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University Chaplain Karen Wood to retire in July

by Jennifer Johnson,

Community reflects on the beloved chaplain's two decades of service and leadership at Willamette.

“Vocation, as we interpret it, refers to the way in which we live out our passions in the world, the way in which our values, our commitments and our beliefs are embodied in our choices about work, about family, about our political and social lives, and about how we inhabit our environment.”

This statement, penned by Chaplain Karen Wood for a 2010 alumni magazine story, illustrates the singular joy experienced when one finds their true calling. Wood discovered hers at Willamette University, where she has been an ubiquitous member of the community since 2002. Now her vocation has shifted direction: She will retire at the beginning of July.  

For generations of staff, faculty members and students, Wood has been a cheerful source of compassion, prayer and guidance. She's an easy walking companion with a seemingly endless capacity to listen and maintain confidentiality, whether it’s about personal issues or the irreverent, and the quiet ability to calm a room. She has a great COVID-19-themed Spotify playlist. For the past year, she has gathered a group of Willamette and Claremont School of Theology students, staff and alumni from across the world every weekday morning on Zoom for a brief prayer.

Wood communicates life’s most significant moments to the public — community births and deaths — and her graceful words are among the first to greet new students and among the last they hear before leaving campus. At times, she’s a bit like a cool aunt: witty, funny, wise. 

Director of Bishop Wellness Center Don Thomson said Wood’s contributions to Willamette cannot be overstated. 

“She is quite simply the heart and soul of our community,” he said. “Unwavering in her kindness and compassion for all people, Karen walks beside us in the darkest of times and celebrates with us our joys. She holds us all accountable to the ideals of justice and equity, and through her example shows us how to send love and gratitude back into the world.” 

Widespread engagement 

Few university positions compare to that of a chaplain’s. 

The role is both very public and very private; it asks someone to be known yet unknown, a spiritual leader and, in Wood’s case, an instructor. For nine years, she has been an associate professor of religious studies and led Convocation, the lunchtime community discussion on big ideas. She also chaired the task force that created the First Year Experience in 2019, a network of classes, programming, living arrangements and relationships that help students develop skills and habits that will enable their success and belonging at Willamette.

Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Sarah Kirk, who directed the First Year Experience for two years, said she has personally learned how to listen better and lead more effectively by following Wood’s model. 

“Karen has deeply enriched the experience of myself and others, and Willamette is a better place due to the imprint she has left on us all,” she said. 

For a decade, Wood was associate chaplain for vocational exploration and director of the Lilly Project for the Theological, Spiritual and Ethical Exploration of Vocation, a wide-ranging vocation program that prompted students to examine their purpose and meaning before it became common practice. 

Watching students transform into amazing adults and all that entails — becoming their own selves, finding friendships and connections, discovering their own boundaries — is incredibly “satisfying, challenging and beautiful,” she said, and one of the reasons she’s stayed at Willamette. The university provided a good space for her own learning and growth, too. 

“I had the enormous privilege of immersing myself in a community with brilliant and caring colleagues and students who are curious, engaging, interested, idealist and funny,” she said. “It’s a constantly stimulating environment.”  

The admiration flows both ways. Rachel Urner ’21, student representative for the Campus Religious Spiritual and Ethical Life Committee, said Wood is a great mentor, a grounded presence on campus and an active listener in everything she does.   

“She’s really shaped my Willamette experience, and it’s one of the reasons I’m most glad I came here,” she said. 

Being seen and unseen

In the words of one associate professor, Wood has served on “just about every committee and task force humanly possible,” regularly interacts with the Board of Trustees and works with the broader community to provide resources for those in need, whether it’s holding memorial services or organizing the meal train. (“I sometimes go full-on church lady with folks — ‘We must send you casseroles!’” Wood said.) Most recently, she continued some of the equity, diversion and inclusion initiatives led by Jade Aguilar, former vice president for EDI. 

“Our best institutional initiatives on diversity and race, vocational discernment, mental and spiritual care for students and student leadership all bear the stamp of Wood's work, wisdom and insight,” said Associate Professor of History Wendy Petersen Boring. “Trustworthy friend, truth-speaking leader, she has enriched our campus and our lives immeasurably.” 

Yet as visible as Wood is to the community, if she is doing her job well, her work is unseen. Wood tries to head off potential heartbreak or misunderstanding by reaching out before that distress might become public, and as someone whose role affords a uniquely birds-eye view of campus, she navigates “how to be the conscience of the university” and voices concerns to leaders if necessary, she said. 

President Steve Thorsett said Wood has helped shape the university’s spiritual and religious life and made it a more inclusive community. 

“I am personally grateful for the counsel she provided me during uncertain and often chaotic times and know that she will be missed by not only me, but by so many adoring students, faculty and staff,” he said. 

Next steps

Of the many people and events Wood will miss most, commencement ranks at the top of her list. One moment in particular stands out — as event emcee one year, Wood was able to meet undergraduates at the top of the ramp to ensure they lined up in the right order. 

“Just making eye contact with each one of those students, many of whom I knew, was extraordinarily intimate and huge and wonderful,” she said. “It’s such a moment of joy and sorrow at the same time.”  

After she retires, she plans to travel and spend time with family. An avid backpacker, she and her husband, Rob, will hit the mountains in August, spend a few weeks on the Pacific Northwest Trail then raft through the Grand Canyon. 

Until then, she’s happy to ease the transition for the new chaplain at a very exciting time — the recent partnership with CST, student internship possibilities in the office — just as her own predecessor, Charles Wallace, did for her. The university is starting a search for her replacement. 

“This has been my calling,” Wood said. “It’s been such a good place to live it out. I’m enormously grateful.

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