An interview with the Reverend Sarah Leisemann, Chaplain and Director of Mission at Cannon Hill Anglican College in Brisbane. (Interviewer: Stephen Harrison)
So first of all, you work at Cannon Hill Anglican College. Can you tell me something about the school, what makes it special?
Part of the distinctiveness of CHAC is that we are a Franciscan school. Actually, we are the only Anglican Franciscan School in the country. So we have this particular Franciscan spirit that is embedded in the simplicity of the things that we do. We go about things in an understated, thoughtful way and our students seem to have picked up that vibe. I don’t know whether that’s because of that spirit, or if it’s kind of a symbiotic thing, but they tend not to like things that are too over the top. Everything to do with ministry and mission – our fundraising, our worship, the way we do service – is kind of a ‘less is more’ approach. Part of that I put down to the Franciscan spirit that we have; it’s an attitude of ‘Just do, and don’t make a big fuss about it’. Another part of that Franciscan spirit is that the school is embedded in to the natural environment in a way that’s fairly unique and that feeds into our Franciscan ethos too. We sort of have this laid back warmth that works for us.
Describe your ministry in broad brushstrokes
I’m here to be the designated ‘God person’ – for staff and for students. Whenever something religious comes up or happens I’m the person they turn to. But I don’t do it all myself; my ministry is not just in the doing but in the leading of others to do that kind of work. I’m really blessed to have a team of people who work with me, and I think more and more it’s becoming a ministry of leadership rather than a ministry of doing. Because my role is part of the Senior Leadership Team, I have the big picture view where I can guide the direction of the whole school and I’m a reference point in spiritual matters. I have my finger in many pies because everything that we do, in some way, has a religious or spiritual element. Having a religious or spiritual element in everything that the school does actually makes that spiritual presence all-pervading and it ceases to be a ‘token’ element or just lip service to the ethos. It actually exists in everything and starts to become ‘the norm’ and a feature of our culture that everything has a spiritual aspect. I’m there encouraging and participating, and people look to me for that kind of guidance and leadership
How did you actually get into Chaplaincy?
I think because I’m a teacher at heart. I trained as a teacher to begin with and then moved into youth ministry in a parish and the Diocese for a little while, but my heart was always as a teacher. When I offered for formation to be a priest, I only ever wanted to work in schools. I think my vocation is as a teacher as well as a priest. I also like the fact that schools don’t exist completely in a ‘church world’. Sometimes when you work in a parish, you only talk with other Anglicans and church people, and you often only hear ‘church’ points of view. When I was working in youth ministry I found that quite stifling.
I do love having a supportive church community around me but I like having interaction with people who don’t go to church as well. I think it enables me to look through someone else’s eyes at the Church, and at the gospel message that we proclaim, and actually see it fresh every day. It is frustrating at times; I feel like I’m only ever dealing at a ‘surface’ level and I’d love to get down into that deep spiritual stuff. I do get that sometimes from some of our Christian students and in some of my classes, but for the most part its really working in a missional environment where you are communicating the gospel in all sorts of ways. It gives the imperative to make sure the way in which we communicate the gospel message is accessible and understandable and engaging.
What do you love about school Ministry?
I love the honest interaction that you experience – you get honest answers from teenagers. They don’t hold back, they don’t give you the answer that you’re looking for, they don’t tell you what they think you want to hear. Even with parents there’s no sense of ‘we’ll just go along with you for the ride’, people call you on what you say. You’ve got to know what you’re talking about because people are going to say “What did you mean by that? I don’t understand that – did you mean this or that?” There’s not much sense of “I’m the priest I have all the wisdom.” It keeps me on my toes and it keeps me honest and accountable in my faith.
So you’re on that kind of coal face, cutting edge of mission in the school, where do you get your energy and inspiration for all that from?
For the most part I get it from the people I work with. I have two or three people here at the school who are my ‘go to’ people who I can be really honest with and I can sit down and tell what’s bringing me worry or joy. I know that I can count on those people to just listen and to really hear my concerns. Also, I have to hold a really strong line to say ‘this much and no more of my life’. I have a young family who need me so I keep that boundary fairly firm and don’t take my work everywhere with me.
