I was blessed to start my time as a chaplain working with primary students. This experience pushed me out of my comfort zone but prepared me really well for my ministry as a chaplain. I had been a church youth worker and expected that my work as a school chaplain would be with secondary students. However, a placement in a primary campus of an Anglican school as part of my ordination training led me to stay on as their chaplain.
Those of us who work with primary age students well know that their natural enthusiasm is part of the joy of working with this age group. When I walk into a primary class at Mentone Grammar, I am greeted with a sea of enthusiasm and feel that I have just made everyone’s day. This experience might not be repeated when I walk into a Year 8 class.
As well as their enthusiasm, you cannot beat primary students’ honesty and their willingness to ask questions. Christmas can be a tricky time negotiating challenging questions such as the one I had the other day in a Year 1 class – how did Jesus and Father Christmas meet and become friends?
I can still vividly recall, in my first year at the primary campus, when I was on yard duty. Primary students often come up for a chat when you are on duty. I noticed one boy sitting by himself quietly eating his lunch. I went up to him to see how he was going. He paused from eating his lunch, looked me up and down and asked ‘What exactly do you do at this school?’ I was a bit taken aback as I thought my leading of Chapel and visiting his class for RE lessons would have made it obvious what I did but perhaps not obvious enough for that particular student.
What exactly do you do at this school?
Eighteen years on that boy’s question, asked in all innocence, has taken on a sharper edge. What does a chaplain do in an Anglican school and why even have one at all? In years gone by when Anglican schools were full of Anglican students the answer was obvious. But, reflecting wider society, as our schools are now filled with unchurched young people it is a real question. Schools are embracing more ‘marketable’ terms like wellbeing, and mindfulness in an attempt to preserve the positives that a chaplain brings without all the baggage that the church brings with it. Anglican schools find themselves in a challenging space as the meeting ground between the religious tradition and the secular world. The role of chaplain therefore embodies a tension that makes their role a challenging one.
This article by no means offers the definitive answer to the question but hopefully provides a few insights into what I think having a chaplain brings to an Anglican school.
The chaplain is often a critical player when times get tough. A former Principal I worked with was fond of saying that with current students, parents and former students a school has a population of a small country town and, like all country towns, there are challenging issues going on all the time.
Our schools are not immune from tragic situations and the chaplain is often one of the first to receive a phone call with the bad news. In my own school in Term 2 last year we lost two parents and one young past student in the space of two weeks. It was a difficult time and the chaplain is there with the skills to know how to help the community respond. Schools have pastoral care teams and in times of crisis the chaplain is a key player. It is in these difficult times where the chaplain often finds themselves front and centre and people can clearly see the positive contribution that they make.
What is our core business?
But is that it? Is the chaplain like the defibrillator machines that hang on the walls in our schools? Great to have in times of emergency but hopefully not having to be called upon that often. What about the day to day life of a school? What does a chaplain contribute?
Or to put this another way – what is the core business of an Anglican school chaplain? This question came up recently in a discussion I was involved in with a group of theological students interested in becoming chaplains. While I am not a fan of the phrase ‘core business’ this question did spark a really lively discussion. While there are a range of possible responses to this question for me the chaplain’s core business is to share the love of God through Jesus Christ. This overarching purpose finds its expression in different facets of the life of our schools with chaplains involved in a mix of the liturgical, teaching and pastoral care. We are called to love and serve the school communities that God has called us to and this sees us involved in many other aspects of school life reflecting our skill set and area of interest. We seek to care for our students, staff and school leadership and seek to listen, support, affirm, and encourage them.
We are motivated to serve our communities. Chaplains are blessed by often sitting to the side of the structures of the school and are not generally focused on climbing hieratical ladders as some staff are. This perspective enables them to have a unique insight into the life of their schools sometimes asking the hard questions and having the challenging conversations seeking to hold the school accountable to its stated ethos and values.
Our schools are very busy places and it is easy for students and staff to get solely caught up in their daily concerns. The chaplain needs to ensure that this doesn’t happen to them and that they are attentive and notice things. The chaplain should pick up on the student who seems out of sorts or the staff member who doesn’t seem themselves. The chaplain is the one person in the school who when they ask you ‘how are you going’ should be genuinely interested in your answer. We are able to give the precious gift of our time to really listen which is sacred act in the very busy environment of a school.
As well as being attentive chaplains are there to encourage and affirm students and staff. Another consequence of the busy nature of our school communities is that people can feel under appreciated. There is a lot going on, a lot is expected of staff on a daily basis, and often staff can feel like their hard work is taken for granted. Again, by being attentive and noticing the chaplain has a powerful role to play by encouraging staff. In large school communities noticing the efforts of individual students. Not just the highflyer who naturally comes to people’s attention but the student who flies under the radar, or who is struggling or whose quirky manner sees them finding it difficult to fit in.
In summary the chaplain seeks to be a force for good in their school through sharing a message of hope. We are one of the few staff who have regular opportunities to speak to students and we should endeavour to make the most of every opportunity to share the message of God’s love. Chaplains seek to provide balm to the anxious and care for the needy, a listening ear, a caring heart, a thoughtful mind, and willing hands to serve. We are issuers of the invitation to be part of God’s kingdom as we seek to encourage young people to use this gift of a wonderful education not just for themselves but for the betterment of all.
I was visiting one of our Prep classes late last year. After reading a story about the birth of Jesus the class set about colouring in a nativity scene. One boy chose to colour in baby Jesus in the manger using glitter. When I asked him why he had done this he said ‘Because Jesus is a bit magical.’ It is moments like these when I am reminded that I am blessed to have the best job in the world.
This article was originally written for the December edition of the Anglican Schools Australia newsletter (and I thank the editor for kindly allowing me to reproduce it here). After running this article past my Principal he thought it was worth sharing with all the staff at the school where I work so he emailed it around to them. I have to confess feeling a little bit uneasy about this, feeling that I might have betrayed a few ‘trade secrets’ in my article. I generally received lots of positive feedback from the staff who read it. Two comments did stay with me. One staff member remarked – ‘thank goodness I don’t have to write an article to justify my existence in this school.’ Another commented about my role as encourager by complaining that I had never personally encouraged her. I thanked her for being the kind of person who didn’t mind providing honest feedback.
Reverend Andrew Stewart has eighteen 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.