Sunday, August 02, 2009

The history and future of chaplaincy

This morning I was introduced in the church where I was preaching as the Diocesan Youth Chaplain (rather than Officer). I rather liked the concept and it got me ruminating.

I've been a chaplain in my previous role both for a university as part of an ecumenical chaplaincy team and at a children's holiday camp where I was responsible for the well-being of teenage volunteers (some of whom were inclined to work full throttle for the first two days then end up keeled over by day three). Currently part of my role is a chaplaincy co-ordinator at one of our Church of England secondary schools.

When I started setting up the chaplaincy team at Wolverley we looked around for some good models of school chaplaincy. Most school chaplains seem to be those where there is either a full time or half time employed chaplain and I met with a man from the Bloxham Project that bring such chaplains together. However our model is one more akin to my experience of university chaplaincy - with a team of people who give a certain amount of time every week or every other week. This is a similar model to local FE chaplaincy, town centre or work based chaplaincy.

A while ago Bishop Alan blogged about the nature of a chaplain and I found his description quite profound:
"someone who learns and listens carefully to the languages people use to express themselves, a spiritual interpreter, someone who can hold the lines and ask key questions of any and all, including themselves"

I like that role of spiritual interpreter. I think it is a fantastic expression of what we so often do. In my role as a school chaplain I find I use a lot of youth work skills and I think they may well be equally applicable in other chaplaincy roles.

It ocurred to me when Jim referred to me as CHAPLAIN this morning that the very word itself is one we've sometimes considred revising - what does it mean after all? What do people think when you describe yourself as a chaplain?

Well with my history background I know full well where the term comes from and it's not as simple as you'd think. Yes is comes from the word chapel which is obviously a place of worship and of course the chaplain is the person who works in the chapel just as a chatelaine is someone who works at a chateau. Hang on a minute though... why is it a chapel not a church??? Well there were NO CHAPELS until after the foundation of a religious building deidcated to St Martin of Tours. Martin, a former soldier turned bishop, is one of the major saints in France and he was venerated through the precious relic which he left behind in the form of his capella. Story has it that while he was still a soldier Martin, on seeing a poor shivering man at the gates of the city of Amiens sliced his long military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night in a dream he sees Christ wearing the cloak and as a result left the army. Now his cloak was called a capa and the half cloak (using the traditional diminuitive suffix of -ella) was a capella. The ecclesia built to venerate St Martin and house the relic of his cloak was called the capella sancti Martini. The first chapel.

This may all seem rather an aside but I think Martin's model is a fantastic one for chaplains:
  • To work from where you are
  • To see the need and respond in that moment
  • To use the tools that you have
  • To reflect upon that experience and see where Christ was IN that experience
  • To be willing to be CHANGED by the experience
I think there are other key characteristics/tips which serve a chaplain well.

The power of hello
There is nothing like a dining hall full of teenagers looking at you funny to fill you with trepidation. I know my team were certainly fairly daunted when the first started. What it takes is a nice gutsy and cheery "hello". The ice is broken and a conversation can ensue (or the group can look at you like you're an alien and move away slowly!). We had the chance to meet the new year 7s when they came iin for a trial week last term and spent a lot of time walking around and smiling and making ourselves. We will be KNOWN to this group before they even start.

I am with you always
Now chaplains can't always BE there but being known to be available and being VISIBLE is a vital part of the role. This might be via the scary tv screens displaying our cheery faces (along with the hockey team, the latest sceince trip etc) all around the school or via a room associated witht he chaplains, a web page, an email, a text service.

I am not a number
It's really important, in my view, that the chaplains be seen as separate from the structures of the school. It's a tough line to tread because, of course, we work alongside teachers and within the same building and guidelines but we are NOT TEACHERS. No-one owes us homework or decides if they get a C3 (or gets put in the cloud as it was in the primary school I worked with before!!) or a detention. If there are issues raised, we might need to share those with the school as pastoral issues that may need support nonetheless we still stand alongside the pupils rather than within the structures. We spend a lot of our time with pupils in non teaching time to emphasise this.

I am what I am
Young people may not agree with your beliefs as a Christian (or believe you can REALLY believe "all that") but they generally respect them. Being true to your own faith as a chaplain and being willing to EXPLAIN it to young people is vital. They are curious and want to know. I think the best question I've had lately was when we hosted the God Gazebo at the school summer festival. We set up a chill out space, offered young people a comparative tasting of fair trade and non fair trade chocolate, gave them a chance to suggest ideas for our forthcoming chaplaincy room and put up info about who we are and what we, as chaplains do and might do. Sitting on our VERY comfy giant bean bag, one lad asked me, "So, is that what Christianity's all about then, chilling out?" I grinned and replied that "as Christians we see the value of taking time out to be quiet and reflect and perhaps to pray, so yeah!"

Busy doing nothing
When I was a youthworker I used to joke about being paid to each pizza and watch films. Being a chaplain can seem, for our team, like being paid to eat canteen food (in some places I think you would HAVE to pay me!!). A lot of time being a chaplain might seem like it achieves little. What we do can be so unmeasurable. "All we did was..." We have had days when we've really not had great chats with young people beyond what lessons they had and whether they liked them or not but these are all vital steps along the relational journey. Being there in these times makes it possible to be there when it really matters.

I feel special
In addition to the regular hanging around time, it's good to have some special event or day to boost the profile of the chaplains and engage with a larger number of pupils. OUr God Gazebo at the festival was such a fantastic time meeting loads more pupils than usual. I think the 3.2kg of chocolate may have helped but that ran out half way through our time and we still had plent yof visitors. We're going to be using Breathe and an arts competition in the future.

Stairway to Heaven

It's important to allow relationships to develop at their own pace. Remember, you're probably not spending a great deal of time with each individual group so don't be surprised if they're not sharing their whole lives instantly. As your profile in the school improves, with each new person you might start from a slightly better position. We've stopped having to explain who we are now as our pictures are so often all over the place but we still have to build relationships with individuals.

Same difference
Young people are not all the same. There is no miracle question/topic with young people. There are certainly topics worth trying and open questions rather than closed questions are certainly more profitable in having a two way conversation. We often start with questions about how the day's been going or what subjects they've had. We even get on to television, sport and films but even with these topics, you can't guarentee that every young person watchs Big Brother/Britain's Got Talent/Football/Rugby/Harry Potter. So don't expect to get it right

Knowing me Knowing you
Remembering who you have spoken to and something you spoke about and hopefully their name makes a big difference. Saying "Hello again" rather than "hello" can take you that step further each time. Recalling what you chatted about before and asking how it went or whether they watched the next episode makes the young people aware that you actually care. Asking them by name is even better. A log book as a team might also help to keep a clear picture of who you've chatted to and maybe which year groups you need to reach out to more.

Come as you are
Chaplains can come alongside young people in the early stages and get to know them but to progress well, the dynamic needs a shift to young people coming to you as a chaplain. All of the above should make you someone who is approachable.

You'll never walk alone
Taking time out to reflect on how sessions have gone is important whether as a chaplaincy team activity or on your own. What went well? What could we do better? Where was Christ in our work today? What shall we do now to move forward? Having people supporting the chaplaincy with prayer is also a good plan. It invovles people and supports the work.

So I wasn't really intending to write so much but as it was post number 1000 I suppose it's fitting.

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