John Prockter tries to tie down what we mean when we use the word ‘chaplain’ and what they do in your child’s school
Have you ever found yourself smiling and nodding along to conversations with groups of peers, wondering whether you’re the only one who doesn’t understand the topic? It happens to me when I’m with friends who love sport. I smile and nod along and, at appropriate moments, agree or disagree, depending on the group consensus.
Another time when I feel less than knowledgeable is when someone talks about chaplaincy in schools. Christian charities and clergy bandy the word around like it means something, but I’m 25 years into Christian schools’ ministry, and I don’t know if I fully understand what we’re hoping for when we discuss chaplaincy.
The problem might be that we use the word chaplaincy as a catchall term to describe many different forms of activity, which might be why we get confused. If you do find yourself scratching your head, don’t despair – by the end of this column, we should all have a better understanding of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about chaplaincy.
The reverend chaplain
Let’s begin with chaplaincy work run by a traditional reverend chaplain. I’m talking here about an ordained, employed one. I know three personally. All three are reverends in the Church of England, employed by private or church-run secondary schools.
These friends of mine perform various roles. The key thing is to look after the school’s spiritual life, which can be achieved in many ways. Chaplains may facilitate gatherings / assemblies / corporate worship of different kinds and opportunities for individuals to pray.
In addition, an ordained chaplain will almost certainly meet with staff and offer them pastoral support. In some schools, a chaplain might also be used to teach things like personal and social education, which stretches the remit of a reverend but might help a privately run school get cheap teaching time from a staff member. One thing paid chaplains often don’t do is teach RE, which seems strange to me.
In my experience, these are ways salaried chaplains work, which is what google says when you search what a chaplain is:
“The office or position of a member of the clergy attached to a private chapel, institution, ship, regiment, etc.”
“We use the word chaplaincy as a catchall term to describe many different forms of activity”
The lay chaplain
The lay chaplain is someone the church recognises to perform a pastoral role. This type of position is quite typical, but unlike an in-house chaplain, a lay chaplain’s role is more likely to include a direct link with a local sending church. People in these roles are more likely to provide out-of-school or extracurricular events to promote the church, which they will also serve in the same capacity.
The youth worker chaplain
This is where I want to ensure I join the dots enough for us. I’ve fulfilled this role now for 25 years, thinking of myself as more of a Christian youth worker than a chaplain. I think people like me may fail to understand that we often perform a chaplaincy role, whether we like it or not.
I love how the National School Chaplaincy Association puts it for those working in Australia:
“Chaplains do not define spirituality for students, but work with them to develop a positive spirituality, taking account of the student’s own cultural, family and religious background.”
For us who work in general Christian youth work, we’re not vicars, pastors or even considered lay workers as such. Instead, we go into education and help young people develop their spirituality through whatever route we can find.
Our safety net is often the RE department, where we teach or assist in providing a Christian perspective. Sometimes, we also offer a mentor role for students in behavioural or pastoral departments, another popular haven.
It’s at this point I want to make sure we’re clear. If you’re working as a Christian youth worker in a mentoring capacity, you’re not working as a chaplain. Still, this can get confusing when you might be doing something specifically Christian or spiritual for one part of the day and secular for the rest. (As is the norm for us youth workers.)
Chaplain or mentor: what’s the difference?
Most of my school’s work ministry is split between contributions to RE and mentoring young people. As I said above, I need to remember that mentoring is not chaplaincy. Still, if I love Jesus, aren’t I always acting as a prayerful Christian leader?
As a Christian who believes in the power of prayer, I will always commit to praying for all my young people. Still, the difference is that if a school has asked me to mentor, it stands to reason the student is also expecting an encouraging, impartial mentor, not a spiritual guide.
If the question is about the difference between mentoring and chaplaincy, the answer would undoubtedly have to be the agency of the school leadership and the students to choose whether you’re invited to provide spiritual guidance or not.
Am I a chaplain?
At the beginning of this piece, I joked about finding chaplaincy difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I want to encourage each of us working in schools to adopt the terminology on a personal level and accept the deeper implications of being a Christian leader, working with young people and school staff.
In reality, if you love Jesus and have a heart for seeing the people you serve come to a deeper understanding of Jesus, then you carry the calling of a chaplain regardless of your specific working model or terminology.
Maybe you’re reading this as a salaried reverend with your own chaplaincy position questioning what it’s all about. Please don’t panic – you might just need recommissioning as the person bearing the presence of God in your school, college or university.
You might be the lay chaplain who attends school occasionally, finding opportunities to create prayerful moments. Let me encourage you that your presence is essential and you’re making a difference just by serving.
Finally, you could be a youth-working Christian. You might be in a training programme or working for a local church, and all you’re allowed to do is mentor some young people and give a testimony in the odd RE lesson. My friend, if that’s you, I want you to know, you’re a chaplain too.
You may not be interested in ever being ordained. Still, missionally, you’re called to be salt and light, whether you could ever publicly say it in the school or not. You are indeed a chaplain.
Remember, chaplains intentionally focus on the spiritual life of the students and the staff. They create opportunities for spiritual growth and connect the school with the church community. Chaplains sometimes teach RE and create prayer spaces. Sometimes they pray in person, but more often than not, they simply listen, intercede privately and let the presence of God move with them as they intentionally serve education, which is why all of this also applies to you.