A Chaplain’s Work

“The Master is … straightforward but supple. Radiant, but easy on the eye.” Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze, Stephen Mitchell translation, chapter 58.

Ed Christman was Wake Forest Assistant Chaplain from 1961-1968 and then was University Chaplain 1969-2003. Over these 41 years, he excelled in the work of a university chaplain, showing the genius of someone in the perfect job.

Carolyn Christman:  “When I was a little girl, I often got this question, ‘But what does your father actually do?’ “It was a hard question to answer. It seemed to me that he just talked to people all the time. Now I know what this meant. Words were his currency, and he had a magic purse.”

Ed never had a job description, but any chaplain’s work might be: to provide spiritual guidance and support to a community of people who live or work together in an institution (university, hospital, prison, or body of the military); to lead from the institution’s pulpit and represent its highest values; and to create a private, confidential place where individuals can find advice and comfort.

Provost and Professor Emeritus Ed Wilson, one of Ed’s lifelong colleagues, described his success as Chaplain this way:

“As a Baptist, he has ministered in a brotherly way to the Baptist Student Union, to Poteat Scholars, and to others who live within the oldest of Wake Forest’s religious families. But has has been a Chaplain to everybody — to those of another faith, to those of no faith, to those on the road somewhere. And I have known (and still know) students and professors, disposed not to like — certainly not to accept — chaplains in general, who have none the less found in Ed Chrsitman a friend whom they could respect and honor and trust … There is no other Ed Christman. Ed stands apart. He is unique.” [Edwin G. Wilson, The History of Wake Forest University, Volume V, 2010]

This page describes the ways that Ed Christman served Wake Forest as Chaplain.  Related pages describe his role in spiritual leadership and in performing weddings and funerals for the community.

Chaplaincy at Wake Forest

Ed was chaplain to the college itself, to the community as a whole, and to the individual faculty, staff, and students of Wake Forest. His voice could be as big as Wait Chapel, as quiet as a whisper, or as mischievous as a school boy.

In serving the institution of Wake Forest University, Ed worked with others to steer or spur the changes that needed to be made — integration of the campus, engagement with world events, and inclusion of all members regardless of religion, background, and sexual preference. He put these changes forward with the expectation that that Wake Forest University should always be striving to become its best self.

Richard McBride, Wake Forest Assistant Chaplain 1969-1979 and later University Chaplain at Elon, wrote to Ed in 2003 with reflections on chaplaincy:

“You taught me that the chaplaincy must be willing to address every aspect of university life, all constituent groups, in ways that are both pastoral and prophetic. Befriend as many folks as possible, especially students. Be bold in “speaking truth to power.” You have always cared deeply about institutional integrity, especially that religiously affiliated institutions should never run roughshod over the people who comprise them.”

In serving the community of Wake Forest, Ed was the spiritual leader, whether the community was in celebration, reflection, or mourning. Yet this was more than a one-person job! As University Chaplain, he knew that the increasingly diverse community required a number of spiritual leaders on the campus. As various denominations began to support their own chaplains based at Wake Forest, Ed supported and nurtured the Campus Ministry group. He enjoyed the rich collaborations with these colleagues through campus-wide programs. [The following page on Spiritual Leadership discusses campus ministry, the Baptist Student Union, Pre-school Conference, and other programs.]

As chaplain to the people of Wake Forest, Ed was a adviser and counselor for whatever life brought. He helped students walk through their questions of faith, sort among competing aspirations, and recover lost visions. He helped students preparing for ordination, and he walked with others through the tangle of the legal system. He supported individual dreams of exploration, such as the desire for international study, by finding resources and contacts. Every student was important to him.

Ed and WF student on the quad

Ed officiated at countless weddings of Wake Forest couples: faculty, staff, students, alumni. He had no ego and was willing to share ceremonies with other ministers, including those of other faiths.

He organized and led funerals to honor those who had passed away. He supported the families and friends of those who had died, whether by illness, accident, or suicide. Chaplain Christman was the guide through grief, confusion, and despair.

While Ed Christman always knew what to say, he also had the gift of simply listening with patience and compassion, as people found their own way.

Thomas A. Bland, Jr. ’78, Minister Emeritus, First Baptist Church, Morganton, NC:  “I have a memory that stems from my junior year, specifically from the rather harsh winter of 1977. I remember how very kind Dr. Christman was to me when, finally, I responded to an overture from him in the form of a card he had sent to me.  I made an appointment to see him in his office, and there, with some guardedness at first on my part, I laid before him what I saw at the time as my challenges and aspirations.  My mother had died at the end of my freshman year, an event that frankly colored all of the rest of my time at Wake Forest, but a tragedy that I was very hesitant to discuss in depth with almost everyone, especially members of the clergy.

“But I remember from that cold day the warmth that Dr. Christman extended to me as gradually, in the course of that conversation, I opened up and shared something of that pain, along with whatever else, of a more trivial nature, happened to be on my mind.  He gave me a greater gift that day than he ever realized — a willingness simply to listen, and not to judge. I have never forgotten his simple kindness to me, and I have tried in my years of ministry to extend it to others who, perhaps with even greater guardedness, have finally sought me out and shared whatever they needed to with me.”

What were his skills?  Ed was purposeful and hard working; able to find joy wherever he was; and both insightful and compassionate for people, whatever their circumstances. He was a Chaplain for all.

  • From Julie McElmurry on February 12, 2013 at 2:12 am

    I remember sitting at Midtown Desserty, surrounded by campus ministers and His Chaplaincy (as I still love to call him) as they grilled me with questions while I clumsily stabbed at my salad during a lunch interview. My first impressions of Brother Ed were that he was humble, dignified, hilarious and hospitable.

    The interview went well enough that I served as a Campus Minister at Wake Forest from 1999-2010 as am employee of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. I remain grateful that he welcomed Catholics and Catholic ministers to Wake Forest with open arms since the beginning of his time as Chaplain there. My first impression of him was accurate. Years of serving under his gentle leadership also showed me his wisdom, strength, patience, honor, tact and commitment to justice. I learned a lot about ministry from watching this great man. Thanks, Brother Ed and Jean, for your fine example of what it is to be truly Pro Humanitate.

    Julie McElmurry, Director, Franciscan Passages