At 5’10’ with salt and pepper grey hair, dark green eyes, a slim build, a beard, and dressed in a black button down shirt with a white clerical collar and khaki pants, the Reverend Stephen Nickle is a noticeable man among students on a college campus. Since 2000, he has served as Chaplain at Trinity University, bringing his experiences and spiritual guidance to the students. His own journey has been a winding road that has been full of inspiration for those seeking comfort and answers.
Nickle was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1961, but his family moved to Texas before he was five years old. His father was a Presbyterian minister whose job required his family move fairly often among Texas, Missouri, and Georgia. Nickle’s interest in ministry began early in his life.
He remarked in his Southern accent, “I was very involved in high school in my church youth group. That was a central community for me. And I was also in a small acapella group that was a coed group and it was a group of people that spent a ton of time with each other. We had the common purpose of our music. But it was not a faith oriented; it wasn’t a religiously oriented group. That’s to say we had Christians, Jews, a Buddhist guy, atheist, agnostic mixed in all that. But we also talked about that. That was interesting stuff to us. And I really look back on that as my first chosen community of faith. We loved our group, we became invested in each other lives.”
At age 18, Nickle decided to go to Princeton University for college and graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. He laughingly said in his gravely voice,“ I remember going off to college thinking I wanted to become a theoretical mathematician. I wanted to work in Bell Labs up in New Jersey, which is just a think tank where you think about stuff and if you come up with one insight in the course of your career, it’s been more prolific than anything else in your life. But that was short lived. I slammed into a theoretical calculus class that just ate me alive.”
Leaning back in his chair, he continued, “And in so thinking, what else, what am I being called to do? What do I want to do? I sort of morphed over towards ministry. My father is a Presbyterian minister, which I’m sure suggested that to me.”
After graduating from Princeton University, Nickle went on to study at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. He recalled, “So I went to seminary thinking I want to be a college chaplain, that’s what I want to do. And I want to create opportunities for groups of students and faculty and staff, but particularly students, to gather around these questions: What is it we trust? Where are our roots? What are the narratives we grew up knowing being taught by our parents and grandparents and so on? How much traction do those have with us now? Are they useful? Compelling? In what ways do we question them?”
Nickle leaned forward and said fervently, “We are steeped and rooted and are taught the narrative and the assurances of the faith and the guidelines of practice. And we get to a place in life and it meshes very nicely with high school and college, and even some beyond college, where we say ‘Okay, is that compelling to me? Do I trust that? How much do I trust that? How do I want to tweak it if I could?’”
“I love, I mean I love my job”, he says with a big chuckle. He added, “I love doing that kind of thing with students and having that kind of conversation and helping students.
After graduating from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta Georgia in 1987, Nickle took a job at Piedmont College, a small school in Demorest, Georgia. There, he was a chaplain and an Assistant Professor of Religion where he taught sections on the Bible, as it was a part of the core curriculum of the university. In 1991, he and his family moved to Maryville College in Maryville Tennessee to be a chaplain and Director of Volunteer Services.
During his nine years there, Nickle became somewhat tired of the homogeneousness of the religious community. He explained, “I was looking for, well there was some degree of disgruntlement while at Maryville College that motivated me into wondering what else is out there. I do love the religious pluralism that is Trinity.
This is wrapping up my 15th year here. It’s fun because there is depth of relationship with faculty and staff, folks in the community, and trust there that takes some time to develop. And that is very helpful in working with students. Somebody will come and say hey, I’ve got this curiosity or this problem, and there are folks I know that say, ‘I think you need to go and talk to the Chaplain.’”
At Trinity University, Nickle creates and partners with the local community to come up with religious programs for the students to enjoy. Nickle also acts as an advocate and a buffer between outside people and organizations that would like to connect to students. His services are also available for faculty and staff who are looking for information and guidance.
Becca Burt, a junior double major in Communication and Human Communication with a double minor in Communication Management and Women and Gender studies at Trinity University, first met Nickle on The Plunge, a pre-orientation mission initiative sponsored by the Trinity Chapel Fellowships. She commented, “ Despite only working with him for a few short days, ever since then he has been a friendly face around campus and always strikes up a conversation whenever I see him. He is a wonderful part of the Trinity Community.”
For incoming students, a number of religious and spiritual resources are available for them that Nickle provides.
Pointing to himself, he explained, “For people looking for pastoral counsel or spiritual direction, I put flyers up in the residence halls and I do some training with the student resident mentors so that they have a sense of who I am and what I have to offer.”
To be more visibly noticed by students and especially incoming students, he has adopted wearing a black shirt and clerical collar on campus.
Nickle commented, “Our counseling center is terrific. People will go there and get good help. But in general, our counselors don’t pray with folks. I do”, he gave a hearty chuckle. “And sometimes people are looking for that. I love talking with folks about vocation, in some sense of career direction, but also, not just what are you going to do to earn a living? What kind of man or woman are you going to be in ten years? What spouse, or parent, or member of community will you be?”
Lea Watson, a senior urban studies major with a concentration in social issues and policy at Trinity University, said, “ I went on the Plunge and he was constantly encouraging me to be a leader. Ever since then, Nickle has put me in leadership roles, whether I was willing or not, because he believed in me. And because he was so confident in my abilities, I was able to thrive. Every student I know who has taken the time to get to know Nickle has been extremely grateful. He is an instant friend to students who offers comfort and goofy advice.”
He is especially a person students can come to for comfort in times of grief and loss. In this past spring semester at Trinity University, the school has suffered some terrible losses. Michael Kearl, a Professor in Sociology and Anthropology who taught at Trinity for over four decades, passed away on March 4 after suffering a heart attack on campus. On March 30, Corey Byrnes, a first year student at Trinity University, was killed in a car crash that involved five first-year students. The campus was reeling from shock from the two losses. Nickle was a source of comfort and support for those affected. He held a gathering for students who were affected by the losses to foster discussion and reflection on those who had passed.
He relaxed back into his chair and reflected, “This is a great period of questioning and exploration. I love talking about questions about people’s religious beliefs and their convictions, and so on. The whole process of grief, people can turn in my direction pretty quickly in those circumstances. And I’m glad to talk about that with them.”
Nickle is the embodiment of calm and solace that many students seek out during the often confusing and exploratory years of college life. He wants to be a positive influence in people’s lives by giving students hope, courage, and guidance in whatever way he can, no matter the denomination or faith. Without knowing much about what a chaplain is or what he does, students can mistakenly think that a chaplain is a resource for just Christian students. But Nickle’s story, his calling is to be someone anyone can approach at any time and just listen. His services go beyond the boundaries of faith. And with his calm and positive disposition, he is the perfect person for the job.