I often find myself reflecting on my role as a school chaplain. Dare I say that this is probably common practice for many school chaplains. This reflection is by no means a ‘how to do it’ manual, but hopefully is a thought-provoking article and one that may enhance our ministries in some way.
As chaplains, we have our formal job description roles. In my Diocese, we are reminded that, whatever the context of the schools in which we operate, our ministries are to:
“Speak to the Five Marks of Mission as they:
- Tell: proclaim the good news of the Kingdom
- Teach: teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- Tend: respond to human need by loving service
- Transform: seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation, and
- Treasure: strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”
Our ministry, however, cannot always be as neatly packaged as this. In the messiness of the issues of daily life, be they relationship, family breakdown, illness, mental health, or issues of sexuality, the point of pressure is with the individual. It is the individual that we engage with that is carrying the burden. It is at this point of the reality of the rawness, hurt and pain for that person, that the above roles fade into the background. It is my experience that in ‘this place,’ the chaplain simply has to ‘be’, whatever that means for the person at the time. It could be to ‘be’ present in the pain, in the silence, in the despair. Of course, it could also mean to ‘be’ present in joys, successes, and celebrations of life.
This is where my personal reflection on the nature of my ministry become more complex. What does it really mean to ‘be’ in situations of pastoral crisis or celebration? What is my actual role in these contexts? The more I experience, the more I appreciate that every situation is unique, and I should therefore respond accordingly. One of the things that I have found most helpful in my role as chaplain, particularly when facing complex pastoral issues, is the concept of The Wounded Healer.
Henri Nouwen in his book of the same name suggests that:
“Our service will not be perceived as authentic, unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak. Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which ministers can make their own wounds available as a source of healing.” 1
When I am able to ‘be’ and to authentically sit alongside another as a fellow traveller on the journey of life – that is when, in my experience, my most effective ministry takes place. It is when I am able to cry with those in pain, to laugh with those who laugh, and to celebrate exuberantly with others, that I offer authentic ministry. Furthermore, to what extent can I, or should I, use my ‘counter-story?’ My experience is that it can be used sparingly in a way that does not detract from the story of the person for whom we are caring. This places us in a position of vulnerability, exposes fragility, but in my experience, brings the authenticity of ‘being’ to a place where the other person knows that ‘we get it,’ that we empathise with them, and are in a supportive role.
This is not a ‘fixing’ mode of ministry. It is a ministry that puts us in a place where, to some extent, we are immersed with the sufferer in the messiness of the situation, to hopefully emerge together into a new place, a better place, even if it is not a place of full recovery at that time. As Paul said:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
1 The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society by Henri J. M. Nouwen, 2009 edition, originally published in 1972. (Page 4)
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