After meandering path marked by ‘oddball invocations,’ Willamette University’s “heart and soul” plans her retirement

Karen Wood, Willamette University chaplain, will retire in July 2021 (Courtesy/Willamette University)

For over a decade, Karen Wood, the chaplain at Willamette University, has had a challenging task: addressing hundreds of faculty, students and their family from different faith traditions (or none at all) in a meaningful way without offending or alienating anyone.

As she prepares to retire, Wood, 63, said humor is key to managing this precarious balancing act. She’s not above a lawyer joke at commencement to lead into a more serious recognition of the hard work students and their families have put in.

“One year, I pointed out that students might have called out God’s name when they saw the price of their textbooks,” Wood recalled of a speech at the law school commencement. “For me, it’s just really fun.”

Her work includes organizing vigils for students who have died, offering advice to colleagues and meeting one on one with those who are struggling or figuring out their own spiritual path.

“She quite literally is just the heart and soul of the Willamette community,” said Don Thomson, director of Willamette’s Bishop Wellness Center. “She’s there in the good times, she’s there in the bad times. She is the steady calming affirming kind presence through all of it.”

Wood said she realized it was time to retire while backpacking in Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness over the summer. She’s had requests from friends and family to devote more time to those relationships. She said something clicked while she was contemplating her future in the alpine meadows.

“There’s a certain seduction about chaplaincy. You get to feel needed, you get to hang out with young people,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to think, ‘Yeah she stayed a little too long.’”

Wood, a minister in the United Church of Christ, said she long intended to become a college chaplain but took a meandering path to Willamette University.

After earning her doctorate in theology from Harvard Divinity School, Wood served as dean of students at Union Theological Seminary in New York, then at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland. In those roles, she was sometimes able to discuss spirituality with students, but she said the work was more administrative than pastoral.

“I was working with all these students who were pursuing their passion and I wasn’t really pursuing mine,” she said.

When an associate chaplain position at Willamette opened up, she applied, and came to campus the in 2002. Her role was part of a grant to establish a theological and spiritual vocation program to help students determine what they wanted to do in life by exploring their values.

Much of her work is behind the scenes on campus, involving conversations with students or faculty seeking counsel and lending her insight to committees. Willamette has about 2,000 students between undergraduate and graduate programs.

Those individual conversations make commencement especially memorable, she said.

“When I know the stories of some of the students who walk across the stage and how beautifully they’ve navigated some of those moments,” Wood said.

“I go to her for advice whenever anything difficult arises, especially when I need to check my own rising temperature at the door, she’s always a cooling influence,” said Stephen Patterson, a professor of religious studies.

Wood teaches part-time in the department, offering a course on liberation theology, a Latin American 20th century religious movement fusing Catholic tradition with a focus on social issues and economic justice. Patterson said her classes have often sparked students’ interest in studying religion.

Though students often seek her out in difficult moments, Wood said providing emotional support to others is something she draws energy from.

“It doesn’t drain,” she said. “There’s energy in someone trusting you to be with them and hold that synergy and hold that space. That trust has a positive energy to it.”

In 2012, she became campus chaplain when her predecessor, Charlie Wallace, retired. Wallace said the university would typically conduct a national search for a chaplain role, but promoting Wood was an easy decision.

The two shared a style of public address grounded in “oddball invocations,” he said, prayers or moments of reflection to mark major events on campus. He said that style was a necessity in connecting with people in a region of the U.S. famed for its low church attendance.

“She certainly was able to show that humor in public and also able to show and demonstrate the importance of justice work and equity work in the university,” Wallace said.

Wood’s sense of humor extends to her relationship with colleagues. For years, she’s had an ongoing feud with Thomson over the merits of Red Vines versus Twizzlers.

He’s accepted Wood will never agree with his view that Twizzlers are little more than red candle wax. But it’s not unusual for him to find candy at his desk or in his mailbox.

“She’ll send me Twizzlers when she wants to rib me a little bit and she’ll send me Red Vines when she wants to send some kindness my way,” Thomson said.

She’s taken extra care to support Thomson as he took on the university’s Covid response over the past year, he said, a heavy and often stressful role. He said Wood is someone who “puts good back into the world and challenges us all to do the same. We need more of that right now.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Salem Reporter counts on community support to fund vital local journalism. You can help us do more.

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription starts at $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.