Students raise their hands in worship at The Well on Sept. 29. The Hub for Spiritual Life organizes The Well every week — causing concern for some community members after a recent change in the Hub staff. Photo by Abby Wilt
Editor’s Note: Christina Littlefield, professor of Religion and Journalism, is also the adviser of Currents Magazine, with Pepperdine Graphic Media. Her opinions do not reflect the opinions of the Graphic staff. In addition, the Graphic reached out to all sources for in-person interviews, but five of these sources only participated in email interviews.
It has been over a year since the Hub for Spiritual Life officially launched at Pepperdine — and as the Hub continues to change its structure and programs, members of the Pepperdine community said they are concerned about changes in positions and programming.
Since this summer, three previous chaplains — Sara Barton, Rachel Collins and Shaya Aguilar — have all transitioned out of the Hub and into other departments on campus. Danny DeWalt, vice president and chief of staff, is currently leading the Hub, as the Hub hires new additions for its team. Barton previously led the Hub as University Chaplain and associate vice president of Spiritual Life, according to the August 2021 staff announcement on Pepperdine’s website, and now is still University Chaplain, but in the Office of the Provost.
The changes have sparked concern from some community members over who should lead Spiritual Life and public worship services at a University affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
DeWalt has served as the interim leader of the Hub since February 2021 while the Hub looks for an associate vice president, DeWalt wrote in a Sept. 26 email to the Graphic.
These changes come after a previous shake up to the spiritual life department at Pepperdine — including the elimination of convocation, the introduction of Seaver 200 and the first restructuring of the Spiritual Life staff.
“When three female chaplains — deeply respected and deeply educated — particularly Sara Barton, but Rachel Collins and Shaya too, all step aside in one summer, something’s wrong,” said Christina Littlefield, professor of Religion and Journalism, who has publicly critiqued the recent changes to the Hub and DeWalt’s role in spiritual life at Pepperdine in early September.
In August 2022, Cameron Gilliam started with the Hub as the director of Student Ministries. Alongside Gilliam, Pepperdine alumna Hope Dease (‘22) started as the Student Ministries coordinator and Global Justice Fellow. Another alumna, Lily Salanty (‘21) started as the assistant director for Seaver 200. The Hub also added alumnus Jordan Holm (‘08) to its official staff list as the Athletics Chaplain, although he has served in that role since November 2020.
The Hub brought on Allison Jadovitz as the executive assistant of the Hub, and alumna Diamond Longs (‘22) started as the administrative assistant. Alumna Kira Brown (‘20) started as the assistant director for Worship Ministries during the 2021-22 academic year, but was not part of the original Hub for Spiritual Life staff announcement in August 2021.
Zac Luben, double alumnus (‘05, ‘14) and director of Graduate Ministries, remains in the Hub. Luben’s role has changed since last year when he served as the associate chaplain for partners.
Despite these changes to personnel, DeWalt wrote the mission of the Hub has not changed, and members of the Hub are ready to provide care, prayer and support for the University this year.
“Witnessing the positive energy among students, faculty, and staff over the last several weeks, I am inspired and am confident that the Chaplain’s office and the staff of the Hub for Spiritual Life are excited about the new year and stand ready to listen to and serve the wonderful, hard-working members of our community,” DeWalt wrote.
Restructuring of the Hub
Barton moved from the Hub for Spiritual Life to the Office of the Chaplain during the summer, according to a Sept. 6 email to the Pepperdine community from the Hub for Spiritual Life.
Barton now works under Provost Jay Brewster, where she will continue to serve as University Chaplain, but with new criteria. Under the Provost’s office, Barton will oversee prayer and worship services, provide pastoral care — such as prayer and counsel — and lead workshops primarily for faculty and staff, Barton wrote in a Sept. 13 email to the Graphic.
“We are a diverse community, and I led the spiritual life staff to meet a wide range of spiritual needs,” Barton wrote. “My philosophy was, and continues to be, that I should work hard and pray to be the chaplain for everyone.”
In this new role, Barton will mainly work with faculty and staff, rather than students as she used to.
