Chaplaincy as a gift

Nigel Roberts

Written by Nigel Roberts
on 5th December 2023

Every chaplain in whatever context does their work starting from a foundation of theology. Alan Baker in his excellent book – Foundations of Chaplaincy draws on the story of the woman at the well in John 4, pointing out that the story highlights the intentionality of Jesus’ movement and direction. Jesus intentionally moves to those in need of care and the direction is always towards people rather than expecting people to come to them. Eileen O Connell writing in Ministers of Hope draws on the same story to talk about the attentive presence of chaplains being the foundation for hospitality and welcome. Many chaplains draw on the Incarnation narrative in Johns Gospel as their theological basis for a ministry of presence or engagement and the story of Emmaus in Luke 24 with its image of the accompanying Jesus walking with troubled people is another engaging and challenging piece of theological reflection and one which I personally work with in a lot of what I do.

I work out of a theological web; a series of interconnected theologies, which, when woven together offer a rationale for chaplaincy that has biblical integrity and educational/pastoral attraction. At the heart of that web is what I term the theology of chaplaincy as a gift. I explain this in greater detail in the introduction to the second edition of the Working Standards for Chaplains with Children and Young People ( available as a free download). A gift is something given out of love and usually with great thought. In Ephesians ch 4 Paul writes to the church to explain the gifts God has chosen for the church that he loves, and they include prophets, preachers, pastors, and teachers. In short God’s gifts are people. The prophet not just the prophecy, the teacher, not just the teaching. That concept fits beautifully with chaplaincy.

Gifts are often chosen to meet a need a person or organisation might have. I for example needed a new ruck sack for carrying all my college ‘stuff’ and lo and behold, this week on my birthday my wife gave me a very nice new capacious rucksack. Recent research that I undertook with CYM and the Saltley Trust looking at the needs of FE students and staff highlighted a great number of areas where a gift of a chaplain is needed to meet significant needs. Many students and staff are suffering from stress, loss of self worth, loss of purpose, hardships, anxiety about the future and have lost the ability to make friends. The report makes worrying reading. But in one interview with a member of staff the interviewee said what we need is a church to give us a chaplain. How true. I realised just how true a couple of weeks ago when a group of colleges asked me to set up a chaplaincy stand for freshers week on each of their three campus’s. One day in each. Just one day. It would be a lot of work and was it worth it? Did God really just want to make a gift of a chaplain for one day? I didn't know, but I accepted the challenge and for three exhausting, exhilarating days caught a vision for what chaplaincy can do when it is given as a gift.

I spoke with over 300 students; many conversations were trivial, funny, or just fun. Some were significant. On my first day I met a girl who when I asked her hopes and dreams told me that she wanted to be a better person tomorrow than she is today. What a wonderful hope. I asked her how that might happen. She told me she wanted to find someone who might journey with her to becoming that person.

On my second day I asked the same question of another girl who told me she wanted to end her year with a heart filled with thankfulness. We offered her a chance to write down some of the things for which she was grateful and after she felt that she had experienced something deeply spiritual.

In my last day I met a boy who had been hanging round in the college for three days trying to get on a course. He hadn’t got anywhere. So, he just strolled over to the chaplaincy stand and talked and we managed after a while to find him an appointment with someone. I asked him to come and tell me how he got on afterwards. He did. ‘ I only have 10 minutes’ he said. ‘I start a new course right now’ He went on to say that for three days he’d felt lost but now ‘it feels like I’ve been found’ and he thanked us and went.

A gift of chaplaincy for a day and life was changed. What might happen with a gift that was for a year or longer? Well, we will find out. Such was the impact on students in fresher’s week that the college is seeking a much deeper and committed chaplaincy presence, if possible. ‘It’s just what we need’ they said.

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