By Aliyah Basuil
“Okay, let me catch up with my soul,” is the mindset that chapel at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul encourages its students toward daily in the middle of busy college life.
The requirement of regular chapel attendance every semester, though seen as a chore by some, distinguishes Northwestern from many other Christian institutions; the idea of daily chapel is interwoven within the identity of the university. Planning for chapel sessions every school year can be a daunting task, but the hardworking spiritual formation team is committed to providing the Northwestern community the best chapels possible.
To stay relevant, Nina Barnes, dean of spiritual formation, combines the feedback that she hears from students everyday with her genuine desire to constantly improve what chapel looks like at our school. Regarding the format of chapel, the two most significant changes during Barnes’ time have been the addition of daily worship and the option of various alternative chapels every Wednesday and Thursday.
Barnes, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in spiritual formation and leadership, says that adding student led worship to daily chapel has helped in creating a mindset of reflection when students come in. “Adding at least one or two songs at the beginning is one of the things that I believe has enriched chapel and helped students to come from class and intentionally be with God for 40 minutes.”
“It is intentional that we are adding a variety of styles to worship,” Barnes said. The other benefit that daily worship has provided is more space for diversity in music at chapel. Whether students want music of other cultures, gospel choir or traditional hymns, Barnes has successfully created more opportunity for variety in the worship that we hear in chapel.
With recent changes to chapel format this year, reactions have been mixed. For some, the changes were agreeable, but for others, not so much. A petition was created by students voicing complaints and calling for a restructure of the format of chapel “in a way that is fair to all students.” It was signed by more than 500 people. Many frustrated, unkind comments were made about Barnes during this time.
However, Barnes took it with grace, saying, “Students have the right to make their voices known. It didn’t bother me when they said they didn’t like chapel, it bothered me when it became about me.” In response to the petition, she simply addressed it at the end of a chapel one day, expressing to students, “You have a right to sign a petition. That’s your choice, that’s your right. What bothers me is the separation of relationship, because now there’s division and I’m the enemy. I’m not mad at you. I’m gonna love you anyway.”
Barnes met with the three students most involved in starting the petition and said that it was cordial. When it comes to change at Northwestern, she advises students to engage in active feedback. “If you want to seek change, a survey is more effective than a petition because actual data is received,” Barnes said. She understands that people will always have different opinions about chapel, but she values new ideas and always makes it a priority to meet with students. “I don’t ever want students to feel like they can’t disagree; it shouldn’t be us against them. Conflicts are inevitable but division is a choice.”