Campus chaplains: cult training and perceptions

Campus chaplains: cult training and perceptions

Russell K. Elleven

This article examines the perception of 43 college chaplains across the United States with regard to cult training and perceptions of college and university cult activity. Campus chaplains are in a unique and challenging position on college campuses to assist students and confront cult issues. The results of the survey indicate that most campus chaplains have had surprisingly little formal training with regard to cultic groups and often perceive faculty, staff, and students as requiring additional education regarding cult issues on college campuses


The question of college student involvement in cults on campus continues to be a subject that merits examination. Being away from home for the first time, the need to belong to a group, and other factors contribute to the vulnerability of college students (Blimling, 1995). College students can also be confused when cultic groups, at least initially, resemble mainline churches (LeBar, 1989; Enroth, 1992) and find the organized manipulation (Hassan, 1990) difficult to recognize. Such groups have the potential of leading to inappropriate student religious addiction (Arterburn & Felton, 2001). High pressure cultic groups continue to be a threat not only in the United States but throughout the world (Galanter, 1999).

College and university campus ministers are in a unique and challenging position to assist college students with issues related to high pressure cultic groups. The college chaplain position is complex and must be many things to many people. There are sometimes a variety of political and denominational pressures that may contribute to the college chaplain’s role on campus.


in the college community. He


values, not only at the level of

the individual, personal values, but

also at the level of the whole, of the

college community and how it lives

its communal life, how it demonstrates

its values in its dealings as

an institution, with the people who

compose it as well as with the immediate

neighborhood, the city, the


1990, p.109).

All of this in a day when college campuses find an increasing diversity of legitimate religious expression (Bulter, 1989).

This study addresses three areas. First, the study determines the amount of formal training college and university chaplains have received and whether they deem this training as adequate. Second, the study determines to which “camp” campus chaplains belong when assessing possible campus cults. Langone (2000) has called for a greater dialogue between the two camps. These two camps have commonly been labeled “pro-cultists,” which may be seen as having a more liberal definition of cults, and “anti-cultists,” who may be seen as having a more conservative definition of cults. Definitions used in this study, and used in the survey instrument, were obtained from Tabor and Gallagher (1995) and Langone (1993) respectively. Finally, the study attempts to build on other research conducted to examine the issue of cults on college and university campuses. Education and information dissemination for other campus administrative populations has already been shown to be important (Elleven, Kern, & Moore, 1998; Elleven, Van Veldhuizen, & Taylor, 2001).


Study Population

It can easily be agreed that campus chaplains are in an especially appropriate position within the college and university environment to assist students with high pressure cultic groups. The National Campus Ministry Association was contacted and responded favorably by giving membership e-mail addresses to the researchers in order to send out the cult questionnaire. Forty-three members of the association elected to participate in the study.


The instrument was only slightly modified from two studies previously published by the Cultic Studies Journal in 1998 and 2001 (Elleven, Kern, & Moore; Elleven, Van Veldhuizen, & Taylor). The instrument was designed to engage the campus chaplain in reference to the knowledge, attitudes and skills he or she has with regard to cults on campus. In addition to demographic data questions examined formal training experiences and both student and staff issues. Specifically, the questionnaire contained seven demographic items; nine forced answer questions; eleven questions based on a semantic scale range of “impossible–unlikely–unknown–likely probable”; and one item requesting the respondent to list cults one their campus.


The questionnaire was emailed to all members of the National Campus Ministry Association, accompanied by a cover letter asking that participants return the completed instrument within two weeks. Completed questionnaires were analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS). Frequency counts and percentage distributions were used to analyze the data.


Forty-three campus chaplains responded to the survey. Of the 43 surveys returned, 93% agreed with the “anti-cult” definition. A vast majority of respondents (86%) believed that college and university administrators across the nation should be concerned about cults on campus. In addition, 44% believed administrators on their own campus were concerned about cults.

Demographic Information

Information about campus chaplains’ institutions, educational level, and employment information is described in Table I.

Of the 43 respondents, 63% represented public institutions. Private institution representation was only 37%. The enrollment varied from small (less than 1000 students) to more than 5,000. Most institutions (74%) were large enrollments. Medium sized institutions (1001-5000) responded with 14% of the surveys while small institutions comprised 12% of respondents.

The National Campus Ministry Association divides membership states into five geographic regions. Most respondents were from the Southeast Region (33%). The South Central Region made up 26% of respondents while the Pacific West Region comprised 9%. Both the Great Lakes and Northeast regions had 16% representation of respondents.

Perceived Current Involvement

A full 77% of respondents believed that it was either likely or probable that students on their campus were currently involved in a cult. Even more telling is that 93% percent of respondents believed that students on their campus had been involved in a cult at some time in the past.

The numbers were much different for faculty and staff cult involvement. Campus chaplains were unsure 56% of the time if there was current cult involvement by their institution’s faculty or staff. However, 65% of respondents believed it was either unlikely or impossible that a member of the faculty or staff at their institution had never been involved in a cult.

