Pandemic a lesson in adaptability for chaplains

The following article is reproduced from the June edition of the Melbourne Anglican and we thank the editor and the articles author, Muriel Porter, for permission to reproduce it here.

Education at all levels has been very different during the COVID-19 lockdown, and that has certainly been the case for school chaplains. And like all school teachers, chaplains face significant changes as schools gradually re-open to all students.

But while online teaching has been as challenging for them as for all teachers, Anglican school chaplains have also found creative ways to offer faith-based learning and worship to both students and staff at their schools. From providing weekly minisermons online and innovative RE classes to prayers for use at times of stress, the 60 or so chaplains in Anglican schools in Melbourne and the regional dioceses have more than risen to the challenge.

For the Revd Kirsty Ross, who took up her post at Melbourne Girls Grammar just last July, fulfilling her long-held dream of being a school chaplain, the lockdown has meant working in some very different ways over these past months. Mrs Ross has found the online experience a good way of getting to know her students. “The school has handled it very well,” she said. And she has been given an increased role in spiritual leadership during lockdown, giving a mini-sermon online to the whole school each week. “It has to be pithy,” she explained, “really a ‘thought for the week’”.

For her RE classes, she decided to replace her planned program and instead look at how Christians have dealt with isolation in history. She has focused on the way medieval monks used their time, creating illuminated biblical and liturgical manuscripts. The students have done some “amazing work” making their own versions, she said, offering them an opportunity for prayer, reflection and creativity.

She has also dealt with pastoral issues from students and staff, some of whom have found it hard to adjust to isolation. This has included offering support to some former students, passed on to her from the school’s Community Office which has been contacting alumnae to see how they are faring in the pandemic. Returning to face-to-face school will require more changes, as there will not be chapel services or assemblies for the next little while. “I am looking forward to returning,” she said, “and seeing how we can take with us what we have learnt during the lockdown”.

For the Revd Helen Creed, a school chaplain for the past 21 years, the lockdown has brought a particular challenge. Her school – Camberwell Girls Grammar School – was planning a range of events for this, its centenary year. “We had been planning for this for the past five years,” she said. “People had put their heart and soul into the planning, so there was a bit of grief in letting go of these things.”

Instead, the centenary has been observed in different ways, she continued, exploring how the school values and decisions over the past 100 years have provided nurture for the girls and staff in the current situation. “We have felt the support of the principals and school community that have gone before us. The school has had such strong, committed female principals over those years.”

Both staff and students have appreciated the worship resources Mrs Creed has offered online, including a range of prayers for use at various times. “They have faced questions of death in this time,” she said. “They have needed words that held them in that moment when we were so scared.” In return, she has found the students very kind, patient, and encouraging. “It has really increased my respect for them,” she added.

Returning to face-to-face teaching will be very different without the usual opportunities to gather together, so as the restrictions are easing, Mrs Creed has been turning her attention to writing prayers to help staff and students meet the new situation.

The Revd Andrew Stewart, chaplain at Mentone Grammar and chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network, has focused on pastoral care of the chaplains. The regular chaplains’ meetings have been kept going via Zoom. “Chaplains can be very isolated,” he said, “and the off-site environment has exacerbated that for some.” Online teaching of RE and other subjects has been relatively straightforward for them in contrast with the loss of their usual chapel services, he said.

Pastoral care of principals and staff as well as students will be demanding for chaplains as schools return, he continued, particularly in some schools such as those in the growth corridors where there will be increased financial stress.

Bishop Lindsay Urwin, who has care for ministry in Anglican schools, added that some chaplains would be anxious for themselves in the new economic reality. Will their role be more precarious in the straitened circumstances facing some independent schools?

He believes the lockdown has been very tough for chaplains and school teachers generally. “No one goes into the school environment who does not want close contact with people generally and particularly young people,” he said. “Chaplains need young people – they animate them.”

Chaplains are the “glue’ in the school community, he said. They rove all over the school, keeping in contact with everyone, involved in an intense way in all that is happening in the school community. “They loiter with intent!” he said. This aspect of their ministry has been lost during the lockdown. However, most are “pretty robust”, he said.

They will need to be, as will we all as we navigate the “new normal” of our world.

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