The Reverend Lena Lennox (known universally among the girls as ‘the Lynx’) was feeling frazzled. It was only the first week of term but already tasks seemed out of control. It was one meeting after another, documents to sign off, unit outlines to update, a PD schedule to discuss with the RE staff and endless enquiries about the chapel roster, the keys to the music cupboard, provisions for special needs kids.
Lena’s cheery responses to a stream of inquiries from sparkly-eyed year 7s matched the bounce in her stylishly-cropped blonde hair, but behind the warm smile a grey shadow lay uneasily at the back of her consciousness. It was both more and less than the desperate fight for an uninterrupted hour to prepare some lessons or to get together a coherent set of themes for the term’s liturgies. She knew she had to face the shadow but she was too stretched and strained for the quiet reflection it required.
Suddenly the shadow materialised before her in the shape of the slightly sour, freckled face of Rhianna Mauger, her loose chestnut hair framing the familiar glower. She was ringed by a couple of brazen-faced sidekicks. During Rhianna’s two years at Fairton she seemed to have been the focus for every challenge to the school’s religious identity. Not that she was overtly disobedient or maliciously disruptive. That may actually have been easier to handle. But if there were awkward questions to be asked, Rhianna always asked them; if there were inconsistencies in RE teaching or treatment of students, Rhianna made sure they were talked about; if there was any overtly pro-Christian event or learning task, Rhianna challenged its validity. Whenever Lena was summoned to the head’s office for an explanatory chat, it appeared that Rhianna was behind it.
“Hello, Miss. The hymns in the opening chapel service forced us to sing Christian stuff.” Silence. Chapel is a Christian service, Lena thought, but she’d learned not to articulate such thoughts with Rhianna. “Well, Rhianna, I guess you didn’t sing them then,” she responded with a falsely bright smile.
“I never sing. Anyway I just thought you should know I’ll be talking about this with my new English teacher, Dr Phelan.”
The shadow in Lena’s mind darkened at the name. The new deputy. Charming, efficient – and totally uninterested in the religious life of the school. So far everything Francine Phelan had organised had excluded Lena, whom she treated with the shallow geniality usually reserved for the temps in the office.
As Rhianna sauntered off, “attitude” written all over her retreating back, Lena stared blankly at the much annotated calendar on her wall. She felt flummoxed: angry but unable to express it; trapped by her own commitment to her faith. The swirling patterns of scribbled notes around the calendar retreated into blank whiteness as Lena looked inwards.
She knew she needed to act on her faith, not worry. “Don’t be anxious,” Jesus said. “Let your requests be made known to God.” Lena’s mind automatically referenced Luke 12 and Philippians 4. More important than preparing lessons, or organising liturgies, or even dealing with Rhianna’s little campaign of nastiness, was prayer.
The faces of Linda, the library assistant, and Craig, the craggy maths teacher, came to mind. They’d both offered to pray with her. That should be a priority. Moreover, they’d both said they’d help with chapel. She had mentally dismissed those offers. She’d been preoccupied with cajoling the media teacher and the musicians to brighten up services, but maybe it was these two God had placed there for her. She shouldn’t have disdained them. She would email straightaway and make a time to pray and discuss some strategies for the spiritual life of Fairton. Librarians had access to resources; Craig was popular and a good person upfront. There were certainly things they could do.
If the three of them prayed together and talked with their networks, maybe together they could make an impact on the school. The task looked impossible, but, in theory at least, Lena believed God could do what was impossible.
Why was she put off by Francine Phelan? After all, the head was positive, and had always backed Lena after the “explanatory chats.” Actually, she had once said she trusted Lena. I don’t want to forfeit that trust. How was it built?
As she reflected, she knew that it had been built by painstaking listening, dialoguing, personal care and kindnesses, while other staff grouched about this or that decision. Lena had explained her aims and been conciliatory, but persistent, about structures that undermined effective Christian ministry. It took time, but she had built a foundation.
If I’m honest, Lena thought, I’ve slackened off and taken relationships for granted. I need to keep on building them, including time for Francine.
She sighed. It would be hard. It would mean observant understanding of the new woman’s way of operating, learning what approach would be compatible with her personality, and also the deeper challenge of seeing her as a person, of value to God, not just an instrument to help Lena. Ministry means service. It means loving – not in the gushy way of teenage girls, but unobtrusively, to achieve good for the other person.
If I’m to have time for relationships with staff, students, lessons, liturgies, service programs, not to mention PD and documenting this and that……She shut down the escalating crescendo of anxieties and let her inner soul connect.
“Lord, have mercy.”
She knew, because she had done it before, that care was the key. That built trust. Only then would the Fairton community follow her leadership. Time for caring meant being efficient enough to delegate and humble enough to let others contribute in ways she might not fully control.
God didn’t speak in either thunder or a still small voice, but Lena knew her first step was to call other Christians in the school to prayer. The second step was to ask others outside the school to pray. The third step was to start loving Francine Phelan and by loving her to learn how to serve her and to communicate with her. The fourth step was to get active participation from whoever wanted to improve Christian ministry: that meant more than chapel, it meant pastoral care policy, staff prayers, RE curriculum, voluntary groups, outside connections. The fifth step was so simple yet so demanding: to continue saying and living out that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.
Bending the school towards the Life might appear overwhelming but if she walked step by step, what she could not control, God would.
Ruth Edwards is the author of ‘Challenge and Choice: Australian Anglican schools today’ which is the definitive exploration of the typical culture of Anglican schools in Australia, based on doctoral research. She has wide experience teaching across subject disciplines in all school sectors, and has run a Religious Education Department in an Anglican school. She has also worked as an educational researcher and school marketer. Her current interest is in writing and in encouraging Anglican schools to be genuinely educational and genuinely Christian through being authentically Anglican.