The other thing that I try to do and it’s hard to keep this in balance is to have another worshipping community somewhere else where the people can look after me. Lots of chaplains don’t do that because parish communities can take you and want to use you. I love the people in my parish they are so good because they pray for me. Last term was a really hard one for me and these amazing people prayed me all the way through and that’s important. You’ve got to have some people out there. While I’ve got a few people here who pray for me, to have a whole parish church who have adopted me is special.
The other thing I’m finding really energising at the moment is doing some academic study. I know I sound like a complete dork, but it’s making me think at a deeper level. I’m finding that it helps when I’m teaching even the simplest concepts – I’m able to bring a whole new layer of meaning which is good for students and me as well!
How do you see ministry in Anglican schools changing, so you’ve been in that for a while, how is it changing, is it changing?
It is for me. I think that if the chaplain is open to change, the call is there, the imperative is there to do something different. Like any priest, whether you’re in a parish or where ever, you can either roll with the flow of culture or you can batten down the hatches and say ‘I’m only going to do what I’m going to do’ or what I’m comfortable doing. I am very very lucky that I have a College Council and a Principal who have a clear strategic direction. We’re into our second iteration of strategic planning and in both of those processes that I’ve been involved with there has always been the question of where is the ministry, the religious life of the school fitting into our strategic plan. When that’s coming from the College Council and the Principal, I’ve just got to say ‘okay there’s a sign here for me’. I can’t sit back and say ‘oh no, were not changing’ because this movement is part of the culture of change – it’s fantastic to have that support from the top.
It’s good to know that it’s not just chaplains that are seeing the need to move in ministry. Its other school leaders as well, and I find that really heartening and really encouraging. I’m now becoming a senior leader who has to actually ask ‘Where are we going into the future? Where are we steering this great big ship?’ While this may take me away from the grass roots work with students or in classrooms, I’m actually being lifted away into a strategic role which means that the ministry in the school has to develop into a true team ministry. My job is no longer a ‘one man band’; it has to be team ministry. In parishes they’ve been thinking about team ministry for decades now, but it’s tricky in schools because to build team ministry, we either employ more people or we ask people who are already busy in their primary role to do more voluntarily. It’s hard.
So possibly there is stuff that chaplains can learn from the changes that are happening in parishes
Yes, I really think so, particularly in the area of shared ministry and empowering lay people. I think we’ve always thought every time there was a prayer to be said you’d turn to the chaplain. I think we need to get that idea out of our heads and say ‘no lets empower all of our staff’. I think were lucky here because we’ve got a team of Life and Faith teachers who are all committed Christians. They’re the ministry team, so part of my role is actually empowering them to step up to other ministry tasks, as well as being classroom teachers, which is often the only place they see themselves. I think there is the opportunity to grow them into part of the ministry team where they are seen as ministers in the school.
Do you think staff in Anglican schools in your experience are open to that changing role?
I think so, yes, because I think it happens already. There are certain people who are naturally the staff ‘confidant’ or they are the person who notices, listens and responds. Where that’s happening naturally, I think that’s a sign that person is already doing ministry. If you chose the wrong person it may not work. I think you need to have that sensitivity to see the people that are gifted in those particular areas. Identifying those kind of spiritual gifts is part of the process of building the team.
What do you think the wider church doesn’t understand about your role in the school or about a school ministry
I don’t think they realise the pace and volume of activity that happens in the school. There are no quiet moments or lulls in the pace. You arrive on Day 1 and it’s a full diary and high pressure, and you just go speeding down this tunnel till the end of term and then it stops. I think they don’t realise the sheer size of the things we do. For example, we held an Easter service for 1,100 people and it involved an orchestra of 50 and a choir of 90 students and 12 leaders and so on. And you think about it, how many parish churches do events with 1000 people, besides the Cathedral? We do all this in the gaps in a normal school calendar. We have a community whose primary activity is learning, so most of the day is already filled up with classes, so the planning and organising happens in between the lessons – in the gaps – and those gaps fill up very, very quickly and so it’s a constant negotiation. You’re working in a big organisation and you have to keep up with the flow.
OK last question, what advice would you give to someone thinking about ministry in schools
Make sure you like kids; if you don’t like young people, it’s not going to work for you. You absolutely have to like working with teenagers and all that goes along with that. You have to be prepared to be immersed in teenager ways of speaking of thinking and to keep up to date with they’re reading and what they’re watching. I would also say that you should hone your organisational skills – learn to use a diary and stick to it, and be prepared to be flexible and adaptable.