As a chaplain, part of my job is to be a calming and peaceful presence in the midst of the chaotic storm that sometimes accurately describes modern education. In my short time as a chaplain, I have learned that I have a responsibility to push back against the harmful societal norm that is “grind culture” and to advocate that we make room for kairos (“God’s time”) in our lives. This is much easier said than done, and I would be a liar if I said that I was an expert in this area, but it is my duty to strive to do this and to advocate for my students and my colleagues to do the same. Sometimes that means changing my lesson plans to reflect students’ desires to engage in contemplation with God. Sometimes that means saying “no” to the many “asks” that come my way. Sometimes that means choosing prayer over completing my to-do list.
As members of Episcopal school communities, the Episcopal faith provides us with the opportunity to make sense of our world via our engagement with Scripture. As people who desire to follow Jesus, we are lucky that Jesus provides so many examples of how to push back against the grind culture of his day. Reflecting on the Gospel of Luke, I realized that Jesus provides a particularly poignant example of taking time to prioritize our own needs in the midst of important work:
Once while Jesus was standing beside the Lake of Gennesaret and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.Luke 5:1-3
This is such a rich passage, but the part that sticks out to me is the second verse in which Jesus puts some distance between himself and the crowd. When I offered a reflection on this passage for the middle school students in our weekly chapel service, I did a fill-in-the-emotion exercise with them with Jesus in the Gospel reading:
“First off, at this point in Jesus’s ministry, he is becoming kind of a big deal. We know this because the text tells us that ‘the crowd is pressing in on him to hear the word of God.’ If you have ever been to a concert or holiday shopping or a sports stadium you know that feeling of a crowd pressing something or someone. If you haven’t, it feels like something intense is about to happen and it can be exhilarating or terrifying by the second. From a ministry perspective, I imagine that Jesus is hyped that people want to hear about God or that they care about what he is saying—honestly from personal experience that is a pretty cool feeling (I’m not gonna lie). BUT it is also a heavy burden because he is probably feeling inadequate to handle this insurmountable task–that the weight of the crowd is on his shoulders to do a good job for God.
“So Jesus kind of puts some distance between him and the crowd–he still teaches them and does his job but he also takes care of himself. I love this image of Jesus setting a boundary with all the people who need something from him because it reminds me that setting boundaries is healthy. I don’t have to give my whole self to people, I can set the terms of engagement. That move from the crowd to the boat probably gave Jesus a feeling of relief, safety, comfort, and some breathing room. That moment of prioritizing self, helped Jesus to be a better community member and a better teacher. And because of this cleansing break or moment of self-care Jesus was then able to perform a miracle and to call three more disciples (Simon Peter, John, and James).”
Not only did Jesus give himself a break, he called three more disciples into the work that he was doing. Here Jesus also shares the burden of ministry with his new followers. This is such a powerful image for all of us as we enter into a new school year. As the world and our schools are entering a post-pandemic era, we are faced with so many choices about how to carve out a return to ‘normalcy,’ but I believe that we cannot return to the world of pre-pandemic, nor should we try. We have all experienced the trauma of a global pandemic and we should be changed. Instead, we should focus on what we have learned about ourselves and the world around us, as a means to inform how we proceed.
It is imperative that I am intentional and consistent about the choices that I make. For some of my students, I am one of the only ‘religious’ people in their life and I am an example of faith to them in all that I do—good or bad. For some of my colleagues, I am the first chaplain that they have worked alongside, and my “no” might empower them to say “no.” These are the burdensome privileges of chaplaincy: visibility and accountability. This is true of all educators who are given the opportunity to journey with young people in our schools. How we care for ourselves and whether or not we prioritize our faith matters. In the post-pandemic world, we have an opportunity to enter this time influenced by our pandemic experiences.
My takeaway from my first year of chaplaincy is that sometimes following Jesus means taking a break and encouraging others to do the same. So if Jesus’s example in the passage is not enough for you, please cite a new chaplain’s “wisdom” as your permission to say “no” to grind culture and “yes” to kairos.
Allison Harmon is Middle School Chaplain at St. James Academy in Monkton, MD.