Chaplain Rich Carlson will retire this summer after being an integral part of the Union College experience for 40 years.
Officially, he is Dr. Richard Carlson, vice president for spiritual life and associate professor of psychology and religion, but it is unlikely even he could tell you his full title without consulting Union’s personnel directory. To generations of Union students and alumni, he is simply “Pastor Rich.”
And above any title, he will tell you his job is mentorship. “I love interacting with the kids, journeying with the students,” he said. “It’s been a joy and an honor.”
Former student Gina Creek calls him the best leadership mentor she’s ever encountered. Currently director of leadership development at AdventHealth, Creek said, “Before Pastor Rich, I always saw myself as another face in the crowd. He helped me hear the call of God on my heart.”
“The clock tower stands tall but Pastor Rich is a more prominent part of our campus life,” said Union president Vinita Sauder. “He shaped the Union experience for tens of thousands of students. He loves students, he empowers them to serve and he points them to Jesus every single day. He is a true man of God, and an outstanding servant leader.”
As one of the first student missionaries Union sent overseas in 1971, Pastor Rich has been instrumental in weaving service into the very fabric of Union College life. After his own experience, he told the Central Union Reaper, “A thousand years of school can never equal the experience of mission service.” As chaplain at Union, he has encouraged thousands of students to take their lessons from the classroom to communities next door and around the world changing many lives—including their own.
Pastor Rich also recognizes the need for service closer to home. Project Impact began as Project BRUSH the year before he became Union’s chaplain, and under his leadership, Union’s annual event has become the nation’s largest and oldest collegiate volunteer event. From available research, no campus has a bigger event by percentage and few have as many volunteers despite 10 to 20 times the enrollment. He then uses the event as a springboard to get students involved in serving the Lincoln community all year long.
He graduated from Union in 1973 with the intention of being a pastor. After teaching Bible at Maplewood and Dakota Adventist Academy, he returned to Union to pursue medicine. He envisioned himself working in an ER, but providence turned him toward the chaplain’s office. Does he have any regrets? “Not a one,” he said. “It’s the best thing that could have happened.”
Honoring Pastor Rich’s Legacy
Union alumni who were impacted by Pastor Rich’s ministry have honored his legacy by establishing a scholarship fund in his name. You can join them by giving to the fund at ucollege.edu/pastorrich
You can also salute him by sharing a story or a thought on our Facebook page post.
Here’s a quick story as an example:
Pastor Rich led a short-term mission trip for nurses and PA students to the Amazon in 2001. The group purchased medical supplies at a hospital in Contamana, Peru, and then took a fleet of motocarros—motorized rickshaws—to the mission boat. Later they realized that they didn’t have the medicine. The valuable supplies had been left in a motocarro that was long gone. How could they continue sailing to the clinics along the Amazon river without any medicine? It was a disaster.
“Folks, let’s pray,” Pastor Rich said. “God knows what we are here to do and the supplies we need to do it.” After praying, he flagged down a motocarro and asked the driver to help him find a box of medicine. The driver was amused considering how many taxis were in the city, but he was glad for a customer, so off they went. Pastor Rich craned his neck to look in the back of each motocarro they passed.
Back at the mission launch, students continued praying.
“Would you stop another driver and ask if they have seen a box of medicine,” Pastor Rich asked. His driver was incredulous. What are the odds? he probably thought. “Would you just try?” continued Pastor Rich. The very first driver they approached said, “Oh, I’ve got those medicines at home.”
“It’s a miracle,” said the driver.
“I know,” said Pastor Rich. “Now let’s go get the medicine.”