retired.
At that point, there were a number of people, including some on the faculty, who did not feel that the college needed a chaplain-that is, someone who would serve as a community pastor. The chapel program was centered on speakers, with the usual focus being theological or social or political topics.
In Dr. Graham's eyes, chapel became a very passive thing. But increasingly his passion was for chapel to become an event which would stimulate active participation by the college community.
About five years ago, the Chapel Committee was infused with some new life when President Brock asked the committee to seriously examine the purpose and place of the chapel program in the college. After two and a half years of lots of discussions and weekly meetings, the Committee eventually came out with a statement on chapel. The Committee drew two basic conclusions. The first is that, since the college is a faith-learning community, chapel can help the community both to learn and to worship together. The second is that the things that are done in chapel should emanate from what is being done academically.
Around the same time as the Committee report, there was a growing feeling that someone needed to take charge of the chapel program. The Committee accordingly began to design a job description for a chaplain. He would not be a campus pastor to "come in and be our spiritual guru." Rather, he would probably be a faculty member, because of the nature of the college, which is an academic community and not a church. Utilizing a faculty member was also a way of stating that chapel was part of the educational activity, and not simply something that is "spiritual." Dr. Graham explains that the Committee didn't want chapel "to be a church service, but learning and worship emanating from the community."
It was while helping to work through the meaning of chapel and the job description for a chaplain that Dr. Graham examined his own heart and realized that he wanted to apply for the position. His graduate studies had been in counseling. Now, he says, "I found myself moving away from the more clinical to the more spiritual side of counseling." He has profound concern for the spiritual needs of the students: "Do they love God? What do they know about God?"
Three years ago, he himself "felt really dry and empty." He increasingly was more interested in spiritual endeavors than in academically reforming "all the schools of the land." After encouragement from colleagues, he did apply, and was shortly thereafter appointed by the Board of Trustees as chaplain.
Dr. Graham views the chapel program as being "part of our educational endeavor." It is "a helpful part of accomplishing the mission statement of the college."
Chapel at Covenant College comes in three flavors. On Mondays and Tuesdays, there are learning assemblies. These are designed to deal with questions which "we as a community need to learn and think about." Sometimes this will involve speakers, sometimes panels, sometimes a preacher. Occasionally, the discussion will spill over into an additional nighttime gathering.
On Wednesdays, there are small group gatherings for sharing and prayer. And worship chapels are held on Thursdays and Fridays.
Dr. Graham says: "I personally don't like making this distinction between learning assemblies and worship assemblies. We did that to try to resolve the confusion."
In his estimation, "The worship has undoubtedly created more controversy because we have people with strong and differing convictions." He added: "The goal here as an educational institution is to develop a lifestyle that is worshipful. We're not trying to teach a particular church tradition." He also states that there is no attempt to "redefine worship" and "absolutely no attempt to redefine or undermine the . . . view of worship" found in the denomination's Confession of Faith.
In his work, the chaplain has been using the term "worship" in a broad sense. Accordingly, the worship chapels look different than a regular worship service. A Sunday morning church service would have the preaching of the Word as a "central focus." But college chapel has had the Word of God expressed in a variety of ways, not only by reading and preaching.
(Ironically, the chapel practice has had the effect of fostering a particular view of worship, viz., one in which the "regulative principle of worship" is seen not to prescribe particular parts of worship, but merely aspects of worship.)
What is particularly important for him is trying to create an "attitude of worship" in one's studies. "In all those things, I want what I am doing to be offered up as fruit to God." The same is true on the athletic field, where a Christian-like attitude should lead one to appreciate and applaud the graceful feats even of the competition. Dr. Graham's burden is for the college community to apprehend that "God is in all this, and we need to be in awe."
"Awe and wonder should be among the Christian's learning experience," said Dr. Graham. A Christian liberal arts college should be cognizant of "God's immanent presence and activity in everything we're doing."
Apart from the corporate dimensions of piety, Dr. Graham has tried to inculcate a sense of quietness before God: "One of my big and great concerns I have is that in the rat race, we cannot be still. The idea of quiet and solitude and being alone with God is just very frightening to people. . . . The Enemy's chief weapons today may be muchness, manyness, and busyness." The chaplain confesses: "I'm finding it very difficult just to be alone with God."
Getting alone with God is something he has encouraged others to do. Although he doesn't have any interest in the monastic life or Roman Catholicism, the only viable option for him for silent, quiet retreats has been the monastery. Two years ago, he spent part of his sabbatical at a Benedictine monastery outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
Meanwhile, Dr. Graham continues to lead the chapel program at Covenant College, which this year has featured the theme of the blessings which believers have in Christ. That theme is celebrated sometimes through preaching, and sometimes through times of praise and reading and prayer. But under Dr. Graham's leadership, it will be implemented through what he calls active participation by the college community, rather than passive reception. It's just another example of how the Education professor integrates faith and learning in his post as chaplain.