“That [praying to be the chaplain for everyone] inevitably requires commitments to hospitality and spiritual care,” Barton wrote. “Now, under the provost, I am prioritizing those same commitments for faculty and staff.”
Barton holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Bible from Harding University, and a master’s in Spiritual Formation Leadership from Spring Arbor University. She also holds a master of Divinity equivalency and a doctorate degree in Ministry from Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb University.
In May, the Hub began its first evaluation of year one, DeWalt wrote, and noticed two themes — the work was very demanding of the Hub staff, and the role of pastoral care was unsustainable last year, due to the staff members’ large amount of responsibility.
“Because we believe that pastoral care for our students, staff and faculty is of utmost importance, we began discussing adjustments we could make to address these concerns,” DeWalt wrote.
The University Chaplain, Barton, proposed the idea that she focus on the pastoral care for faculty and staff, while the Hub focuses on the pastoral care for students, DeWalt wrote. This is what led the Hub to move the University Chaplain position out of the Hub, he wrote, and into the Office of the Provost.
Barton did not state why the Hub moved the Office of the Chaplain out of the Hub.
“Because this ministry would be focused, in large part, on faculty, it seemed most appropriate to house the Office of the Chaplain there [Office of the Provost],” DeWalt wrote.
Operations Manager Angie Lemley also moved from the Hub to the Office of the Chaplain with Barton, according to the email from the Hub.
While Barton’s role no longer requires her to work directly with students, she wrote she will continue to engage with students, especially those she had a previous relationship with when she was with the Hub.
“Everyone who works at Pepperdine is invited to engage with students, so I will continue to do that,” Barton wrote. “Depending on the needs a student comes to me about, I will refer them as needed for individual situations.”
Barton will teach a Religion class centered on preaching in the spring 2023 semester, she wrote, so she said she will be able to work with students next semester through that role.
While her position included the pastoral care of students, Barton served the University in a number of ways — leading memorial services, providing one-on-one mentorship and walking the community through times of grief and loss, but also through times of celebration.
Annabelle Childers, alumna (‘22) and previous member of PGM, said she met Barton before she came to Pepperdine, and Barton always inspired and impacted her as a student. Childers said it was sad for her to think about not having Barton leading the Hub.
“As a woman, it’s really empowering to see another woman hold a high administrative leadership position at Pepperdine,” Childers said. “So to watch one of those positions taken away from a woman and given to another man, regardless of how amazing he is, that’s hard for me as a woman to see that I don’t have that same representation that I did a year ago.”
Childers publicly discussed the changes in the Hub on her Twitter on Sept. 7.
A screenshot of Childer’s Twitter thread Sept. 7, discussing the changes in the Hub for Spiritual Life. Childers said she grew up in the Churches of Christ and had a relationship with Barton during her time at Pepperdine. Screenshot by Abby Wilt
In addition to Barton’s move, the two other previous chaplains — Collins as associate and Aguilar as assistant — now no longer work in the Hub, according to the Sept. 6 email from the Hub.
Collins had no comment on the reasoning behind the restructuring of the Hub, but said she sees her new responsibilities as a natural extension of what she did for the Hub.
“My heart is for the care of our students, so that will continue in this new role,” Collins wrote in a Sept. 13 email to the Graphic. “I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in this way through Student Affairs.”
When Collins was associate chaplain, she was a confidential resource for students to come to at the Hub for mentorship and pastoral care. With her new role, Collins wrote she will still work with students, but in a different capacity. Rather than providing confidential pastoral support, Collins wrote she will be responsible for reporting all incidents related to Title IX to the University.
“Some students will work directly with new Hub staff but I invite any student to connect with me in my capacity as a staff member as well,” Collins wrote. “Students seeking confidential pastoral support should utilize other campus resources.”
Collins graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Bible & Theology and Women’s Ministry in 2014, and then received her masters of Divinity in Biblical Languages and Christian Ethics in 2018 from Fuller Theological Seminary. Collins then came to Pepperdine for her master’s in Business Administration in Entrepreneurship, which she expects to complete in 2023.
Aguilar wrote that while the new position will look different, she will continue to mentor students and care deeply for them in whatever ways she can.
