I walked across NNU’s campus in December and stepped into University Chaplain Gene Schandorff’s office. If you’ve spent any time in the last 20 years as an undergraduate at NNU, you’ve likely passed by it. It occupies the corner space in Elmore Hall, with windows that look out at the clock tower and Student Center courtyard. It is filled with books (some of them in a bookcase that he built himself that I secretly covet). It’s an office in which I spent a number of hours as a student, but this conversation proved to be quite different from the others that I remember.
“Well,” replied a smiling Gene when I asked him what kind of news I should include in the article I’d been assigned to write about him. “I’ll be retiring at the end of spring semester. I’ve been here for 22 years, and I think it’s the right time for both the university and myself.”
If you know Gene, you would likely have felt as surprised as I was at this news. Although in his 60s and sporting his share of gray hair, Gene is by no means out of touch with the student body. His chapel messages continue to inspire discussion and reflection year after year for NNU students.
In fact, the familiarity and intimacy that students experience after getting to know Gene have made him an effective spiritual leader on NNU’s campus. I observed that this man who took the podium at every chapel service was no different than the one who would sit and laugh with students for an hour at the lunch table. Integrity and personability have been consistently evident in Gene’s relationships with NNU’s students, faculty and staff.
We are not seeking to instill or promote doubts, but instead we know that they will come, and that it is a wonderful thing when they come in the context of a faith community.
Tim Milburn, director of campus life, says, “Gene’s greatest gift to me is his availability to listen, to laugh and to share stories. He is always willing to stay for an extra five minutes around the lunch table in the Dex. Those are some of our most cherished moments.”
It takes a special skill to have such a disarming effect, especially with college students, but it’s one that Gene possesses as both an inherent gift and a honed craft. His work with college students began long before his first university job at NNU. He spent 10 years prior to his arrival pastoring in Arcata, Calif., right across the street from Humboldt State University.
It was there that he discovered a special passion for working with college students. His church, while a traditional, working-class community, strongly encouraged him to get out of his office to work alongside the students across the street. “Without those 10 years, there is no way I would have ended up [at NNU],” he says. “It was there that I began to feel a calling to work in traditional student campus ministry.”
Initially, Gene applied to work at secular schools, but at the right time the job at then-NNC was offered, and Gene accepted. He recognizes that working at a private Christian college, while dramatically different from similar positions at non-religious schools, has its own set of challenges.
“I think the biggest mission field we have here [at NNU] is the traditionally churched, religiously informed individuals who are struggling to live into a faith of their own,” says Gene. He has worked at NNU to craft an environment where students can confront their own doubts and fears in a Christ-centered, supportive community. “We are not seeking to instill or promote doubts, but instead we know that they will come, and that it is a wonderful thing when they come in the context of a faith community.”
Perhaps the best example of this approach is a long-favored habit of Gene’s to begin speaking to visiting high school seniors in this way: “Let me tell you why you don’t want to come here.” The unusual statement has served as a launch pad of his to speak about NNU’s community being a place where assumptions and perspectives are challenged in an effort to promote conversation and reflection as students discover who they are in Christ. “It’s all about making the move from a comfort zone to a growth zone,” he explains.
But while the majority will remember Gene primarily for words delivered from the podium, perhaps the longest-lasting effect will be in some of the cultural standards he has begun at NNU, especially in the area of global missions. When he arrived, NNU sent students on mission trips through the General Church but did little coordinating of its own trips. Gene began to construct a new identity for NNU student mission trips coordinated by the university and composed of students and faculty. As part of that new effort, he personally led trips to the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Romania in addition to 11 trips to Venezuela, a country where he continues to maintain strong relationships.
Eventually, coordinating mission trips became a large enough task for NNU to hire a full-time director of student ministries. “I think Gene is an undercover missionary posing as a university chaplain,” says Julene Tegerstrand, who currently holds the position and directs mission trips as part of her duties. “Missions is a part of his DNA, whether it means developing a 15-year partnership with Venezuela, joining students on a spring break trip to help with flood clean up, working on a plan to involve the NNU community to fund-raise for a medical clinic in Ghana or opening up his home to a college graduate in need.”
I think Gene is an undercover missionary posing as a university chaplain... Missions is a part of his DNA.
The different ways Gene has worked around campus are almost impossible to relate in short form, ranging from coordinating chapels to serving on the president’s cabinet, attending LEAD retreats and teaching classes. Through it all, every action represents the heart of a man committed to shaping the hearts and minds of those seeking authentic transformation.
Gene’s influence has left an indelible mark on thousands of students. “When I became a student at NNU, I had no idea the impact Gene would have on my university experience and beyond. Gene’s ability to nudge students, both directly and indirectly, in a supportive yet challenging way is a unique gift,” says Amanda Marble (’01), who now works with Gene as director of the career center.
I must agree. I was one of those students who came to NNU seeking to understand and develop my own faith, and Gene’s teaching and willingness to listen were enormously influential in my own spiritual development, including my decision to become a first-generation member of the Church of the Nazarene.
So what now? As he mentioned, Gene’s departure is an outcome of his own sense of Spirit-led timing, but he is far from being ready to retire in the traditional sense. He will continue to be a part of the NNU community in several ways. The first of these is to deliver the keynote address at spring commencement, when he will also receive an honorary doctorate from the university for his time and service. After that he has plans to complete a woodworking project for the new Leah Peterson Learning Commons using lumber milled from the trees that were felled to make way for the new space.
It’s wonderfully fitting that he plans, at least in the short term, to move from honing hearts and minds to crafting a physical gift for the university. We thank you, Gene, for your years of memorable service and passion at NNU, and for leading so many of us to understand who God has called us to be. Thank you for being a faithful representative of our university, our church, and above all, of Jesus Christ.
NNU welcomes your reflections and remembrances of Chaplain Gene Schandorff. Share online at nnu.edu/gene, by mail to Northwest Nazarene University to the attention of Rev. Fred Fullerton or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.