The Rev. Timothy J. Seamans
If you ever need an inspiring reminder about the spiritual diversity and curiosity of your Episcopal school students, I recommend giving your students a Chaplain’s Survey and documenting the results. The Chaplain’s Survey I use with my students is very basic and can be accomplished within about 10 minutes by any student in third grade or above. I gave my annual survey this past month and what I discovered is revealing about the liturgical and theological character of my students.
The Chaplain’s Survey fits onto one, double-sided sheet of paper and is broken into three sections. The first section asks students to make a 'Top 10 List of Liturgy' by ranking their most-to-least favorite parts of the liturgy in chapel. Unsurprisingly, 'Singing' and 'Eucharist' top my students’ lists most often. What stood out to me this year was that a significant number of students ranked 'Sing Bowl & 10 Seconds of Silence' and 'Kneeling Confession & The Peace' higher than I was expecting.
Before beginning my classroom lessons, I have a student ring our singing bowl and I lead the class in a short prayer that highlights breathing, silence, and a brief guided meditation. At the suggestion of a student, last year I began ringing the singing bowl and taking 10 seconds of silence at the start of each school chapel. To give students exposure to how posture could affect prayer, last Lent I added an optional Kneeling Confession before Passing the Peace.
The verbal praise for the opening silence and kneeling confession has been minimal at best, and I expected to find them at the bottom of students’ liturgy lists. Many surveys, however, told a different story.
A fifth grader wrote, “I feel closest God in silence. I would make it 20 seconds instead of 10.” As an entire class, third graders overwhelmingly reported a preference for silence in the liturgy. In response to my final question on the first side of the survey - If you could change one thing about chapel what would it be? — a third grader ambitiously replied, “I would make it 5 minutes of silence.” The students’ liturgy lists and responses were good reminders that intentional silence and embodied prayer have high spiritual value for students, especially in our digital era.
Perhaps most importantly, the diversity of their rankings and responses underlined that there is no such thing as ‘the perfect liturgy.’ I remind my students of the varying survey results and show them that what’s most meaningful for some students is often notably different for their classmates. I also emphasize that part of common worship is learning to include and be respectful of many meaningful ways of prayer and worship.
The second page of the Chaplain’s Survey is split into two sections. The second section, which is on the top half, asks students to circle at least three of their favorite names and adjectives for God. (Two lists of divine names and adjectives are provided, along with a blank space to write in a preferred name or adjective if it’s not listed above.) As is typical, there was a strong absence of consensus in this portion of the survey. The results help me be mindful of using a diversity of names and descriptions when praying and talking about God. I remind students that how we talk about God will shape how we think about God.
On the bottom half of the Chaplain’s Survey is the third and final section. It gives students a list of religious subjects they may want to learn more about and asks them to circle their top five subjects. The survey ends with the question, What is one question you would like Father Timothy to answer? The questions posed by third through fifth graders prove their theological and philosophical curiosity:
How was the universe created?
Why is there evil?
Why can you feel God with you, but some people can’t?
Does the Son of God have a Sister?
What is the most important story in the bible (to you)?
Why did God make death?
Why are people of color sometimes treated badly
How is God a Father and a Son?
Why are you a priest?
Is God real?
Do angels have sisters or brothers?
Who is seated at the left hand of the Father?
Did anything create God?
I set aside a few minutes in each of my classroom lessons for us to discuss one of their questions (they choose which one). I refuse to tell them what I think until some of them have first tried to answer the question themselves. I’ve discovered that these questions frequently bring out students’ most engaged and critical thinking.
One of the treasures of Episcopal schools is that we are inclusive of wide-ranging liturgical expressions and theological questions. The better we can understand the unique curiosity and spiritual characteristics of our students, the better we can help them grow deeper in the practice and appreciation of faith. You may be surprised what your survey says.
The Rev. Timothy Seamans is Lower School Chaplain at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Atlanta, GA, a comprehensive PK-12 Episcopal day school of 1,300 students.