“While those relationships will look different as I transition into a new position, long-term mentorship is something that I value,” Aguilar wrote. “I hope to continue supporting and encouraging students to seek out mentorship during their time at Pepperdine.”
New Additions to the Hub
The Hub added DeWalt, Gilliam, Dease, Holm, Jadovitz, Salanty and Longs to the official Hub for Spiritual Life staff list for the 2022-23 academic year, according to the email from the Hub.
As the director of Student Ministries, Gilliam wrote he will be co-hosting and leading logistics for Seaver 200, leading small-group ministries and providing “diversified programming” for all students.
Gilliam graduated from Lipscomb University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology and then from Vanderbilt Peabody College with a master’s of education in Human Development, Leadership and Organizational Performance in 2022.
Gilliam grew up going to Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, Ark., and later returned to work as the young adult minister there, Gilliam wrote in a Sept. 16 email to the Graphic. In addition, Gilliam interned with the young adult ministry at Park Plaza Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla.
Gilliam wrote he is excited to learn more about his new position at Pepperdine and will work to learn as fast as he can.
“There’s a sharp learning curve to gain all of the institutional knowledge it takes to wear all of the administrative hats well,” Gilliam wrote. “I want to learn how I can be the greatest resource and support for the Student Ministries team and the Hub at large.”
Dease graduated from Seaver in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies, focusing on the Middle East and North Africa. She is now working as the Student Ministries coordinator and a Global Justice Fellow and is helping lead The Well — a weekly worship service in the amphitheater — every Thursday night.
Holm graduated from Seaver in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies, then received a master of education from Belmont University in 2016. He is now the assistant director of athletics for academics and student-development, alongside being the Athletics Chaplain.
Longs graduated from Seaver in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies and is working as administrative assistant for the Hub.
Despite the widespread restructuring, The Hub added only one official new job this semester — a half-time position for social media and communications, DeWalt wrote. DeWalt did not state who will fill that position.
“There is only one new half-time position on the team, but we made adjustments to titles and responsibilities as we learned from our first-year experience,” DeWalt wrote in a Sept. 27 email to the Graphic.
Even with the changes in positions, the Hub is still a resource for students to come to for pastoral care, one-on-one meetings, encouragement or a listening ear, Gilliam wrote.
Changes of Titles in the Hub
As the Hub continued to form and add new positions throughout year one, they also changed the names of previous positions and moved employees around within the Hub.
- DeWalt was not previously on the Hub for Spiritual Life staff list, according to the August 2021 staff announcement, although DeWalt wrote he started the position in February 2021. DeWalt received a bachelor’s in Psychology from California State University, Bakersfield in 1985, then received his master’s of Divinity in Biblical Studies in 1988 from Princeton Theological Study. He holds a master’s from Pacific Lutheran University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a doctorate of law from California Western School of Law.
- Luben was associate chaplain for partners last year and now is the director of graduate school ministries. Luben graduated from Seaver with a bachelor’s degree in Religion in 2005, then started earning a master of Divinity from 2006-08 from Abilene Christian University. Luben then returned to Pepperdine to complete his master of Divinity in 2014. Luben is an active member of the Churches of Christ.
- Ko Ku was the worship chaplain last year and now is the worship director. Ku received a bachelor’s degree from University of Hawaii at Manoa in Music Performance in 2012.
- Parker King was the graduate school minister and now is the associate director for discipleship. King is currently working on his master of Divinity at Pepperdine.
- Kira Brown was administrative assistant and now is the assistant director for worship ministries. Brown graduated from Seaver in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Religion.
- Christin Shatzer Román’s title stayed the same, as the director of Community Engagement and Service. Román graduated from Seaver in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She then got her master’s in Public Administration from University of Delaware in 2006. She received her doctorate of education in Education Leadership from Vanderbilt University in 2017.
- Olivia Robinson’s title also stayed the same, as assistant director of Community Engagement and Service. Robinson graduated from Seaver in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications. She then received a certificate from Harvard Business School in 2022 in a course titled, the Power and Influence for Positive Impact.
