The role of the chaplain in student life.
As I write this, I’m nearing the end of a busy day. It’s involved a certain amount of time at my desk, planning the programme for the new term, preaching at a chaplaincy Communion service, coffee with a couple of students and, in a short while, will be finished off with an evening Bible study - a typical day, at least in its variety and its unpredictability. Another day might involve an unplanned meeting with a distressed student or member of staff, a brief chat with a student (face to face, or by phone, text, email or Facebook chat!), a pub meal with the Methodist student committee, a planning meeting or two, an inter-faith staff meeting or social event, a meeting about supporting international students, or an inter-disciplinary university meeting. And, occasionally, my evening or night may be livened up by a call-out to support students in the event of illness, sudden death, or other critical situations.
But this isn’t so very different from a day spent in many kinds of pastoral ministry, lay and ordained. And the workers are few! So to what end do I, or the churches that fund and support me, feel this to be work worth engaging in and prioritising? In part, the answer to this lies in the nature of chaplaincy and, in part, it’s to do with the value to the church of those of student age and the potential for developing, among students, a vibrant, mature faith.
When most students come to university, they are at the point of transition from being children, in the care of their parents and educated at school, to adults, taking on responsibility for their own lives and learning. Many students, who come from a church-going family, will take the opportunity to explore and enjoy other (often more youth-focused) traditions, while others will simply learn to spend Sunday morning in bed! Others, however, will find faith during these formative years and others still will grow and develop within the tradition that they’ve known.
And all, when they leave, will be looking to take on adult roles and responsibilities. They will be entering the adult world of work, many will be entering adult relationships (including marriage) and starting families. For those who are part of a church community, the same will be true there. These young adults are not a future generation of church leaders, but rather a pool of talent that the church should be drawing upon now!
In between these two transitions, much will have been going on. This is an age when people are unafraid to challenge received wisdom or preconceived ideas, including in the realm of religious doctrine and morality. It is the time – in their faith as in so many other areas of their lives – when the thoughts, opinions and practices of their parents cease to be the dominant shaping force in their lives (whether in imitation or rebellion) and instead they begin to form their own mature opinions and habits.
A University Christian Chaplaincy is, in many regards, a holding place for differing Christian perspectives, and a safe environment in which questions can be asked and wrestled with. As a part of a multi-faith chaplaincy, it is also a place of bridge building – between different Christian traditions and denominations, between different faiths and between the faiths and the more secular environment of the university. It is a place of pastoral support, which inevitably becomes focused in large measure around times of transition in the lives of the students. It is also an inherently missional context, in that it makes tangible the sense of being a Christian diaspora living in (and utterly committed to) a largely non-Christian world. We aim to incarnate Christ’s presence in the midst of university life and to be a place of grace and a haven of peace (not necessarily in terms of volume!!) in which Christ can be encountered.
In all of this, the chaplaincy is extremely well placed to support students as they arrive at university and as they journey through their time here. But, critically, we can’t do it alone! We rely on the support of churches sending students off to university, churches in areas where students live and study, and, indeed, prayerful Christians everywhere. We depend on the prayers and the generosity of churches and circuits, who hold our work in their hearts, bring it before God in prayer and who, in addition, often contribute to its financial support. We depend upon churches, from which young people are heading off to university, to commend such new students to the Methodist or Free-Church chaplain of the institution (always with the student’s permission), so that we can make contact as they arrive and offer our support and prayers. And, we depend upon very many loving people, in very many gracious and hospitable congregations, to welcome students, care for them for three or four years, and hold them in prayer as they move on into life beyond university.
On campus, also, we are not alone. Joined with the prayer and practical care of the sending and receiving churches, is that of a range of valuable and committed student societies, some national and others specific to the particular institution. There are those which meet for fellowship, worship, Bible study and outreach, representing a range of Christian traditions – Fusion, Christian Union, the Student Christian Movement, and so on. There are denominational groups, including MethSocs and Free Church Societies. There are subject-specific groups, meeting in, and praying for, departments and faculties. There are campaigning societies such as Speak, which combines a love of Christ with a passion for social justice. And there are prayer groups, linked into movements such as 24/7 or Taizé. Such societies are enormously valuable resources. We encourage students to join a society that chimes with their faith and situation, challenges them to grow as Christians and supports them through the student experience. It is also these groups, run by students with some support and resourcing by the chaplaincy, which are the most effective means of outreach and of equipping young adults to be leaders in the church and transformative members of society.
