Two weeks ago, I was privileged to attend a Sunday adult forum, at St. Philip’s-in-the-Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona, and hear the youth group at St. Philip’s give an account of their mission trip this past summer, which took them to a Native American reservation in Northern Arizona. Two things struck me about their observations, which in fact said as much about the adults who work with young people as what these young people reported about their experiences on the trip.
The first had to do with the fact that this Episcopal church youth group had signed up to do a mission trip sponsored by a conservative Christian evangelical group. The experience provided them with ample exposure to evangelical worship, prayer, bible study, and daily conversations on faith and service with a great many evangelical teenagers.
Ironically, members of the youth group reported that they actually learned more about the Episcopal tradition through their intense exposure to the evangelical perspective, as opposed to being on their own or as part of a larger Episcopal youth group trip. The differences they experienced—in theology, worship, and the ways in which their evangelical peers talked about their faith—forced them to reflect on what made being Episcopalian distinctive, as well as how their own particular views of Christianity differed from the ones they were daily encountering from the larger evangelical presence.
This, the young people were quick to add, did not happen automatically, or in a vacuum. It was due to the presence of adults on this trip, including ordained Episcopal clergy, who could help them interpret what they were experiencing and how that was prompting them to ask questions about and grow in appreciation for their own roots and practices in the Episcopal Church.
If often takes an encounter with those different from us to help us better understand our own perspectives and the place of our own particular tradition among various alternatives. To prepare young people best for a changing and complex world, it is not only valuable but essential for them to have such experiences. However, it also involves—perhaps even requires—the presence of adults with young people who can help them process and make sense of whatever dissonance they might be experiencing between what they are used to and what they are now encountering. That presence, and the help those adults give with the interpretation of that experience, allows the encounter with the unfamiliar to be meaningful and educative. Not only do young people learn more about a differing perspective, they are challenged to reflect back on their own identity—indeed grow in that identity—thanks to the interpretive presence of adults.
Toward the end of their presentation in the forum, another revelatory moment took place. The young people were gracious in thanking the adult advisors for taking time from their busy schedules to accompany and supervise them on the trip. That may not be so unusual, but how they framed their words of thanks caught my attention: as one of the teenagers put it, “Thank you for sticking around.”
Youth ministry, and in some cases, school chaplaincy, can be highly transient. Assuming that the best adults to relate to young people are those who are chronologically young themselves (in some cases only a few years older than some of the teens), churches and dioceses report that turnover is high in the world of youth ministry, subject to the comings and goings of people who, though highly energetic and in some cases charismatic, nevertheless find themselves at a more transient stage in their own adult development. Often youth ministry positions serve as a prelude to graduate school, entry into another profession, or, in the view of some church people, a “more serious” exercise of ministry. Ask many young people who have stuck with their own particular youth groups, and they are likely to tell you that they have had many advisors over their years of involvement with the group.
School chaplaincy can be equally transient. We have many Episcopal schools that seem to be searching for a school chaplain on a regular basis. That may be for a variety of reasons—sometimes more to do with the life situations of the chaplains themselves than the problematic nature of the positions they hold. Once again, assuming that the best people to relate to students are those not that far removed from the ages of those students, schools may search for candidates who are, by virtue of their age, in a naturally transient stage of life. The consequence can—not must, I would be quick to add—be that schools find themselves engaged in replacements for departing chaplains more often than they would like, and more often than is good for their students and the school community.
We are blessed with a growing number of young people who feel called to the ordained ministry—even in spite of the aging demographics of the Episcopal Church—and many of these young people are excited by the prospects of entering school ministry. At the same time, a survey we conducted a few years ago with the Church Pension Group (thus benefiting from their accumulated statistical data on parish ministry), showed that school chaplains experience less of the immediate satisfaction of seeing the direct fruits of their ministry than parish clergy do. Anyone familiar with the long-term nature of school ministry knows well that it takes a lot of time to see positive and affirming results from one’s ministry in schools. It eventually comes, and it comes with abundance, but only if one is prepared to “stick around” for a while. As students and faculty experience the chaplain as a stable presence in the school, their trust in that ministry grows, thus paving the way for the chaplain’s ministry to deepen in impact and satisfaction.
As with other forms of ministry, the most vulnerable time for school chaplains to “drop out” is during their first three years. Those also happen to be the very years when a school chaplain is least likely to experience the sustaining satisfaction of seeing that his or her ministry is making a difference.
This means that schools should be attentive to the way in which those first few years of a school chaplain’s work experience are, so often, preparatory to the deeper satisfactions to be encountered when one has committed to the long-term nature of the work. What, I would encourage schools to ask of themselves, can we do to uphold and affirm that ministry during this vulnerable stage? Likewise, we at NAES are taking seriously the need many young chaplains have for a mentor, and we are seriously considering ways in which we can, through experienced mentors, be there to encourage these promising individuals to “stick around.” After all, the truest and most distinctive joys of school ministry are still to come!