I often find myself having circular conversations with church leaders about the differences between chaplaincy and student work.
Sometimes it is hard to spot the difference, but when the student work doesn’t happen it is all too obvious.
We once phoned a chaplain to ask them to tell students about an event we were running, and their response was, ‘I don’t really see any students’. Some people’s reaction to this might be, ‘but they’re a chaplain, that’s what they do!’ Others, who know something of the huge pressure that many higher education chaplains are under, might not think that this is so shocking.
Chaplains provide pastoral care to the whole university community, staff and students, in much the same way as hospital or prison chaplains do. As if that isn’t a big enough task, they often also have formal responsibilities in the university; sitting on various committees, working with student support services and sometimes managing other members of staff.
Some of the misunderstandings arise because the nature of chaplaincy in higher education has changed so much in the last 20 years. There was a time when the chaplains role was to ‘shepherd the flock’ by, for example, running denominational student societies and leading services. This still happens at some universities, but they are the exception.
I think student work and chaplaincy are different, but complimentary. We have recently been working with a chaplain at the London School of Economics’ new Faith Centre to establish an SCM group there. The chaplain had noticed that there was a gap in provision for Christian students, with no ecumenical space for students to really think through their faith and social justice issues, and so got in touch with SCM. We’re really pleased to see that SCM LSE is thriving!
Chaplains do fantastic work with students and they are a vital part of our university communities. But if the churches think that they have student work covered by funding chaplaincy, then they are missing a trick.
Despite all the resources being put into chaplaincy, students are still showing up at freshers’ fairs and not finding a student society that meets their needs as a Christian student.
SCM are working really hard to make sure that we have affiliated groups at as many universities and churches as possible. We can only achieve this if the churches recognise that there is a problem, and if they are prepared to put in the resources and work with us to do something about it.
Meanwhile, we will continue to do what we can, working with some amazing and committed people to make sure that Christian students can encounter a God of love and justice, and be part of a community committed to following Jesus’ example of love in action.