And this brings us to what might perhaps be one of the most important questions for the church with regard to students, and one of the most critical concerns for chaplains and churches alike: how do we send our graduates out to be Christians in an adult world? We can be very concerned with welcoming students into university life, helping them to find a spiritual home both on and off campus and supporting them through their time as students. But if university is concerned with equipping young people to become responsible, independent adults who can play a part in society, this needs to be no less true of university chaplaincy. And here, again, we cannot do it alone. We work in partnership with the students themselves, helping them to lead and participate in the Christian societies and acquire skills of Christian leadership and mutual support; helping them to explore and question their faith, so that it becomes a sure and lasting one, capable of weathering the storms of life; helping them to deepen their spirituality, so that it can give them a secure grounding in Christ. And we work in partnership with churches, whose role in nurturing students is key for the long-term as well as the short, as there is considerable evidence that Christian students, who are not part of a regular worshipping community during their time at university, are far less likely to retain their faith once they have graduated. So we seek, while they are with us, to connect students with societies or the chaplaincy community on campus and with churches and congregations outside the academic enclave, all with the aim of bringing the love of Christ to bear on the exciting, challenging, terrifying, transitional experience which is student life and of equipping them with a mature faith to serve them and the church well through their adult life.
So my appeal, as we begin a new academic year, is: support us!! Commend your young people to us, welcome students to your church and allow them the room to explore and develop, encourage and trust young adults to lead and take responsibility. And above all, pray! Pray for university chaplains, for all with responsibility for the care of students, for the Higher Education sector in general and for young people at this critical time in their maturing faith.
Jenny Rivers Mohan, a student at Sheffield University
I was born a die-hard atheist, though you wouldn’t think it now - serious, scientific, thoughtful, wanting empirical if not mathematical proof for everything. And in many ways I haven’t changed. At university I started going to Church with a friend (‘I’ll come because I like the singing’, I said) because I was homesick and clinically depressed and I couldn’t think where else to turn; I know this among many things worried my family, especially given the church I attended, and they were relieved when I left the church I’d joined a few months later out of fear at some of the odd things that were happening there, but I never quite stopped thinking of myself as ‘believing in Something’. The boyfriend I had over the summer lived an example of a good intellectual Christian life as I’d not realised it could be lived and through him I was brought back to the Church, a new church, this time, where I made new friends and met people and was emotionally supported and held up by prayer and by the people I met there, where before these things only weakened me. Finally I have found people who approach their faith thoughtfully and rigorously, and that has saved me. Without God I honestly feel I would still be the girl I was when I came to university – unhappy, filled with self-loathing and acting upon that with the most self-destructive behaviour, but I’ve learned over the last few years that I am worthy in the eyes of God and, now, in my own eyes too.
Dave Lees, a student at Sheffield University
Being a Methodist student, as well as at my church, I find much fellowship and spiritual support at my University’s Chaplaincy, which whilst being central to my university life, also is just a few doors down from the very centre of the university maps. I am a second year Joint Honours student (Biblical Studies & French) at The University of Sheffield.
Many Christian students may feel as I did when they first arrive at University - unsure about what to do about Church. Starting University has sometimes been called the ‘make or break time’ for Christians, where we suddenly have more of a choice about which Church to attend, if any at all. Some really get stuck into a church and find a home, whilst others may struggle to find a home, and others may not try and see University as an ‘excuse to not go.’ I have been fortunate enough to find a strong and supportive congregation, and I think it worth reminding all Methodist congregations that Universities really appreciate (and need) the support that their local church can offer.
Whilst I was still in my first year of University, I felt that I had a call to ordained ministry within the Methodist Church, specifically to eventually become a chaplain serving in the Royal Air Force. This was more of a surprise to me than to anyone else; all of my friends (Christian and non-Christian) were completely unsurprised by this and had thought that it would happen eventually. This itself made the call easier to receive, but was also quite strange to think that it seemed that I was the only person who hadn’t known that this was going to happen. All who I know from the chaplaincy have been a great encouragement as well, especially the Chaplains themselves.
Both the chaplaincy and my Church have permitted me to try a few roles to see how I find them. During Advent my Church allowed me to arrange and lead a service that, although I was quite nervous, was a great experience and one that I quite enjoyed. I have also been able to lead a Bible Study on Revelation within a small student group; if I can lead Revelation then I can do anything. These opportunities have helped me confirm to myself that, in God’s time, ordained ministry will be the right course for my life. I would encourage anyone who feels that they may be in a similar situation to look into it further; you never know what you might find out.
I’d also encourage any students who haven’t got involved in their chaplaincy to do so. It will probably be doing much more than you realise. Ours holds a University Communion each week as well as many prayer sessions and also a book club where we meet to discuss/debate various topics, some quite deep and complicated, others less so. No doubt your Chaplaincy would do something similar.
"Pray for university chaplains, for all with responsibility for the care of students, for the Higher Education sector in general and for young people at this critical time in their maturing faith." Catrin Harland