Let’s Try Something New

I fear that a common theme of those of us who have been working in our schools for more than five years or so is to lament a cutback or two to our role. Talking with chaplains, we are often easily able to bring to mind something that was a regular part of the spiritual life of our school that had to be cut back or dropped for various reasons. Our Anglican schools are very busy places and when more time is needed it seems that often it is RE or Chapel that takes the hit. This is typically not done as a malicious act but rather as the unfortunate consequence of a very busy calendar and very crowded timetable.

The constant fear of having time taken off us has led some chaplains to find themselves constantly operating out of a defensive posture, being fiercely protective of their diminishing turf. I have even heard of some chaplains postponing their retirement fearing that when they eventually finish at their school that they are unlikely to be replaced. As well as reflecting the reality of a busy school calendar, the diminishing role of the chaplain is also a reflection of which way the wind is blowing in our society. The role of the chaplain, which has been a given in Anglican schools, is now being questioned like never before, from both beyond and from within our schools. As society becomes more and more critical of the church, chaplains as representatives of the church in our schools, find ourselves increasingly in the firing line.

Rather than seeing ourselves like the people of Kiribati, knowing that water levels will inevitably keep rising until their island goes under, I want to advocate for us to try to get on the front foot and do something positive. How can chaplains move to a more positive footing in their schools and try to claim some time back? Perhaps it is time to try something new.

We in the Anglican Church are not generally big fans of the ‘new’, tending to treat the ‘new’ with suspicion and doing our best to avoid it. As a denomination we tend to prefer the ‘old’, as the ‘new’ has a tendency to cause all sorts of problems.

The ‘new’ in schools can also be challenging to introduce having to work through numerous logistical hurdles and obstacles. People have to be won over to your idea, routines can be disrupted and scarce time will need to be found. It is often a whole lot easier in our schools to just go with the flow and leave the ‘new’ to a younger and more enthusiastic member of staff.

How then do you go about trying something new? Is the new simply the domain of the naively aspirational, the foolhardy or the inexperienced?

The first step is to try and identify an existing need in your community. This can be triggered by hearing about something that is working well at another school and feeling that this could also work well in your context. I am a big fan of opportunities for chaplains to network, as sharing ideas become a wellspring of potential new initiatives for your own school. Changing schools can also be helpful as you know what has worked well in your old context and can see with fresh eyes what you might be able to introduce in your new school.

In a previous school, regular weekly gatherings with staff for a communion service had been one of the great joys of my ministry as chaplain. The school that I moved to had run communion services in the past but in more recent years, for various reasons, they had stopped taking place. After a period of settling in, I suggested holding a regular communion service to my Principal and he was very supportive of the  idea.

The fun of the ‘new’ is that your idea can finish up morphing into something grander than your initial vision. When I made the suggestion to my Principal, I was envisaging starting a weekly communion service with staff that would be open to students (realistically not expecting many students to attend). My Principal suggested that we begin and end each Term with a communion service and wanted to see if we could fill the local church (that we use as our chapel) with students. I was somewhat embarrassed that my Principal was the one with greater vision and faith than the chaplain. My Principal is not a fan of seeing new ventures fail, and so he backed the service strongly.

Four years on we have a voluntary communion service on a Wednesday morning at the beginning and end of Terms One to Three that is now a regular part of the rhythm of school life. These services are strongly attended by students and by staff.

When it came to Term Four it was a bit difficult to work out where to place the service. We felt, given the busyness of Term 4 that we would just have the one service, the challenge was when to hold it. The beginning of the term was focused around Year 12 farewells while the end of the term was focused on end of year and Christmas activities. Given this we decided to hold the service in the middle of the term.

The date was determined at the start of the year and when it got closer, we realised that it coincided with the start of the Year 12 written exams. So, we decided to focus the prayers at this service on our Year 12 students as their exams got underway and invited students and staff to come forward during the service to light tapers. Four years on and this service packs out the church to the point where we had an unprecedented Anglican problem this year when we ran out of Prayer Books for the congregation. There is a wonderful atmosphere at the service as students from all year levels, led by our Preps, light tapers as a symbol of their thoughts and prayers for our Year 12 students.

Another new thing that I tried this year was a pet service. I have been a chaplain for nearly twenty years, and having started at a primary campus, holding a service for primary students where they could bring along their pets was something that I had always wanted to try.

There is every reason not to do a pet service in this day and age. Logistical challenges abound – what to do with the students who don’t have a pet or whose pet has recently died, or the students allergic to cats, or the student who has a pet snake or spider. Stories of schools where a pet service has gone awry and a pet has bitten another pet, or a student, or even the Principal have taken on folkloric proportions in chaplaincy circles. As have stories where sacred  spaces have been rendered much less sacred in the aftermath of a pet service that got untidy. So, while I had dreamed of holding a pet service I have to confess I lacked the courage to take the plunge and try to make it a reality in my school.

The value of networking was again affirmed to me when, at a recent chaplains meeting here in Melbourne, one of the chaplains at another school shared how she has run a successful pet service at her school. I was really impressed with the way she has worked through the various logistical issues and she happily shared her order of service with us. I realised that it was time to take the dog by the lead so to speak and to give running a pet service a go. 

Over the coming weeks and months, I worked my way through the considerable logistical challenges the service presented, including a memorable meeting with our risk management person brainstorming all the things that could potentially go awry.

Adapting the model from another school to our own context, we were able to run a really successful pet service at the end of Term 3. Given it was the first time this service was run, making it successful was a priority. We limited it to two pets per class with other students invited to bring along a picture of their pet or a pet they would like to have. It worked because I had the support on the ground of one of our primary teachers who helped ensure that the other staff were on board. The students, as you can well imagine, loved it.

Trying something new is really good for the soul. In an age where we are often fearful in our ministry context that things might get taken away from us, adding something new into the mix that is well received by your school community is a really affirming and encouraging experience. So what are you waiting for? Time to give that idea that has been in the back of your mind a go.

By Reverend Andrew Stewart.

 Reverend Andrew Stewart has nineteen years’ experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.