'The Best Job on Campus'
New college chaplain looks forward to role
By Myrna DeVries Anderson ’00

Mary HulstBack in her student days at Calvin, there was one on-campus job that appealed to Mary Hulst. “I thought that the chaplain job looked like a vibrant job, a fun job,” Hulst remembered. “And Coop did it so well,” she added of Dale Cooper, the man who served as the Calvin chaplain for 30 years until he retired in 2007.

Read more about the history of the chaplaincy at Calvin College.

This spring, Hulst was named the third Calvin chaplain since the role was created in 1962—and the first woman to serve as Calvin chaplain. “It’s amazing, letting it settle over me that this is now my job,” she said.

“She’s a strong pastor, preacher, teacher and scholar—and, I think, a natural student,” said Calvin professor of English Karen Saupe, a member of the committee that selected Hulst. “She loves to learn, and I think that shows in her preaching.”

Currently a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, Hulst will assume her new duties in the early summer of 2009. During the search for a new Calvin chaplain, the role of chaplain has undergone some re-envisioning.

Hulst will serve a pastoral role for students and for faculty and staff as well, reporting to both the vice president for student life and the provost. She will head the office of Christian formation, mentoring associate chaplains and other staff. Hulst will also teach in the new department of congregational and ministries studies and in the seminary.

“We are excited about the opportunity to have a unified voice and resource for Christian formation on campus,” said vice president for student life Shirley Hoogstra.“ Provost Beversluis and I look forward to the collaborative nature of the new vision for faculty, staff and students.”

Asking the big questions
A longtime preacher at Calvin’s Living Our Faith Together (LOFT) services, Hulst is looking forward to getting better acquainted with Calvin students: “What I love about working with college students is they’re so open and eager to talk. They ask big questions. They listen to the answers. They can be very wacky and playful and funny,” she said.

Students bring a distinctive pastoral challenge, Hulst added. “They’re at a point of really owning the faith for themselves. You have people who have grown up in Christian homes and done things from habit, and they have to own the faith for their own—and that is just really exciting,” she said.

Mary HulstAn early call
Hulst, who grew up in Holland, Mich., felt called to the ministry from an early age. “I had a pastor when I was in the seventh grade who told me I was going to be a minister,” she said. “That seed grew and grew in high school until I knew that’s what I felt called to do.”

At Calvin, Hulst followed a pre-seminarian track. “It was pretty novel,” she said of the women who aspired to ministry in that era. “There were some other women taking Greek—not too many of us.”

Hulst majored in classics and swam the distance freestyle and the butterfly. She also served on both the chapel committee and the Knollcrest worship service committee, coordinating with guest speakers and planning and leading the services as a liturgist. Cooper was a great mentor to her back then. “That was a great time in my life,” Hulst said.

Following her 1991 graduation, Hulst enrolled in seminary, earning her master of arts in divinity in 1995. Immediately upon her graduation, she was called to pastor Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, a parish in inner-city Grand Rapids. “I learned a lot about urban ministry. I learned a lot about why it’s so hard,” she said. “I had a lot of respect for that church that voted several times in its history to stay right there.”

Second CRC woman ordained
In 1996, a year into her service at Eastern, Hulst became the second woman in the Christian Reformed Church, the first of the denomination in the United States, to be ordained as a minister. “It was just a wonderful day. It was a culmination of the hopes and dreams of a lot of people,” she said of her ordination. “I really felt it wasn’t about me. It was about the work of the Spirit in the life of the church.”

After pastoring for eight years, Hulst left to earn a PhD in communication ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She taught for a year in the Calvin communication arts and sciences department and joined the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary in 2007. She teaches preaching.

She also preaches very well, according to those who have heard her: “A few of her recommenders said that she’s one of the best preachers in the Christian Reformed Church,” Saupe said. Further testimony on Hulst’s gift in the pulpit comes from students. “When she preaches at LOFT, they pack the house,” Saupe said. “I hear that there are dorm floors that go en masse when they hear it’s Mary.”

It’s not just Hulst’s preaching skills that draw students, she added. “Students who have gotten to know her … trust her. They relate to her, and they feel that she relates to them,” said Saupe. “It was clear to our committee that she genuinely cares about their well-being and growth.”

That empathy and trust were key to Hulst’s selection, said Joel Navarro, a Calvin professor of music who served on the search committee. “I felt she had an … understanding of pain, separation, alienation, and these are things that, as an international (faculty member) I’d like my chaplain to address,” said Navarro, who is a native of the Philippines. “I want our chaplain to be sensitive to what our non-white students might be feeling.”

The committee began searching for a replacement for Cooper in October of 2008. “As we began the search process, we realized we had some very big shoes to fill and expectations that were going to be hard to meet,” said Saupe. “I think I said at one point that we’d like to have someone about 30 years old with 40 years of experience.”

Hoogstra agreed: “Chaplain Cooper has shaped so many aspects of Calvin College over 30 years, and then we were subsequently blessed with an interim chaplain Andy De Jong, who brought 150-percent commitment and passion and leadership to the chaplain’s role. Without Andy, we would not have been able to bridge what has been a superb past with an exciting future.”

Many people nominated Hulst for the position. “The more I thought about it and prayed about it in the process of applying, the more I felt called to it.”

chapelBest part of the job
Though she loves teaching and has found a home on the seminary staff, Hulst is eager to resume the work of a pastor. “One of the things I’ve missed over the past few years is ministering to people, praying for them, loving people,” she said. “One of the best parts of parish ministry is loving people.”

She is looking forward to making Calvin her parish. “It’s like being a pastor,” Hulst said. “There’s a vision that you cast, but you need to be prepared for the crises that arise within the community, the needs that the community presents.”

Her predecessor and mentor believes she’s up to the task: “Mary is a gift from God to our Calvin community: a woman who loves her Lord, who cares for others in his name, and who proclaims the Good News eloquently and with passion,” Cooper said. “Mary, too, has received a gift, of course,” he added. “She now has the best job on campus.”         

Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.