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The ‘spiritual hub’ of our schools are the chaplains who, every day, minister to children, youth and their teachers. In the second part of a two-part special, Insights learns how one of Jesus’ famous parables can play out through our schools.
Phil Worrad at Kinross Wolaroi School in rural centre Orange describes his working environment as a Congregation. “It’s this moving, changing Congregation of adolescents,” says Phil of the unusual flock he strives to guide. “I see my job as continually trying to introduce this Congregation of about 1000 kids, to Christ.” Having trained for the priesthood (including spending five years in a monastery), Phil left to marry and pursue a different path. Separate study in theology and teaching maths landed him school jobs, yet most turned out to be teaching religious education. When he was finally employed as a maths teacher at Kinross Wolaroi, he gradually moved into the school’s key chaplaincy position.
As much as Phil wants to introduce kids to Christ, he has had to learn a big lesson of school chaplaincy: How you say what you say is critical. “With the ‘Jesus’ language, there’s this sense of implied religiousness. With the ‘God’ language, there’s a sense of relationship and it’s about faith — without the religion. If you speak more about Jesus, people have in mind that you are trying to convert them to a religion. What I am interested in trying to do is introducing them to God but through Scriptures – and the lived examples of the teachings of Jesus.”
“We talk about stuff that’s pertinent and real.”
“You’ve got to find ways that make connections with their experiences of life. We talk about brokenness and hurt. We talk about refugees, or people with ‘difference’. We talk about Islam. We talk about stuff that’s pertinent and real. We talk about bullying and stealing and the harshness of words.”
Having only been at Pymble Ladies’ College since the start of the year, Punam Bent also went through huge changes to her approach and thinking when she first became a school chaplain 13 years ago. “I had to un-learn everything I used to practice as a minister,” says Punam, who worked for more than 12 years at MLC School in multicultural Burwood, Sydney. “I had to un-learn every kind of jargon and really think what it means to be on a journey with children and young people.”
Working with Lorenzo Rodrigues-Torres, Punam loves what she does, while admitting it’s a tough gig that can push people to burn out. Fair enough because, as Anne puts it, “chaplains really are the spiritual hub of the school. They’re the ones who really provide the spiritual oversight.” Phil notes how hard it can be to speak up “like the prophets” when issues or behaviours don’t align with core beliefs — but Punam and Lorenzo point out how UCA school chaplains tend not to push a barrow.
“It’s a seed ministry more than a reaping ministry, a lot of the time.”
“We don’t have an agenda; we just go with the flow of ‘being’ this presence of Christ in the community,” says Punam. Lorenzo agrees. Describing he and Punam as “unapologetic” about being UCA ministers and Christians, they are mindful of the diverse students they are ministering to. “Our intention is that if a girl is Christian, to encourage them in their Christian faith. But we also want to support girls who belong to different traditions, whether they are Muslim or Buddhist or Jew. We try to think about their faith in the context of our chapel services at our school.”
Ravenswood School for Girls chaplain Jon Humphries doesn’t see his strength as evangelism and believes that suits the long-term approach which many UCA school chaplains share. “It’s a seed ministry more than a reaping ministry, a lot of the time,” he explains, referencing one of Jesus’s most famous parables. “To sow those seeds you’ve got to break open the ground sometimes, because a lot of the ground is hard and rocky.”
Uniting Mission and Education’s Schools Relationship and Governance Manager Anne Empson knows full well the impact school chaplaincy can have — in the long term. She attended MLC and was exposed to plenty of Christian teaching. But it wasn’t until after she left that Anne became a Christian as a young adult. “I had all of this knowledge from my MLC years which really supported my young Christian life.”
“When I look at the kids wandering around our schools and I look at our chaplains, I think: ‘It will be interesting to see where these kids end up.”
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