- Peter Walton joined as assistant chaplain in the 2021-22 academic year, after the August 2021 staff list announcement, but no longer works for the University.
Concerns about the Hub
Littlefield released a statement on her personal social media in early September about her concerns regarding the restructuring of the Hub and the nature of the Hub’s spiritual practices, such as baptism and evangelical worship at The Well. The statement has 1,087 views on the document, as of Oct. 2, and 32,000 impressions on Twitter, as of Sept. 28.
The post has 35 comments as of Oct. 2, ranging from Littlefield’s friends, to Pepperdine alumni, to Pepperdine faculty.
“I appreciate your perspective as alum, scholar and faculty,” Professor of Hispanic Studies April Marshall wrote. “We should be very troubled indeed.”
Robert Williams, divisional dean and professor of Political Science, commented on Littlefield’s post that he was grateful for the discussion surrounding spiritual life at Pepperdine.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the likely impact of the shift we’re all witnessing,” Williams wrote. “It’s troubling.”
In an interview with the Graphic, Littlefield expanded on her concerns — specifically regarding the new staff members at the Hub. She said she had no doubt these new hires love Jesus, but did not know if they were equipped to handle the needs of students who come to the Hub with issues such as death of family or friends, serious sickness, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault or questioning of religion.
Littlefield said she was not placing blame on the new staff members at the Hub for their lack of experience she said she thought they needed.
“This was a leadership decision,” Littlefield said. “They are not equipped for the job.”
Littlefield said the new hires needed more education and training on how to support students through situations they come to the Hub for — namely anger at God, frustrations with the church and doubts on religion.
Luben is the only staff member within the Hub, besides DeWalt, who has an advanced degree in theology. King is currently working on his master of Divinity.
Amy Henegar, alumna (‘92), former minister at the Manhattan Church of Christ and parent of two current Pepperdine students, said if she had to tell her children where to go for pastoral care on campus, she wouldn’t know where to send them because she does not trust the current leadership of the Hub.
Henegar graduated from Pepperdine with a bachelor’s degree in Humanities and Music, then earned her master’s of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1996. Later, she earned her doctorate in Ministry from New York Theological Seminary in 2018.
“Most of the people in the Hub for Spiritual Life have very little theological education,” Henegar said. “This is a huge problem. Those of us who have done years of education — master’s level, doctoral level — have not only learned a lot about the Bible and church history, but we have also learned about how to take care of people who are hurting.”
Henegar comes from a family with strong ties to Pepperdine — as her dad, Tom Bost, served as the chairman for the Board of Regents in the early 1980s and as a faculty member and interim dean of the law school. Henegar’s mom, Sheila Bost, served on the Board of Regents until last spring and she and two of her siblings attended Pepperdine as undergraduates. Now, two of her sons attend Pepperdine, Henegar said.
Henegar said she has three more kids who she said she’d hoped to send to Pepperdine, until now. With the current state of the Hub, she said she is not sure she would want to send them to the University.
“My plan was to brainwash all of my kids into going to Pepperdine,” Henegar said. “I’m not going to do it if Pepperdine just becomes like another Grand Canyon University or Liberty University that’s just very hardcore Christian nationalist, fundamentalist evangelical.”
The Hub for Spiritual Life staff at the start of August 2021. Graphic by Abby Wilt
The Hub for Spiritual Life staff at the start of August 2022. Graphic by Abby Wilt
The Hub also puts on and leads The Well every week — a worship service on Thursday nights designed for students to worship, pray, listen to a message, occasionally do baptisms and grow in a community, according to past Graphic reporting. The Well has been a University tradition since 2014.
Gilliam wrote one of his main roles is working alongside Worship Director Ko Ku to put on The Well each week. As of Sept. 16, The Well averaged a weekly attendance of around 400 individuals, Gilliam wrote.
“One of the most exciting and promising things I have experienced since arriving at Pepperdine has been witnessing students from so many backgrounds and churches come together at The Well to worship with one voice,” Gilliam wrote.
Gilliam and Dease have baptized eight students at The Well — three students Sept. 1, four students Sept. 8, and one student Sept 15. There were not any baptisms Sept. 22 and Sept. 29.
