To borrow imagery from the great philosopher Shrek, Chaplaincy is like onions — filled with many layers of complexity.

I have been fortunate within my faith journey to be exposed to a variety of youth ministries. First I was a Youth Pastor in a local church setting, and was then employed by Scripture Union Independent Schools (SUIS), journeying alongside Chaplains and dedicated teachers. These formative years, working with Youth and Chaplains, offered insight and perspective as I next moved into my own unique Chaplaincy context. And unique it is.

Chaplaincy is unique

Christian schools range widely in composition. There are through-schools, Co-Ed, full boarding, traditional ‘church’ schools, non-denominational and the contrair, each with their own nuances, challenges, and rewards. Each of these contexts can necessitate a different approach or response.

The office of Chaplain is an enigma. Few will fully understand the role. Like onions, Chaplains have layers. While not quite a teacher, Chaplains are set apart from local church. Some are priests, some ministers, while others non-denominational pastors, each with their own distinctive style and emphasis. Because of this, I am aware there are different models of chaplaincy. A Chaplain may be required to wear many different hats: pastor, preacher, educator, manager, disciplinarian, coach, councillor, marketing, administrator. Within these roles, specific ministry focuses on the Principal (perhaps a Chaplains most key ally), heads of schools, staff, and parents. Cultivating relationship and rapport with each of these people is vital to the position of Chaplain and the holistic spirituality of the school.

While the Chaplaincy is responsible for the care and spiritual growth of all these groups, I believe a Chaplain’s primary calling is to minister to the youth of their particular school.

Further articles could be written unpacking each of these areas. However, for the purpose of this article, there are two underpinning philosophies I believe belong at the heart of chaplaincy.

Chaplaincy is Missional

At its centre Chaplaincy is missional; not because of what Chaplains do, but because of who God is. God is missional, pursuing us, drawing us to Him into relationship and life to the full (John 10:10). In Matt 28:19a Jesus commissions His disciples to, ‘… go and make disciples…” succeeding this heart of God. As the early disciples crossed boundaries and culture, just as Jesus had done, this mission became a part of who they were, lived out, drawing others from every walk of life into relationship with God. The disciples became incarnational in the lives of the world around them, never going in their own strength but directed through the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit.

Each activity of the early church was grounded in the missional heart of God.

Chaplaincy is on the missional frontline

Independent Christian schools are not local church. While many aspects and foundational principles of local church will be present, the thrust of Chaplaincy is not primarily to the converted. Much like the early disciples, Chaplains work on the missional frontline, engaging with people of vastly different worldviews, cultural practices, faith backgrounds, and cross-denominational theology or praxis.

This requires a responsibility to all in their care, showing respect, seeking to understand, and engaging in honest dialogue. The Chaplain holds this tension daily, acutely aware that many in their care may have never attended church before, or more dauting, someone’s lasting memory of Christianity could be you.

This missional approach may require a subtle mindset tweak that is crucial to the understanding and outworking of the position, presenting the Good News of Christ consistently, clearly, relevantly, fresh, each day. Ultimately the focus and necessity of this mission is Jesus Himself, rooted in scripture, revealed through Christ.

Chaplains are people of the word; holding grace, truth and hope fast in a chaotic world.

Chaplaincy is pastoral

Chaplaincy is about relationships.

I have always tried to place people over programme, investing in the lives of students and staff. The model I have pressed into is that of Jesus’ in John 10:11-16, the Good Shepherd. I humbly apply Jesus’ challenge to Peter, take care of my sheep (John 21:16). This can be immensely difficult in an educational organisation that relies on timetables and programme. Building relationship takes time and intention.

Chaplains become between-people, available in the between spaces of the day, offering a listening ear, an encouraging word, a sympathetic shoulder, a prayer, as the Holy Spirit guides and prompts.

These seemingly insignificant moments create trust, giving credibility and currency to the position.

Chaplains are pastoral by looking after the spiritual dimension of people. I count it a great privilege to journey alongside young people, helping and watching them grow in their faith. It has been equally humbling to sit with a student who is experiencing loss or being silent through the unbearable pain of a parent who has lost a child.

Contextualizing youth culture

Being Pastoral means being relevant in the present to the individual but also aware of what is happening in culture. Author Eugene Peterson, in his memoir ‘the Pastor’, highlights this by noting:

The pervasive element in our two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not ‘someone who gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God.

Calling attention to current trends may mean speaking out against morals or ethics, or challenging the minefield of prevailing cultural practices, even when it is unpopular to do so. Young people will be shaped by society, friends, and family. Chaplains, working together with parents and school, become a voice in the wilderness, interpreting scripture, offering a sounding board to these challenges, consistently pointing people back to the character of Jesus.

Chaplaincy nurtures partnership

While discipling 1000 people may sound appealing to the super-pastors amongst us, it is an audacious task, likely leading to some form of burn-out. Therefore, it is crucial to be fostering support of Christian staff and forming partnership with local church. These extra voices give weight of conviction and a variety of ministry approaches.

What has transformed our specific context is the formation and involvement of our Christian Council. A significant portion of my thought and work goes into discipling this group, developing, equipping, and releasing this core group of Christian student leaders. Each student receives a ministry portfolio and is involved in leading other boys. This peer ministry has offered life and ownership to the Christian culture of our school.

Chaplaincy is like onions

In closing, school is not a local church. First and foremost, they are educational institutions. It can never be and should never be local church. In some ways, however, schools have taken on the mantle of local church. School has become the new constant in many lives. To some, schools offer a broken society a place to belong. To others they are a sanctuary.

In a limited window of influence, it is an immense responsibility and privilege as a Chaplain to minister into the lives of young people, balancing these Missional and Pastoral roles. My hope is always that every young person will personally know and revel in the wonder of a God who loves them beyond reason; that they will go on to influence, impact and change South Africa for the better.

I think Shrek is on to something.

Now, not everyone is a fan of onion. Personally, I love onion. The work is smelly. There is often loads of tears. But when mixed just right, it brings out the most wonderful flavour.

What amazing work to play a part in.