Classrooms are the frontline of ministry
The ‘spiritual hub’ of our Uniting Church schools are the Chaplains who, every day, minister to children, youth and their teachers. In the first part of a two-part special, Insights finds out what it’s like to be at the “missional edge” of our Church.
“I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” Whitney Houston memorably sang those lines in The Greatest Love of All, a power ballad from the 1980s. As far as I know, Houston’s pop hit wasn’t written as a tribute to school chaplains. But if you stop to consider what it is our school chaplains do in Uniting Church schools across our Synod, Whitney Houston might well have been singing about them. On a full-time basis, these front-line ministers of God’s word seek to invest in teaching students well and prayerfully hoping they lead the way.
Our Moderator Rev. Mwung Hwa Park recently visited our UCA chaplains at their annual retreat. She was struck by their “special calling” and commitment to their schools, students and colleagues. If we’re honest, though, perhaps we hadn’t pictured school chaplaincy as a special calling. You might not even have thought of Christian service among students and faculty as, well, an actual, legitimate, proper ministry job. “A few of the school chaplains have told me that other ministers have made comments to them like ‘When are you going to be a real minister?’” reveals Anne Empson.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the magnitude of school chaplaincy.” – Anne Empson
Appointed earlier this year as Uniting Mission and Education’s Schools Relationship and Governance Manager, Anne is, effectively, our Church’s link with UCA schools. Part of her role is oversight of our chaplains and how they are getting on. She frankly states that the variety, complexity and demands of school chaplaincy verges on being harder than working in a parish setting. “One of the new chaplains who came from Congregational ministry said, ‘I never had a clue it was like this. It’s so intense. This is the coalface. This is real ministry.’”
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the magnitude of school chaplaincy.” What Anne is referring to is how our school chaplains do everything from preach to hundreds of children, to pastorally caring for their families and doing “cradle to grave” ministries of baptisms, weddings and funerals. They also witness to staff members, teach religious education, prepare services or deal with schoolyard crisis. school. They are like a one-stop ministry shop.
Reaching young people every day
“I work at the missional edge of the Church,” summarises Jon Humphries about his chaplaincy role at Ravenswood School for Girls in Sydney’s upper North Shore suburb of Gordon. After graduation in 2001, Jon took the unusual road of going straight to school chaplaincy. He started at Pymble Ladies’ College but has been at Ravenswood for eight years. “Schools are a mission of the church, in that we are one of the frontier faces, if you like. Only about 20 per cent of the kids would come from a practicing, ‘Christian-y’ family. Uniting Church schools represent more than 9000 kids per day; that means they’re engaged by the Uniting Church in New South Wales and the ACT. That’s pretty amazing.”
Pause. Think about that. Where else in Australian society can you sprinkle the good news of Jesus directly upon the lives of young people, on such a scale? Jon sees this as a key difference between school chaplaincy and a church-based role; he and his peers get to reach out into the broader community, more than preach to the faithful.
“Half of my role is to not put them off religion,” explains Jon, without joking. “And, then, half of my role is to engage them. I’ve got to work here with 1,100 dynamic young people, for most of whom faith is a curiosity — if not anathema to what they normally grow up with in their family culture.
“I try to engage them not just in religion, but in faith and spirituality — respecting [the student’s] differences. My congregation isn’t a Congregation [but] we do all the stuff of a Congregation. We do pastoral care; we form them in faith; we do worship – but half of them have to be there, rather than want to be there.”