When people ask me about school ministry, they usually bring a set of assumptions. They say things like “Oh, it must be so fun to just do Chapel with kids every day,” or “It must be so nice to be on a school schedule and not have to work as much as you do in a parish,” or “It must so great to have an easy schedule where you just do Chapel for a few minutes each day and teach a class or two.” Like the work that everyone does, school ministry involves a lot more than most people see at any one glance.
Yes, school ministry is so much fun! Being with young people every day, watching them grow in body, mind, and spirit, and witnessing the love that is often more easily expressed by children is a joy. As a chaplain, it is my privilege to be part of this journey with these children. It requires a kind of creativity that meets each child where they are. We spend time discerning all the different ways that children of all ages might be able to enter into the Good News of God’s abundant love.
Ministry in schools is also quite lively. It is filled with movement and flexibility from the moment I step through the doors to the moment I leave…and often throughout the evening and the weekends. The needs are immediate and call us to focus on the present while also preparing for the future. Chapel and classes are our primary responsibilities, but tender hearts and spirits require constant nurturing and care.
For many students, families, faculty, and staff, Episcopal schools have become their religious communities as well. As chaplains, we provide pastoral care to those who are facing the typical challenges of growing up as well as the difficult life events that knock all of us off our feet at times. We provide last rites, celebrate funerals, and engage in pastoral counseling. We spend countless hours working with our colleagues to help students, teachers, and families navigate the deaths of loved ones, national crises, fear of school shootings, natural disasters, and serious illness. We also share in the joy of births, triumphs, and epiphanies. It is in a word…life.
I believe that if you asked any school chaplain what their primary goal is for their ministry, they would say: “To make sure that each student knows that they are loved beyond imagination by God.” And we know that what we do is a great responsibility because we are called to help them see that love reflected not only in us, but in all those in their families and school community who love and care for them deeply.
The Rev. Dr. Jill A. Walters is Chaplain at All Saints’ Episcopal School of Fort Worth.