The Importance of Being Generalists

At our recent conference for school chaplains, one of the concerns raised by this group was the degree to which the trend toward specialization is forcing many chaplains to re-think or re-clarify their roles in schools. Increasing numbers of our schools have full-time professional counselors now, as well as coordinators—for such areas as diversity, sustainability, community service—in areas that might at one point have been a part of the chaplain’s portfolio. It reminds me of Reinhold Niebuhr’s days in the parish ministry, in Detroit. As he walked the halls of a hospital, visiting parishioners, being the inveterate generalist, he observed, “Sometimes when I compare myself with these efficient doctors and nurses hustling about I feel like an ancient medicine man dumped into the twentieth century.” In an age of increasing specialization, the question becomes, “What is the role of the generalist?” All around us we see specialists; where does that leave those of us committed to the art of doing many things?

Of course, this is not just a challenge for school chaplains. Many school heads have reported to me that the past few months have found them doing things, giving time to, matters that they were not planning to focus on this year. As one school head put it, “So many of the priorities I had anticipated for this academic year I have had to throw out the window, due to the changing economic situation.” Indeed, the past few months have found most of us in some way exquisitely unprepared: whatever pride we might have taken in our customary focus of expertise may now have to be set aside to tend to the challenges we were not expecting, challenges that touch upon human issues as much as budget sheets.

Perhaps one of the hidden blessings of this current economic crisis, as much as it holds us in a gloomy grip, is the re-emergence of the need for leaders to be generalists. These days find us listening, reassuring, re-articulating the missions of our schools, helping people to stay on track, and in no small way grieving for the plans thrown out the window or the curtailing of lofty strategic goals. All the while, of course, we keep our eye on the important tangibles—fundraising, contracts being returned, the decisions about institutional priorities. In an age of specialization, the scope of those varied and challenging activities may hardly seem like valuable talents or gifts, but to a school community in need of a sense of cautious hope yet a firm grasp of reality, the generalist may be just what the doctor ordered.