Volume 5 Number 2
by Barbara A. Chaapel
Saying good-bye to Tennent Hall this winter was poignant for Nancy Schongalla-Bowman, Princeton Seminary’s new full-time director of student counseling.
In January she moved to a new office in Scheide Hall, but not without some nostalgia for the building that was a school for boys until the Seminary purchased it in 1943 and transformed it into the School of Christian Education. “This building has been part of my life for a long time,” she says. Not only has she hung her nameplate outside of Tennent 012 for the past year during Miller Chapel’s renovation, seeing students in a basement office that she made surprisingly cheery with colorful rugs, seashells, candles, and soft lamps. She also began her own student days in Tennent, living in its kitchen-turned-dorm room during her junior year in the crowded days of 1976 when she got the last space in the dorm.
“I remember my roommate and I put our shoes in the pantry and kept our socks on shelves under the kitchen sink,” she laughs. “There were no closets or bureaus.”
While a PTS senior, she helped develop the Seminary’s first childcare center, housed in Tennent’s basement. She raised money to pay for the center’s bathroom.
As a seminarian Schongalla-Bowman did not anticipate becoming a parish pastor or working full-time in a congregation. “I just had a feeling, a sense of call, I guess, though very undefined, that one day I would be working with clergy as a counselor,” she says. Now she is doing precisely that, and it feels “like really finding my niche, like being grounded, centered.”
The soft-spoken counselor believes that all the steps along her vocational way have led to this position. After graduation from Princeton, she served on the staff of a large United Church of Christ congregation in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, with “lots of opportunities for ministry.” Then came a year of CPE at Lehigh Valley Hospital. She then worked at two church-based counseling centers. Her experience includes working in a home for senior citizens, ministering to cancer patients, setting up a pastoral care program for a hospice, teaching classes for a clergy training program at a secular counseling center (Philadelphia’s Penn Council for Relationships), and developing a private counseling practice.
Then came the part-time call to Princeton Seminary in 1995 as a contract pastoral therapist. “I didn’t know there was this sort of call,” says Schongalla-Bowman. And because she had a young son, the part-time nature of the job was perfect.
But from her first day, there were more students and spouses who wanted appointments than she had time to see. Frequently students had to sign a two-to-three week waiting list. She is pleased that the Seminary has recognized the need for a full-time director of student counseling and anticipates that waiting period will lessen, “though it may not,” she says after six months in the position.
The primary focus of Schongalla-Bowman’s new position is direct counseling with students and spouses. “I provide counseling about all kinds of issues—everything I saw in the secular world,” she explains, “plus the spiritual dimension of life and issues of vocational call. Seminarians are an enjoyable population to work with. They are very clear, very motivated. They are people who are reflective about themselves.”
Her position also deals with students in crisis, particularly emotional crisis. And it includes providing a broader network of professionals to whom to refer students facing particular issues, like eating disorders.
Schongalla-Bowman also has programmatic responsibilities within the Department of Student Affairs. She leads a yearly clergy sexual misconduct seminar, will develop and supervise a marriage enrichment program for students and spouses, and will provide leadership to the PTS health fair. That in addition to running two groups a semester on topics from chronic illness to family of origin.
“I’d like to solicit students’ ideas for groups,” she adds. “An important part of my job is listening to the Seminary community, hearing what kinds of issues people are talking about.”
It sounds like more than a full plate, but Schongalla-Bowman loves the intensity of her job. “I like working with what is deepest inside a person,” she says. “I like helping people access their own wisdom."
Her own emphasis during seminary was on healing. “I did personal counseling with Dr. Loder and that was hugely generative for me,” she says. “We are still good friends. I was also in a prayer group with his wife, Arlene, while I was a student. I worked on dreams, kept a journal, prayed. Seminary was a crossroads time for me emotionally and spiritually.” Former PTS pastoral care professor Sandra Brown “was also a valuable mentor” for her. Schongalla-Bowman still talks regularly with Brown, who now directs the counseling program at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Schongalla-Bowman believes seminary can be a spiritually fertile time for every student. “In faith-based counseling, seminarians have the opportunity to access the presence of God in the midst of talking about issues they struggle with,” she explains. “This takes listening for the Spirit, not just counseling skills. I think of what I do with my clients as a shared seeking for God.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary