As you may have seen from a previous post on this blog I see one of the key roles of being a school chaplain as an encourager. Recently however I was asked to preach at my church on the theme of discouragement. I thought at first that I would simply turn this into a sermon on encouragement but felt that I should sit with the scripture reading that I had been asked to preach on and so spent some time reflecting on discouragement.
As I started to think about this I realised that working as a chaplain in an Anglican school means that discouragement is a constant companion. Don’t get me wrong; I love my job and feel very content that I am doing what God has called me to be doing, but there is no doubt that it can be discouraging at times.
Chaplaincy is an edgy ministry as you are a Christian presence in a largely secular environment. The things that I regard as really important are often not of any great interest to the people around me. I work in a really supportive school community yet for some students and for some parents what I do is pretty marginal to the day to day working of the school. Every day I seek to interest students in the Christian faith. Something I regard as really important and more than that – life giving. And every day I am met with indifference and disinterest.
Another source of discouragement is that I work for the Anglican Church which tends to forget about me and what I do. I have lost count of how many times I have received something from the Diocese that talks about parishes and forgets to make any mention of chaplains. Attending clergy conferences can be challenging as some of my colleagues in ministry ask me when I going to go get ‘a real job’ and go into parish ministry and some others think that the only reason I am a chaplain is because I must like all the school holidays that we get.
I imagine that we can probably all recall a time when something really discouraging was said to us. I remember some years ago when a successful parish priest in Melbourne somewhat unexpectedly decided to leave their parish and take up a job as a school chaplain. I remember telling this news to someone I greatly admired and respected. When I told them this news they said to me ‘what a waste of a good priest!’ That person was my mother!
A further challenge of chaplaincy is that working in a secular context means that you acutely feel the decline of the church in our society. One of the parts of the job that I generally really enjoy is responding to student questions. Students tend to pick up on what is going on around them so this year, not surprisingly given what has been going on in the media, I have been asked lots of questions about sexual abuse in the church. It has been challenging to be the public face of the church when we have been quite justifiably been coping a lot of bad press.
In a recent RE class we were looking at the current state of the church and the statistics from the census around identification with a particular denomination. Being an Anglican school we looked at the statistics for the Anglican church and noted the sobering statistic that from the 2011 census to the 2106 census the Anglican Church lost half a million people identifying with it. While we were digesting this one student with quite the maths brain piped up and said ‘Wow that’s 317 people every day for the last five years leaving the Anglican Church!’ I was not sure at this point that my pep talk about getting the students to consider a future in ordained ministry was going to get much traction.
So if you are not feeling discouraged in your work as a chaplain then you are simply not paying attention.
How do should we respond to time of discouragement?
Well, now we are all feeling thoroughly discouraged, the question is how should we respond?
A: The reality of discouragement
Firstly to acknowledge its reality. We wouldn’t be a Christian with a living faith if we didn’t get discouraged at times. The Bible is a collection of stories of real people. Most of the great heroes of the faith have their times of discouragement. In some ways it is actually a good thing to be discouraged because it shows that we have high expectations of God. We often get discouraged because God doesn’t seem to be coming through in the way that we hope he will. But the good part of that is that we are a people who expect God to show up and do things.
A really easy way to ensure you never get discouraged in your Christian faith is never to expect God to do anything in the first place. You don’t have to worry about unanswered prayer if you never pray for anything. The great English evangelist John Stott once said ‘The occupational hazard of Christian ministry and evangelism is discouragement.’
B: Be honest
Secondly we need to find some people we can honestly share with when we do feel discouraged. In the scriptures there are passages where people are remarkably honest with God about how discouraged they are feeling. The passage I was asked to preach on which prompted this whole reflection was from Exodus where Moses is feeling profoundly discouraged in the face of Pharaoh stubbornness. Moses’ own people have in their anger turned upon him, the very person who is trying to liberate them.
In my nearly twenty years as a chaplain, being part of a network of chaplains has been vital. A place where you can meet people who are experiencing the same challenges that you are going through. A safe place where honest conversations can take place and you can be supported and encouraged.
C: Shift perspective
The third thing to note is a good response to discouragement is to get a broader perspective. Try to put where you are at the present moment into a wider context. Remind yourself of what God has done in the past and expect that God will come through for you again in the future. There is a lot of truth in the old saying ‘The essence of discouragement is relegating God solely to the past.’ Myron Madden
As a chaplain I get to see a six year segment of a person’s life. It can be discouraging if you simply access your ministry based purely upon those six years. I have to trust God and remember there is a bigger picture. I need to remind myself that I am in the business of sowing seeds. After a student leaves school, others may water these seeds and it might take years for these seeds to bear fruit, but you couldn’t do what we do without having this wider view. Sometimes I get to see what God is doing in the lives of my students while they are at school. Other times I get to hear what God has done in their lives further down the track. For example two of our prominent Anglican clergy in our Diocese were students at the school where I currently work. When they were students they were not Christians and it was only after they left school that they became Christians and then went on to be ordained.
D: Practical strategies
Each of us needs to develop some practical strategies to deal with discouraging times.
At the end of a busy school year when students and staff go to their Christmas break it is tempting to simply put your feet up and enjoy the summer break. For me one important thing I have built into the rhythm of my school year is an end of year review. Importantly this review begins with me reflecting on the highlights of the past year. What was the best Chapel and why? What was the best RE lesson? What was the best students question I got asked? Starting with the positives is really helpful to affirm your ministry before I then move to thinking about what can be improved upon for the following year.
When I started in chaplaincy a colleague talked about the file he has collected over the years with encouraging letters he had received from people. When he had a difficult day he would take a letter out of the file and read how he had been helpful to someone. This process helped reframe his thinking and remind him of the positive impact he had on his school community.
Another strategy that works for me is photos. In my office I have a wall of photos highlighting high points in my ministry. They are of the people who encourage me, school trips I have been on and significant moments in time at the school. During the day I often find myself looking up at these photos and feeling gently encouraged about what is going on in my respective corner of the Kingdom.
Over to you. How do you deal with discouragement and what are some strategies that work for you?
Reverend Andrew Stewart has nineteen years experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.