“Our desire is to help them [students who were baptized] form a vibrant relationship with Christ and meaningful connections with others who are seeking to follow him,” Gilliam wrote.
Gilliam wrote when a student expresses interest in baptism, whether before or during The Well, the Hub talks with the student about what a lifelong relationship with God looks like and about what the significance of baptism is.
“We invite them to surrender their life to the Lordship of Christ in prayer and place their faith in him,” Gilliam wrote.
Alumnus Blake Farley (‘22) was involved with The Well during his time at Pepperdine, working for the Hub as a student ministry leader for culture and hospitality his senior year. Farley said his role last year was to make The Well an inviting, safe place for students to come to for community.
Not only did Farley say he helped lead The Well, but he also said attending The Well helped him grow in his own faith.
“I felt like The Well helped me make Pepperdine home,” Farley said. “And also really expanded the way that I view religious community and the way I view worship.”
This year, The Well has also raised concern — namely the evangelical-style worship, the call for baptisms mid-service, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the leadership at The Well, Littlefield said.
“If students are fed by The Well — fantastic,” Littlefield said. “My concern is that the other 3,000 students on this campus also get fed, also get nourished, also have chaplains to walk alongside them [and] are allowed to bring their questions and their doubts and their anger at God or their frustrations at the organized church, and that they have people who will meet them where they are.”
Littlefield wrote in her public social media post she attended The Well on Sept. 1, and was concerned about seeing the “evangelical, charismatic service” the Hub put on. She said she was also concerned for students who were baptized on the spot, not knowing if they were receiving any follow-up care.
“The baptisms left me feeling deeply torn — so grateful that those students found God’s love in that moment, so worried about how much the emotional nature of that night impacted their decisions,” Littlefield wrote.
Gilliam wrote after the Hub baptizes a student on a Thursday night, the Hub gives them an NIV Bible, pairs them with a trusted spiritual mentor to walk with them and guide them in their faith and invites them to join a small group to further grow their faith. Gilliam did not state if the mentor and small groups were part of the Hub.
Affiliation with Churches of Christ
The University’s founder, George Pepperdine, was a lifelong member of the Churches of Christ, according to Pepperdine’s website, and the University has been affiliated with the Churches of Christ ever since.
As of fall 2021, 8% of undergraduate students identify with the Churches of Christ, while 49% are Christian or Protestant, 15% are Catholic and 14% are undeclared, according to the fall enrollment census. The University has not updated the census for fall 2022 at the time of publication.
Henegar has been involved with Pepperdine since 1988, and said her parents originally came to Pepperdine due to its Church of Christ roots.
In the 1980s, there were faculty members who were affiliated with the Churches of Christ, but also some who were not, Henegar said.
Currently, all full-time faculty in the Religion department are active members of the Churches of Christ and hold a doctorate degree in their field, according to Pepperdine’s website. The University President and chairman of the Board of Regents must also be members of the Churches of Christ, according to past Graphic reporting. Not all of the Hub staff is affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
“Pepperdine always had room for people of other faiths as long as they could stand by Pepperdine’s mission and support the Christian mission of the University,” Henegar said.
In 1994, the University hired its first chaplain — D’Esta Love. Prior to Love, the University did not have a Spiritual Life office, but rather, the University Church of Christ organized all spiritual life on campus, with the exception of convocation and required religion classes.
Convocation used to take place once a week, for the entire student body. The University required students to attend 14 convo events per semester, whether that was through Wednesday morning Convocation, Friday Celebration Chapel or club convocations.
At the start of the pandemic, in spring 2020, the University suspended the convocation requirement. In fall 2020, Pepperdine offered virtual spiritual life programs, but still did not require convo participation for credit to graduate.
In spring 2021, the University laid off the Convocation office staff at the start of the semester. Shortly after, convo turned into Seaver 200, and now it is only a requirement for first and second-year students.
Love paved the way for the role of University Chaplain, Henegar said, and started to get involved with opportunities like prayer services, memorials and pastoral care for the University as a whole.
