Re-inventing Chaplaincy in the Public Domain


I have been preparing a presentation for a conference, Chaplaincy – Development, Dialogue and Diversity: Telling Our Story, at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand from 2-3 December 2016:

It seems a good opportunity to get external feedback in an academic setting, of the moves we’ve made creating Oasis at Flinders.

The full paper:

Re-inventing Chaplaincy in the Public Domain

I’d welcome your comments!

Executive Summary

Oasis is an innovative project in a public educational institution, undertaking a paradigmatic shift in the provision of religious and spiritual support.

Following an incubation of ten years, marked by sectarian religious conflict, Oasis was launched at the Flinders University of South Australia to embrace religious and cultural diversity, directing itself beyond pastoral care to the individual per se, to human flourishing in the context of inclusive human communities.

Its values, direction and practice draw primary inspiration from religious sources.

The ongoing evolution of Oasis is fed from the diversity of university life: expert knowledge of the academe, diverse insights and passions contributed by the continuous flow of students, and the skills and experiences of the volunteer Oasis Team and their external networks.

In 2013, the achievements of Oasis were recognised by the University, embracing it within its administrative structures and appointing staff. In 2016 a purpose-built Oasis centre was created at a cost of $1.4m, providing new opportunities to achieve its vision

The praxis of drawing inspiration from the best in religious traditions, while promoting inclusion and engagement for well being has created an innovative model of spiritual support at a systems level, adaptable to many communities or organizations.

This paper presents a summary of some of the major discoveries that have contributed to the re-invention of chaplaincy through the evolution of Oasis at Flinders, as it is today.


1. Situation – the University

Typically, Universities are organized around three themes – research, teaching and community service. University ‘support services’ provide support for these three inter-related endeavors.

2. Motivation – the World

The motivation behind the evolution of Oasis could well have been articulated in the question that motivated me from the beginning of my chaplaincy at Flinders: how are we all going to live together, in spite of all our differences? – a much broader question than, how are we to go about providing religious and spiritual support for students? – but one that embraces the other.

From 1997 to 2007, by invitation and hospitality, religious chaplains, responsible for religious and spiritual support to the university, transitioned from separate sectarian entities, to multifaith (diversity), to interfaith (pluralism). This also represented a move from solo ministry to a community of cooperative, supportive practice.

3. The Institutional Difficulty of Wholeness and the Amorphous

While the university placed Oasis within Student Services, it has evolved beyond these and other boundaries. It is ahead of its time, inherently crossing borders in its quest to model and promote wholeness – a prime aspect of spiritual health.

a. Research?

The progressive, pioneering commitment to experimentation and innovation, attending to existing scholarship and open dialogue, implies that Oasis is a community of cross-disciplinary research through praxis. How Oasis may more formally connect with the research community at Flinders is yet to be explored.

b. Teaching?

As for teaching, Oasis drew a line in the sand between the ‘formal’ teaching of the Academy and individual ‘informal’ learning in the warp and woof of social contact – though Oasis has responded from time to time to invitations to provide seminars on various topics within the Academy. A significant number of the Oasis Team have been teachers, who understand the importance of motivational transformation in a person’s life, unleashing energy for formal learning.

c. Community Engagement?

Community engagement has always been implicit because of the way chaplaincy has been organised in universities from the beginning – chaplains appointed by religious communities are also contributors to those communities. Oasis relies on its networks in the wider community to maintain its volunteer team.

The cutting edge nature of the Oasis project, while challenging to many religious communities, has always been accepted by them as a valid pursuit, even if controversial, because of the role of universities in innovation and cultural transformation. The situation of Oasis in a university has enabled it to have a global purview and to speak confidently into the world, particularly engaging with public agencies grappling with new contexts requiring religious and cultural inclusion.

4. Toward a vital future

The journey of Oasis might be described as moving away from the in-house concerns of religious maintenance, the ‘church away from the church’, to the formation of culturally competent global citizens (‘culture’ also embracing spirituality and belief). By offering relational hospitable space, Oasis interferes with fundamentalisms by fostering radical ‘shalom’ – right relationships and wholeness, for the individual, society and the world.

The key to the paradigm shift Oasis represents has been the adoption of Nouwen’s concept of hospitality as its central concern, and secondly, the creation of an organizational structure that provides freedom for responsible self-management, evolutionary purpose and wholeness.

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