School Chaplaincy: the Unseen Glue

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Nick Blair is in a unique position having been Chaplain at Merchiston Castle, a boarding and day school for boys age 7- 18, Edinburgh for the last 18 years.
Here he shares with us why helping pupils ask questions rather than telling them what they should think is they key to engaging them in exploring all that Christian faith has to offer and how we can strive to be the unseen glue that can hold a community together

My role as school Chaplain is wide and varied, but at the heart it is to help people ask questions rather than tell them what they must think. Sometimes we need to be given the words to help us phrase the questions we have always been asking anyway. Then to offer in various ways the answers that the Christian faith offers. To be a listener and a relationship or bridge builder; I once heard it described as “holy hanging around” It helps so much if there is an existing relationship, when tough times come. To be an advocate for and an encourager of faith And to communicate well…..if you are not connecting with people then what is the point.

The Chaplain’s role is utterly unique..but often misunderstood. Done well can be the “unseen glue“ that holds a school or workplace together.

I am, as you would expect, a bit of an advocate for Chaplaincy in the workplace. While many things have changed in Chaplaincy ….there is still no substitute for ” parish visiting”… staff, grounds staff, kitchen staff,  admin staff etc and of course pupils; the hours put in visiting, cups of tea, asking, listening, writing cards on significant occasions, earn you the right to be heard. Then when tough or happy times happen you are part of the team around the child or member of staff by merit rather than just because of the role.

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Chaplains can no longer expect to be included, unless they have already included themselves in the lives of the School community from Day 1. To use a theological phrase,  it is incarnational ministry…not so much talking …but living out ones faith in a way that you hope is an example.

Many people say that the world is more secular now and I would agree …but I find young people and staff have the same questions; the same root issues as they always have had: Who am I ? ….Who cares for me?  What is my purpose? And perhaps more philosophical questions like…is this it? What happens after life?…How do I live a good life?  etc.

The questions come up in different forms and with different language over the years but they were the same questions 30 years ago in an Edinburgh Housing estate…where I started out. The Human condition is not so different. The trick is to keep the communication lines as open as you can….don’t close a door unless absolutely necessary. I always acknowledge those with no faith in Assemblies and Services…there is a general life message ( based I believe on Biblical truth) …and there is a specific faith based one.

Equally, we are very aware of pupils from other faiths and I see it as part of my job to encourage them… I write to those in the school community keeping Ramadan, recognise Diwali, other important festivals. We recognise these in Assemblies and draw out the general questions and issues involved. Equally, I am a committed Christian, and feel no need to compromise on that. However, mutual respect, education and understanding, helps me fulfil Christ’s command “Do unto others…etc” . As I am honest and open about my faith I encourage them to be open and honest with theirs …therein lies the creation of a diverse and mutually respectful community. The rest is up to the Spirit to do .

Whilst I am in my 18th year here my wife Fiona has been School Counsellor for the last 10 years….she is possibly the real Chaplain…her strength and faith is inspiring. I teach a 3/4 timetable at present, and will teach almost every boy in the Junior and Middle School, up to 16 years  (about 300 pupils). I also coach a bit of rugby and football. I am part of the pupil support team in the School.  I take weddings of staff… and now, that I have been here long enough, some ex-pupils too. Also, sadly quite a number of funerals connected to the school community including both pupils, staff. In addition my wife and I run a Christian Union 2 nights a week for different age groups. The Chaplains Curry night on a Tuesday is particularly popular when covid allows us to have it. In a normal year we could have over 500 individual visits to our house.

Lastly, covid presented a tremendous opportunity to send online messages. About 500 from the School Community and the local community signed up for a daily Lent Blog. It  started out as Lent Thoughts 2020 …evolved into “ For the Duration” and eventually became “ The Repair Shed” as I recovered from a heart operation in October 2020. and finished with Lent thoughts 2021, roughly about  250 “thought for the days”  over 2020-21. The blessing from that has been very moving.

We stayed connected, we communicated and we cared …the unseen glue again. I find it a privilege, a blessing, frustrating, burdensome, exhausting , wonderful, inspiring, invigorating … but thankfully not all at once! …never boring!

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