From 360° Asheville School Views Magazine, Winter 2022
“I am new to Asheville School,” said Chaplain Nate Sell in one of his first morning services at Asheville School in August, “but it seems to me that…practicing resurrection is what we do. We all have stories of weathering storms in our lives, and then proclaiming afterward that life is indeed a miracle, and speaking yet again.” Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Sell graduated from Sewanee and Princeton Theological Seminary. He lives with his family on campus, and here, he explains a bit about his theology and shares an interesting history lesson on the Chapel itself.
Why is it important to have a house of worship on campus?
Our mission statement is clear that we desire students at Asheville School to grow not only in mind and body, but in spirit, as well. The founders of the school and leaders throughout its history have recognized that part of developing whole, well-rounded students involves nurturing their spiritual lives. I believe that having a spiritual home—a place set apart for reflection and quiet—is essential to that mission.
Teenagers are primed to ask the big questions of life. Who am I? What is a life well-lived? Is there ultimate truth? What’s my calling? Does God exist? What do I owe others? A physical chapel building and time set apart to ask these questions elevates their importance. Interestingly, more and more research is coming out that supports the idea that having a spiritual life also betters our overall health and well-being.
Can you tell us a brief history of the Chapel?
The chapel building was finished in 1928, but from the earliest founding of the school, chapel services existed, first taking place in Mitchell Hall. The founders of the school had always desired for a chapel to be built, but the funds were not available until a gift was given in memory of an Asheville School alum, William Spencer Boyd, after he tragically died during his sophomore year of college from tuberculosis.
The impressive wooden beams that hold the ceiling are made from Louisiana pine, and the granite that makes the chapel walls comes from a quarry near Salisbury, North Carolina. George Arthur, a teacher who taught manual labor at the school in the 1920s, hand carved the pulpit and the big wooden chairs up front. The stained-glass windows on the sides are not original but were added throughout the 1990s. Each window represents one of the twelve apostles. And for the first many years, students would gather for chapel five days a week, beginning promptly at 8 a.m., and when the doors shut no one was admitted and no one was excused for being late. Things are a bit relaxed now, but the chapel has always been an important part of communal life at the school.
What are your hopes for the chapel and what it means to students?
The cornerstone of my theology is that everyone we encounter is a beloved child of God, worthy of dignity and respect. At its core, I hope that our chapel program will reflect that sentiment. I want all our students to know that they are loved unconditionally, and that they are called to love and serve others. I also want the chapel to be a place where students can ponder big questions and ask what it means for them to grow spiritually. Part of my role as chaplain is to journey alongside our students and support them, regardless of faith or belief system, as they tackle the big questions for themselves.
Asheville School is not tied to a particular denomination or faith—what does that mean for you and your role?
It is true that Asheville School is not tied to a particular denomination, but I’ll quibble with the idea that it is not tied to any faith tradition at all. It’s not an accident that we have a cross in the school seal, or that the windows of the school chapel evoke the twelve apostles, or that from the earliest days the chapel services have followed a Christian liturgy. Asheville School claims a broad Christian heritage, and that heritage is important to me. I personally feel it is disingenuous and ultimately disrespectful of me to pretend that I can speak for multiple traditions or belief systems. I couldn’t possibly lead from a multitude of faith traditions and do those traditions justice in all their richness and complexity. I will continue basing chapel worship services from the Christian tradition while also holding tightly to the belief that hospitality is at the core of our tradition and intellectual curiosity is at the heart of school life.
I also hope to invite guest speakers from multiple faith traditions to both reflect that hospitality and expose students to the wide diversity of belief our world holds. I sometimes joke that in chapel, I literally have a captive audience. The truth is I take that responsibility seriously. It is essential to me that students have their spiritual needs met regardless of their spiritual backgrounds and that they are respected in their individuality.
There are several plaques and memorials throughout—has one caught your eye? Why?
There is a big plaque right over my office door that honors the young men of Asheville School who went off to fight in the First World War. I pass under their names a few times each day, and sometimes I catch myself thinking about them. In my faith tradition, we sometimes talk about a “great cloud of witnesses”—those who have lived and died and are now “on another shore and in a greater light” that we cannot see. That plaque is a humbling reminder of the many young people who have passed through this school and had gone on to do extraordinary things in extraordinary places, but who have long since passed away. Sometimes all that is known of their lives is a name on a plaque. This goes back to the importance of asking those big questions. As the poet Mary Oliver once put it, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?”
What role model inspired you along the way? How did they show up for you?
I was a freshman in high school when my father, who I loved dearly, developed a rare cancer and passed away in the course of a few months. During this time, I had a village of teachers and role models and coaches who showed up for me. In particular, my church youth group leader Sara, and my mentor, Peter (who just so happened to be a boarding school chaplain), were always there for me. They showed me how much God loved me in that very difficult time. They were there in a thousand different ways, from taking me out to dinner to working on projects with me to simply letting me be a part of their daily lives. They gave me a sense of normalcy and consistency in a time when it felt like my world was falling apart. They are still part of my life today, which is an incredible blessing to me. Their influence is a big part of why I feel called to work with teenagers. If I can be half the mentor they were for me, I’ll be doing okay.
How do you measure success as a faith leader?
That’s a tough question. There isn’t an AP score for spiritual growth, after all. Part of being a successful faith leader involves developing trust and engaging students where they are. There’s a term thrown around in pastoral care circles called “ministry of presence.” In some ways, a ministry of presence just means showing up and being there for people. I am drawn to school chaplaincy over other types of youth ministry because I get to be embedded in the daily lives of students—in the classroom, on the lacrosse field, on mountaineering trips, and in the dorm. Having small conversations about life and faith in every day circumstances is hard to quantify, but I believe they are very important.
In an increasingly secular society, I believe that part of success simply involves planting the seed that faith and spirituality have something worthwhile to offer in the first place. The world’s great religions literally have thousands of years’ worth of thought and practice and beauty and wisdom behind them. Even if students don’t subscribe to any of them, they are worth engaging simply because of this. I have more tangible goals, too, such as building religious studies electives into our curriculum, nurturing the newly formed student vestry into being faith leaders on campus, and formally connecting students to our amazing faculty who come from many different spiritual backgrounds.
What is one important thing you hope to impart to our students before they graduate?
I think that everyone who gets to come to Asheville School is blessed. This is an amazing place that prepares students for amazing futures. Whether our students go off to be artists or doctors or lawyers or business executives or diplomats, it is my hope that they learn that they are called to use their blessings to help others. We are called to use what we learn here to make the world a better place. When our motto talks about a “threshold to a higher life,” it is my view that the higher life is one that entails serving others.
Going to the Chapel and We’re…
Just a few of the many couples who met on campus and tied the knot here.
Sara Hall Wilson (appointed in 2002; former English teacher; 3L; coach) married Trey Wilson, 1995 (appointed 1999; former history teacher; 1A; coach; Honor Council)
Tyler Montgomery (appointed 2009; Spanish teacher; 3A; coach) married Mary Crowers Montgomery (appointed 2014; math teacher; 2L; coach)
Erin Gardner, 1989 (appointed 1998; admission office) married Chuck Baldecchi (appointed 1996; admission office)
Andy Hirt (appointed 2000; 2006; admission office) married Ali Wool Hirt (appointed 2006; Spanish; coach)