“Her model of being a chaplain was she was providing pastoral care to the large University community,” Henegar said. “It was for any student, staff, faculty member — anyone with spiritual needs.”
After Love, David Lemley and Shelly Cox stepped in as chaplains. Lemley remained in that position until 2013, when Barton took the position.
Under Barton, the University started to hire new staff members, forming the Spiritual Life Department, and later, created the Hub for Spiritual Life in 2021.
Now, Henegar said she believes the Hub is guiding and directing all spiritual life on campus, rather than University Church of Christ.
“They’ve really moved spiritual development of the students into the University,” Henegar said.
UCC is still leading Sunday morning church services on campus and The Table — another weekly worship service on Saturday nights at The Brock House.
This year, with Barton’s new role, the Hub does not have someone from the Churches of Christ leading student spiritual life on campus — something Henegar said was a problem for a school that is affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
“D’Esta Love was from the Church of Christ, Sara Barton was from the Church of Christ,” Henegar said. “There was still this connection to the founding organization and the spiritual framework.”
In addition, Littlefield said the Hub and The Well now appear to be an extension of Vintage Malibu Church — a local church she said many Pepperdine students attend. Vintage is a non-denominational church, valuing Word and Spirit, intimacy with God, Biblical faithfulness, sacrificial service and deep community, according to their website.
DeWalt served as the interim pastor at Vintage from September 2021 to March 2022.
University Spiritual Life Committee
The University Spiritual Life Committee is also starting again, after about a two-year hiatus.
The committee’s mission was to develop, refine and communicate Pepperdine’s spiritual life vision, according to the University Spiritual Life charter. The provost and the president of the University led the committee, with representation from all five schools.
The committee started in 2013, and the University Chaplain, Barton, was appointed the chairperson in 2018-19.
From early 2020 until now, the University Spiritual Life Committee did not hold any meetings, Barton wrote in a Sept. 25 email to the Graphic.
Barton wrote she and President Gash decided in mid-September it would be beneficial for the committee to start meeting again, and she plans to call a meeting soon.
Littlefield called on the Hub, in both the interview and her statement, to be transparent with their restructuring and for the Board of Regents to act swiftly to make sure spiritual life at Pepperdine is theologically sound.
The Board of Regents is the legal governing body of the University, and they have the ability to shape the policy and direction of Pepperdine. They are the only ones who have the power to fully step in, Littlefield said.
“They can also remove Danny DeWalt from spiritual life, which I do think they need to do,” Littlefied said. “I think there’s too many conflicts of interest there, in who he has hired, and I firmly believe that spiritual life should be under Church of Christ control.”
Littlefield said she is also concerned watching DeWalt run the Spiritual Life department while balancing two other jobs at the University — vice president and chief of staff. Littlefield said DeWalt is also not a member of the Churches of Christ — something she said she thinks the leader of the Hub should be associated with.
“He comes from a very different tradition, not a wrong tradition, but a very radically different tradition than the Pepperdine Churches of Christ,” Littlefield said. “Even if he was Church of Christ, the almost myopic vision that he has put in place is dangerous, in terms of one person should not control all spiritual life.”
There was always a connection to the Churches of Christ through the chaplains, Henegar said, but now, she feels like there is no connection to the Churches of Christ under the leadership of DeWalt.
“Now the Hub for Spiritual Life is led by people who really have no connection or knowledge to the Church of Christ, and actually a very strong religious commitment to something very different,” Henegar said.
Littlefield said she wants to ensure the Hub is still supporting students from all religious backgrounds, not just evangelical Christians.
“It’s not clear to me whether the Hub for Spiritual Life is still for all students, including our non-Christian students, or whether it is explicitly for Christians, and even more explicitly for charismatic-leaning Christians,” Littlefield wrote.
Henegar said she would also like to see transparency from the Hub about Barton’s move, the new hires and the University’s Churches of Christ roots.
“I’d like to see some honesty about what is going on,” Henegar said. “And I really would like to understand what it means if Pepperdine is still a Church of Christ University, or is that something that they are abandoning?”
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Contact Abby Wilt via Twitter (@abby_wilt) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org