Study: Two bay area college chapels find less focus for organized religion

The main hall of the Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values.
The main hall of the Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values.
Published May 27, 2014

For some students, the University of Tampa's multimillion-dollar chapel is a hushed and ideal place for study. Others admit to being drawn there because it has fabulous restrooms.

In St. Petersburg, the octagonal chapel erected almost a half-century ago at Eckerd College offers religious services, but increasingly chaplains are making a point to seek out students elsewhere on campus.

That students are turning less to college and university chapels for worship and religious guidance is the conclusion of a recent study focused on the two institutions. More precisely, the study's authors say, when students do visit campus chapels it's often unrelated to organized religion.

"But that doesn't mean that the chapel is obsolete," said Patrick Henry, professor of sociology at Eckerd College and an author of the report.

Instead, he and co-author Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, point to a growing interest in what they refer to as spirituality. They suggest that college administrators come up with programs reflecting "the 'demands' of the new generation of college students."

Students at Eckerd College and the University of Tampa "are very much like their generation, the millennials," Henry said. "I don't think that means that they are vapid. . . . They are searching for meaning, but they are not looking for that inside college chapels in a traditional way."

Danny Jorgensen, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, agrees.

"Americans are less religious than ever before. That's obviously having an impact, particularly on traditional college-age kids," he said. "In general, one of the things that religion struggles to do when people start to leave it is to determine how do we remain relevant. I think the idea that you would need to do these kinds of things, being flexible, find other ways to be relevant for college students, makes sense."

The study, "Chapel Use on College and University Campuses," found that although students did drop in, very few attended religious services on campus.

"Students aren't really interested in religious services on college campuses, Cragun said. "That said, the chapel could hold, and does hold, kind of a unique place as a building to experiment with spirituality."

Cragun and Henry acknowledge that their study is limited, focusing on two private institutions. The University of Tampa has no religious affiliation, but Eckerd College maintains a relationship with the Presbyterian denomination that founded it.

The study's premise appears not to apply at Saint Leo University, a Catholic institution in Pasco County where its St. Jude Chapel holds a central place.

"There is a service every evening at 9:30 p.m., seven nights a week," said Denny Moller, vice president of university advancement. "It's open 24/7 . . . It's used quite a bit. Its location helps and we're very up-front about our Catholicity and our Christian values."

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There is no chapel at the University of South Florida, though several buildings are designated for religious use, including the Baptist Student Center, Hillel Jewish Student Center, the Chapel Center and Crosswinds Wesley Foundation. The buildings are owned by the groups, on land leased from USF. Additionally, the Marshall Student Center rents space for religious activities, including Sabbath dinners and Jumu'ah, Friday Muslim prayers.

Stacey Pearson-Wharton, USF's assistant vice president for health and wellness, said religious offerings often are an anchor for students as they adjust to life away from home.

Based on the study's findings, though, Cragun believes that institutions thinking of committing a large amount of resources to building or renovating a college chapel might want to reconsider. Unless it is a private, religious institution, he said, "You're just throwing money away."

The chapel at Eckerd College was rededicated in 2007 after an estimated $1.1 million renovation. "For us, there is definitely a place for a chapel in the context of a liberal arts college," Henry said. "Should it be a priority to focus on that, given limited development dollars, probably not."

The University of Tampa's $20 million Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values was built with the aid of a lead donation from Susan and John H. Sykes and dedicated in 2010. Dean of students Stephanie Russell-Krebs, a contributor to the study with Marcus Mann, a Duke University graduate student, said programs focus on character and ethics, spiritual development and greater understanding of world cultures and religions. "We don't have regular services," she said.

The Rev. Doug McMahon, director of the Center for Spiritual Life and chaplain at Eckerd College, said he is grateful for the beauty of the Wireman Chapel. But the Presbyterian minister said he has been "dealing with the issue that a religious building alone does not attract people to a worship service."

Eckerd's students prefer to gather outdoors and in other common areas, he said.

"To connect with students, I don't wait in the chapel," he said. "I go out wherever they might be gathering."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.