School Chaplaincy at the crossroads
School chaplaincy can be said to be in its infancy at present. It is a role looking for a clearer definition. Yet despite that lay chaplaincy in schools must be the fastest growing area of ministry in the Catholic Church. The Bishops of England and Wales, following the lead of so many church documents on schools, has seen lay chaplaincy as a way to support the spiritual leadership of the head teacher in a tangible and visible form. The Bishops have also recognised that chaplaincy in school is probably the most effective form of new evangelisation- working with the personal choices of young people who are sacramentalised but not evangelised.
The informal nature of chaplaincy opens up an area of free choice within which young people and adult staff can be accompanied sensitively, often through activities and celebrations, towards a more personal encounter with Jesus. This role of accompaniment demands flexibility and creativity on the part of the lay chaplain as well as an ability to live with ambiguity in the rush of school life. They need to have the resilience to waste time with people in the rush of activity that school life generates. These pioneer chaplains are brave and sometimes reckless in the gift of their time, they live for long periods in some schools with little recognition and they have a deep and personal faith that they can share with others. They are the pioneers of a new role in school ministry. They are not priests, neither are they teachers. Their very presence raises questions about spirituality and the nature of the school within which they work. They are resilient, at times lonely but well linked to other chaplains but in some ways their pioneering days are numbered.
I became aware of a sea change in the role of the lay chaplain in conversations with a number of head teachers who were reflecting on the role of chaplains in their school community. They recognised the gift that they are to the school, they recognised the unique and often unsung and disconnected nature of their role from other roles in the school community. They wanted to know more about their role, the difference between a chaplain and chaplaincy. They were setting out to draw maps of chaplaincy based on the experience of the pioneer chaplains of the last decade in particular. The questions they raised were about pay scales, career progression, retaining good chaplains, offering support and line management. They were appreciative of the freedom and creativity that chaplains bring to school life but they were also looking to spread the influence of that presence more effectively within the school.
These early signs of recognition herald a new period of development in chaplaincy in which integration and consolidation will begin to balance some of the freedom and perhaps isolation of the chaplaincy role at present. I would urge head teachers to integrate this delicate and precious role with great care because it is rooted in a different sense of vocation from teaching, one that is more individual and personal in its outreach. It is also rooted in a particular personality which cannot be re-shaped by writing job descriptions. Instead the lay chaplain’s role needs to be nurtured around their individual gifts as they respond to the perceived needs of staff and students. The role requires high level skills and head teachers are aware that these are often under estimated by job analysis processes leaving chaplains poorly paid. The heads will slowly put more structures in place to support and integrate chaplains and in so doing will make the role more sustainable and that needs to happen. However, I think that many working chaplains will look at the last decade and see it as a honeymoon period for chaplaincy that has laid out the map for a more sustainable development for the next decade.
Chaplaincy- the best job in the world