Perceived Probability of Future Cult Issues

Campus chaplains were asked about their perceptions of future student and faculty/staff involvement in cults. The numbers in Table IV shows that a large majority of respondents (82%) believed students on their campus would be involved in a cult within the next five years. When asked about the possibility of faculty or staff involvement in the next five years, 59% of Campus chaplain respondents believed this was probable or likely to Occur.

Training and Literature

Somewhat surprising was that only 19% of campus chaplain respondents had completed any formal training with regard to cultic movements. Despite the fact that 30% of the respondent’ divinity school or seminary offered a course in cultic studies. The majority of respondents (56%) were not aware of any training occurring on their campus that addressed cult issues. Further, 61% of respondents were not aware of any educational programs related to cults being conducted on their campuses. Interestingly, 40% of campus chaplains responding to the survey do not feel adequately trained in the area of cults.

The majority of campus chaplains (65%) were aware of available professional literature regarding cults while 35% did not know of any such literature available to them on their campus. Students apparently have access to literature about cults on campuses. The majority of college chaplains (61%) believed students had informational literature about cults available to them on their campus.

Almost half (44%) of the respondents were unsure if their institution spent enough time educating students about cults on campus. At the same time, a large majority (82%) believed their institutional administrators should be concerned about cults on campus while only 45% of respondents believe their administrators are actually concerned about this issue. Eighty-seven percent of campus chaplains responding to the survey believed this issue should be of concern to campuses across the nation.


The study also attempted to gather information specific to active groups on campuses, student and staff involvement, and to ascertain if there were specific individuals on staff prepared to assist students who may be involved in high demand groups. Campus chaplains were asked to specifically identify cults that have been on their campus. Only 40% of respondents chose to participate in this portion of the survey. Of those, 82% identified the Boston Movement. Others specifically mentioned by respondents were: Scientology, Unification Church, Pagan/Wiccan, Campus Crusade/Intervarsity.


Several assumptions can be ascertained from this study. First, almost all campus chaplains who responded to the questionnaire defined cult using the “anti-cult” (more conservative) definition. Second, the vast majority of campus chaplains viewed the issue of cults on college campuses to be one of importance, although they have devoted less time than might be expected to training and educating students and staff about the topic. However, the majority of respondents appeared to be very knowledgeable about the topic and did have staff members knowledgeable about cults. Most of the respondents also believed there would be students on their campus involved in a cult within the next five years and many respondents directly named cults involved either currently or in the past on their campuses.

A great deal more research of the cult phenomena needs to be conducted on college and university campuses. A variety of populations on college campuses have yet to be polled regarding their opinion of cults on campus. This and prior studies have only begun to scratch the surface of research possibilities in an area that warrants more attention.


Table I

Campus Chaplain Demographics (N=43)

Demographic Percent


Female 39.5

Male 60.5

Education Level


Doctorate 23.3

Other 2.3

Current Employment as a Campus Chaplain

0-2 years 30.2

3-5 years 18.6

6-10 years 14.0

10 or more 37.2

Years Employed at Current Institution

0-2 years 37.2

3-5 years 20.9

6-10 years 18.6

10 or more 23.3

Cult Definition Agreement



Table II

Institution Demographics (N=43)

Demographic Percent

Institutional Type

Public 62.8

Private 37.2

Student Enrollment

1-1000 11.6

1001-5000 14.0

More than 5000 74.4

Geographical Location

Great Lakes Region 16.3

Northeast Region 16.3

Pacific West Region 9.2

South Central Region 25.6

Southeast Region 32.6

Table III

Student or Staff Involvement in Cult Activity (N=43)

Percentage for Each Rating


Question Percentage for Each Rating

1 2 3 4 5

Q. 9. There are currently students 0.0 4.7 20.9 30.2 44.2

on my campus involved in cults?

Q. 10. There have never been 41.9 51.2 7.0 0.0 0.0

students on my campus involved in


Q. 11. There is currently a staff 0.0 9.3 55.8 18.6 16.3

or faculty member on my campus who

is involved in a cult.

Q. 12. There has never been a 23.3 41.9 30.2 2.3 2.3

faculty or staff member on my

campus who has been involved in

a cult.

* 1 = Impossible; 2 = Unlikely; 3 = Unknown; 4 = Likely; 5 = Probable

Table IV

Probability of Future Cult Issues (N=43)

Question Percentage for Each Rating

1 2 3 4 5

Q. 13. In your opinion, what is the 0.0 11.6 7.0 32.6 48.8

likelihood of a student from your

campus being involved in a cult in

the next five ears?

Q. 14. In your opinion, what is the 2.3 11.6 27.9 39.5 18.6

likelihood of a staff or faculty

member from your campus being

involved in a cult in the next five


* I = Impossible; 2 = Unlikely; 3 = Unknown; 4 = Likely; 5 = Probable


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