When I retired last July after 35 years in school chaplaincy, I was determined to spend at least the first six months “getting good and bored!” I was successful for the first three months and then, it seems, God had other plans for me. I cautiously accepted two out of three invitations I received to become involved in community once again: helping to facilitate a marvelous initiative in peer learning among a group of wise and gifted veteran school chaplains scattered across the nation, and chairing the Commission on Ministry in my diocese. My closest friends smile indulgently when I tell them how busy my life is once again, almost as if they knew I wouldn’t make it six months!
No matter. What I have realized in the time since embracing these two communities is a startling reinforcement of something that I didn’t reflect on nearly as frequently as I might have done in my years of active service as a school chaplain: the work of Episcopal schools; the work of students, teachers, chaplains, and staff within them; the work of communities of professionals dedicated to keeping their ministries thriving; and the work of those who “aspire” to lives of ordained leadership, are all similarly about discernment and formation. Discernment and formation.
Discernment – that seeking of spiritual guidance and direction in our lives – is not unique to those who profess to be listening to God’s call for their lives: laity, deacons, priests, and bishops. Aren’t our students perpetually seeking guidance and direction – spiritual and otherwise – in their lives? Aren’t our faculty, staff, and administrative colleagues alert to the ways in which they yearn to grow, to be ‘better’ at what they do? Aren’t our administrative teams attentively seeking to build the strength of community that enables all its’ members to learn and to grow as scholars and as human beings? Aren’t chaplains always seeking creative ways in which to be present to their communities, to calling their communities to lives of deeper, faithful service? Discernment is our way of life in schools!
And formation – those often intentional, sometimes accidental steps we take in the process of becoming whomever we believe we are intended to be – is discernment’s companion. We speak often of our students’ formation – their hard work, their experiments, their missteps, their successes, their setbacks. Our faculty commit themselves to their own ongoing formation, in their continuing mastery of content and pedagogy, and in their selfless building of relationships with students, generation after generation. Administrative teams form trust in and with their communities by nurturing mission and identity, and leading courageously in the demands of the day-to-day. And our chaplains seize every opportunity – sometimes even and especially the most unlikely opportunity – to engage our schools in formative love and service.
Discernment and formation; however much it may be the obvious point of strengthening our ability to thrive in our vocations, or to clarify and articulate the ‘call’ we explore in the many ministries of all God’s people, I am reminded again of the myriad ways in which it is the central mission of our schools. And so, when we feel mired in the mundane tasks before us and cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees, remember: each moment is only one step in a process of discernment and formation; when we shift our perspective to a longer view ripe with possibilities for the future rather than dwelling on the moment as a problem to be solved and a box to be checked, we reclaim the possibilities for personal and communal growth. Discernment and formation!
About the Author
The Rev. Brian Fidler recently retired after 38 years or ordained ministry, 35 of them in school chaplaincy. He served an internship at Kent School in CT (where his vocation to schools came clear), and served between 7 and 11-year tenures at Trinity-Pawling School, St. Mark’s School of Texas, Groton School, and The Bishop’s School. In retirement, Brian helps facilitate a peer-learning group of chaplains through the Thriving in Ministry program at VTS, and chairs the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of San Diego.