By Ryan Teller – Lincoln, Nebraska … 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.”

A graduate of Union, now RMC assistant youth director, Jessyka Dooley has a hard time thinking about Union without Pastor Rich and what he brings to the atmosphere at the college. “It’s hard to think of Union College without Pastor Rich. The culture of student leadership and a family-like atmosphere has always come from the heart of campus ministries. Over his decades of service as chaplain, Rich has impacted and inspired so many people and I am eternally thankful to have been one of them.”

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.”

Jefferson Gibson, a theology senior and son of Chanelle Watson, RMC assistant director of planned giving and trust services, recalls the influence Pastor Rich has had in his life. “Working in the campus ministry is where I got to know Pastor Carlson. As a hesitant freshman three years ago, he always had a friendly smile on his face which was so inviting walking into the office.”

Gibson added, “Pastor Carlson loves God. The way he was (is) an ambassador for God encouraged me to grow more in my spiritual journey. I am also grateful for the way Pastor Carlson challenged me to not just think outside the box but to appreciate the journey of discovering what was outside the box.”

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.”

Union alumni who were impacted by Pastor Rich’s ministry have honored his legacy by establishing a scholarship fund in his name. Donate to the fund at

–Ryan Teller is public relations director for Union College, photo supplied

*Article adapted from