School Chaplaincy

One of the great pleasures of my work, on the college level, is to hear many of the students I know who attended Episcopal schools speak of their fondness of and respect for the chaplains that served in their respective schools. In so many cases, these chaplains stand out as pivotal teachers, counselors, and role models, and inevitably these students express their admiration for the chaplains with great affection.

One can never overemphasize the importance of a chaplain in a school, given the degree to which such a role is laced with ambiguity. An effective chaplain must have his or her feet in many worlds, some of which inherently conflict with others. That person is expected to have a firm faith commitment, while being open to the traditions of others. One is supposed to be accessible and personable, while cultivating a rich personal spiritual life. The down-to-earth, along with the other-worldly, must be welcome territories for this person.

No greater tension exists, however, than the fact that a chaplain must bring together, in his or her ministry, two institutions, the school and the church. While the reasons for the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a chaplain are quite varied, the handling, indeed juggling, of this tension in its many forms provides both the biggest challenge and the greatest key to a flourishing ministry in a school.

By their very nature these two institutions can feel at odds with each other. One is supposedly based on some type of system of merits and rewards, the other on grace (hence, the frequently negative reaction I would get from faculty when preaching on the Parable of the Prodigal Son; the school can so often represent the world of the older son, who has played by the rules and resents when the father sets the rules aside!). More importantly, the church is an institution where the ordained person is at the center of attention; in a school the ordained person can be viewed as one among many, a colleague and a team player as opposed to the hub of the wheel. Nowhere do we see that tension more than when the question of pension emerges with a chaplain: will a school make the exception of paying a larger pension premium, for the sake of having an ordained person, or should they have the same pension benefit other school employees have?

Most importantly, how a chaplain juggles these two institutions within his or her vision of ministering in a school tells how effective that ministry will be. Simply put, an effective chaplain must show in his or her work a genuine love of the school while his or her primary allegiance remains to the church. He or she must be embracing of those traditions and rituals in a school that may feel very far away from liturgical or theological correctness (what I would call, “school religion”) as well as those things which seem to have very little connection to ministry, in that school environment. Accepting these things on their own terms, the chaplain must weave his or her way through the maze of life in a school and show an obvious relish for it. Ask many why a given chaplaincy is not particularly effective, and the response within a school will have something to do with the inability of the chaplain to shed some of what I would call his or her “churchiness,” or parochialism, for the sake of the school.

At the same time, however, the chaplain must retain an element of being above the fracas of school politics and school humor. While the chaplain must show obvious love for the institution, he or she cannot become so identified with the business of that institution that what some have called the “transcendent role” of the chaplain no longer shines through. As Donna Schaper, a former chaplain at Yale, has written about the college chaplain, so too for the school chaplain: “chaplains are useful because they transcend utility.” The chaplain must be of the school, but not exclusively of it. His or her domains, activities with which he or she identifies, groups within a school community he or she spends time with, must be such that a healthy, mysterious distance is still retained. Otherwise, the chaplain has no distance on the “business as usual” nature of a school, nor cannot be of as much help when the crises and controversies of school life cry out for a compassionate, unbiased voice and presence. Indeed, as many chaplains find, being in a school environment may be more exciting and spiritually vital than being in a church; true as that may be, a chaplain can never forsake the identification with the church. Again, as Donna Schaper reminds us, otherwise the chaplain ends up, “being insufficiently parochial and contributing to the great fuzziness about religion that prevails.”

When I hear college students speak in endearing terms about their school chaplain, it usually comes with a mix of fondness for how the chaplain was so crucial to the overall fabric of life at the school, along with a respect for how that chaplain was somehow different from the normal flow of business at the school. That, in essence, is what the great promise of chaplaincy is all about, not to mention the greatest task and tension of school ministry. Just as Jesus offers us a picture of the Christian life with one foot in this world and one foot in the world beyond, so the chaplain needs at least one pair of feet to traverse the dual roles of and two-way traffic between church and school. Those two worlds need to intersect in meaningful ways; when they do the results can be truly inspiring and exemplary.

Quotes from Donna Schaper are from her article, “The Transcendent Role of Chaplains,” in the November 12, 2004 issue of The Chronicle for Higher Education.

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., is executive director of NAES. He was previously chaplain of Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.