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William Guri, Kathy D. Richardson, Marie Tylsova, Diane D. Walsh, I. Tucker Brown, Ph.D., Kari A. O’Grady, Ph.D.

What’s Going to Happen to the Tree? The Impact of the Closing of the Pastoral Counseling Department

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The unexpected closure of the Department of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University Maryland, announced via email on January 6, 2017, was deeply unsettling to several stakeholders. With rising fiscal pressures and changes in enrollment, many colleges and universities are faced with difficult decisions, including the decision to close departments. Department closure is intended to be a cost-saving measure that reallocates resources and allows the institution as a whole to continue to be viable; however, department closure is typically a difficult, time-consuming process with unexpected and unintended consequences.

The present qualitative study takes a hermeneutical phenomenological approach to explore the impact of the pastoral counseling department closure on a variety of stakeholders. An organizational systems approach is taken, by identifying and understanding different dynamics at play from the individual, departmental, and institutional level. The study attempts to explore the understanding and meaning persons created from the closure while exploring the influence of communication, leadership, and options provided for students.
Participants were persons enrolled or employed by the pastoral counseling department at the time of the closure announcement. Almost thirty faculty, staff, and current students were interviewed via focus groups and one-on-one interviews. Data were analyzed using NVivo, a data analysis software program.

Preliminary results indicated that participants sanctified the pastoral counseling department. Sanctification is a process by which persons “sanctify various aspects of their lives, imbuing them with spiritual character and significance” (Pargament, Magyar, Benore, & Mahoney, 2005, p. 60). Participants identified coming to the department as a “calling” and identified current and future work as having spiritual significance. In the closure of the department, participants experienced desecration of the sacred, describing the experience as shocking, disrespectful, traumatic and a crisis. Individuals reported great dissonance in the department closure, feeling as though it was not God’s will. The closure prompted participants to face a cosmology episode in which a sudden shift in worldview occurred with the removal of the department, seen as sacred and stabilizing, as a sense-losing experience. Preliminary findings indicate that individuals experienced a cosmology episode, as did the department as a collective whole. While participants reported being able to make new meaning and reintegrate their belief system through spiritual sense-making, participants identified this as an ongoing process that has not yet ended.

Future implications address a variety of stakeholders, both immediate and future. The findings of this study can serve as a model for leadership at all levels who are considering program closures, with particular attention how to successfully close a department after the decision to close has been made. Faculty in closing departments hold a unique position of having to perform scholarly duties under stressful circumstances, holding their own reactions of the closure while having to attend to student reactions. Further research should consider taking a qualitative approach to department closing. Finally, the study has implications of the field of pastoral counseling and clinical mental health as a whole with attention given to how cultural factors and the movement of the field impacted the department closure.

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