By Rev. Barbara Talcott, School Chaplain
I am a School Chaplain. “That’s a church person, right?” Well, no, not really—but yes, kind of. “Oh, so you’re a school person.” Yes, but also not really. It’s kind of complicated. To be honest, we chaplains don’t fit very well into any of the categories most people are comfortable with.
I knew from the start of my process toward ordination that I was called to be a school chaplain, but I didn’t realize until after I was ordained how unusual that made me. Chaplaincy is definitely a job that other ordained ministers—and even most churchgoers—have trouble understanding and appreciating, because although many of us have been ordained by the Church, we don’t work in churches. In fact, we spend much of our ministry serving people who are non-Christian, and even non-religious. We have very different rhythms to our weeks and years, and because of our school responsibilities we can’t attend almost any of the events organized to gather and support parish clergy. To our fellow clergy and the people in the pews on Sunday, then, we can have the look and feel of outsiders. Many of them are more comfortable thinking of us as teachers than as ministers. And in church-related groups, chaplains are often made to feel marginal, as if somehow we were not “real” members of the clergy.
That would be just fine—what’s wrong with being categorized as a teacher, after all?—except that as school chaplains we also often have the look and feel of “outsiders” to our fellow teachers and administrators. We have responsibilities to God, to the institutional Church, and to the profession of ministry that can make our school colleagues baffled and even suspicious. In the ordination vows I took, I publicly committed myself to the life and work of the Church and vowed to obey my Bishop and other ministers who have authority over me. I don’t remember ever making a vow like that to a school! We are regularly drawn away from school activities by our chaplaincy responsibilities, particularly by the time we have to put into preaching, by pastoral needs in the community, and by the time it takes to plan and lead worship. As a result, many school teachers and administrators are more comfortable thinking of us as ministers than as teachers. And yes, in a group of school colleagues, chaplains can also feel a bit marginal, as if somehow we are not “real” members of the faculty.
So really, we are in-between people. But why on earth, given everything that a school has to accomplish, would a school bother having these marginal folks hanging around? What is a school chaplain for?
Well, at a church school like St. Mark’s this is less hard to answer than it is at other schools. There is a chapel building to be stewarded and plenty of traditional services that have to be planned and staffed: Morning and Evening Chapels, Faculty Installation, Voluntary Eucharist, Evening Meditation, Baccalaureate. That is the most basic level of the job: taking care of the chapel building and making the required services happen. But if we step up and actually do our job well, these spaces and these services should offer little islands of time and space quite intentionally away from all of the rest of the things the school has to accomplish.
The chaplaincy is specifically tasked to preserve the chapel spaces and the chapel times as “set aside” places, marginal places, places where the pressure to accomplish can stop and where people can withdraw enough to get some perspective on the bigger picture of what it is to be alive and to be human. Chapel is not the only place where people can get perspective, of course, but if the chapel and the chaplaincy are not offering that kind of perspective then even I have got to wonder what we are here for. In order to successfully offer marginal experiences, chaplains pretty much have to be marginal people. To act as a bridge from one perspective to another, from one imperative to another, chaplains have to have one foot on each side and be willing to inhabit in both worlds simultaneously, no matter how odd that can make them seem to others, and no matter how lonely it can get.
There is one final thing I want to say about chaplains and perspective. We are not here, living in our in-between roles, only to give people opportunities to put things in perspective. We are also here to be with people when perspective is forced on them without their ever asking for it or wanting it. While students are enclosed in the community of St. Mark’s, the world does not maintain suspended animation awaiting their return. Car crashes and scary medical diagnoses, divorces, deaths and other major life changes continue apace, and school chaplains are trained and ready to accompany people—both individually and as a community—through some of the saddest and scariest times in their lives.
I love being a school chaplain; I love being tasked to help students find the perspective they want, and also navigate the perspective they definitely don’t want. I even love being kind of marginal and in-between. As school chaplains we tell students to do their best on their schoolwork, and then immediately remind them that, when you step back and get some perspective, how they do on their schoolwork doesn’t matter even a little bit.
Mr. Stephen Hebert and I are happy to welcome anyone to the offbeat, kind of marginal, happily irrational, through-the-looking-glass world of the chaplaincy. We like what we do, and we like it even better when we have company.
The Rev. Barbara Talcott is in her sixth year as St. Mark’s School Chaplain and the Religion Department Head. She is also the parent of a VI Former.