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Agents of hope

Simon Perfect considers the role of university chaplains after the pandemic

Most mornings, Fiona Souter, chaplain at the University of Hertfordshire, begins her working day by looking around her office for a random object. She takes a zoomed-in photo of the object—a paperclip, a keyhole, some stepladders—and shares it on the chaplaincy’s social media pages. Students and staff post guesses of what the object could be, before all is revealed by the day’s end.

Souter’s ‘puzzle picture’ discipline is a snapshot of how university chaplains are finding innovative ways to build community. In this case, the simple ritual is a way for her to create a regular moment of humour and bonding for university members. It boosts her visibility, makes her seem approachable and reminds them gently that she is available should they need it.

And many of them do need it. Souter, along with 1,000 other chaplains of different religions and beliefs across UK universities, has been on the front line of a major mental health crisis among students and staff during the pandemic. Two-thirds are unpaid volunteers and too often their work is hidden.

Research I carried out last year for Theos, a religion and society think tank, captured the crucial role of chaplains in supporting university wellbeing during Covid, as well as the challenges they faced. It raises important questions for university life, such as how to build community and meet people’s wellbeing needs in a time of increasing fragmentation, as homeworking becomes ever more normalised.

Existential questions

The heart of chaplaincy, as the interviewees for my research emphasised, is about being an accompanying presence—simply being alongside people on their journey and providing a listening ear. Most chaplains emphasise that their offer of support is for everyone in the university community, regardless of their religion or belief. Indeed, a large proportion of people who seek chaplaincy support are not religious.

Chaplains complement, but differ from, formal counsellors in university support services because they are often more readily available and see themselves as offering the gift of time, rather than trying to resolve a particular problem. They are also more accustomed to discussing spiritual matters, and many play important roles in supporting student faith and belief societies and hosting spaces for prayer and worship.

Much of this is rooted in physical presence, so Covid has forced chaplains to reimagine much of their work. Many have seen significant increases in requests for pastoral and spiritual support, as people navigate loss, loneliness and existential questions about mortality and purpose. During lockdown, most of this support had to be provided online or through phone calls, or socially distanced walks in the park. Chaplains were also busy trying to recreate existing community and spiritual activities online, as well as setting up new ones: from mindfulness and meditation sessions, to regular online coffee mornings, to book clubs for lonely staff.

These efforts at online community-building—some small scale and some large—have been vital for many people over the past two years. Some chaplains found that a virtual chaplaincy increased their accessibility, with people seeking them out who previously either could not (such as distance-learning students) or would not (those who find physical religious spaces alienating). One chaplain told me he started to host online death cafés—spaces to discuss how people view and cope with death—with participants rising to between 30 and 40 people per session.

This work comes with its own emotional toll. As a Muslim chaplain told me: “I don’t think it’s always understood how intense chaplaincy can be.” It’s often seen as a soft ‘cup of tea’ ministry type of thing, but dealing with bereavements all day (as many chaplains have had to do) has an impact.

And while the shift online has created new opportunities for chaplaincy, it has also created new challenges. Chaplains often work in informal spaces, meeting people in the corridor, in the queue, at the water cooler. Losing physical presence made it harder for chaplains to identify people who needed support but would not reach out for it themselves.

Blended future

Flexible homeworking is here to stay and many students and staff will continue to spend a large proportion of their time off-site. So what of the future of university chaplaincy and pastoral care more widely?

First, it needs to be blended. For chaplains, this means continuing to offer the opportunity for online one-to-one and community activities, which are often more accessible than in-person ones, and, where possible, being a regular, personable presence on student social media pages. Quick videos with short reflections for the day, or a post with a joke (or a puzzle picture), can help boost a chaplain’s visibility, as well as acting as a point of consistency and a bonding opportunity for isolated students.

Online cannot replace offline, however. Now that campuses have opened up again, it is vital that chaplains be as physically visible as possible, which could be as simple as regularly walking around campus with a chaplain badge. This is particularly important for reminding newer students that chaplaincy is available to them.

Cultivating both online and offline presence isn’t easy, and some chaplains will find it hard (or impossible) to navigate constantly changing student social media spaces. Each chaplain will need to work out an appropriate balance for themselves, and it may be that #virtualchaplaincy is something that only lead (paid) chaplains can develop, not part-time volunteers.

Second, informal socialisation matters, and universities should care about its loss. Homeworking inevitably leads to what we may call ‘meetingisation’—the reduction of workplace interactions to formal meetings. This is a real problem in workplace culture, because it is casual interactions outside formal meeting structures that sow relationships and trust and make an organisation an attractive place to be.

Water cooler moments

Chaplains have an important role to play in fostering informal opportunities for socialising—the ‘water cooler moments’. This might mean proactively inviting staff and students to join online or offline activities, whether relatively high commitment (an online book club) or low (a group walk in the park). Through such initiatives, chaplains can also help bridge barriers and challenge power dynamics between different groups who would not otherwise meet, such as part-time teaching staff and non-academic staff.

Third, university managers need to recognise the value of chaplaincy as a communal and spiritual resource on campus. My interviewees had mixed experiences with management—some felt valued; others (particularly part-time volunteers) felt their contributions were overlooked. Managers need to get to know their chaplains, meeting them regularly and promoting their services through university communications. They should recognise that chaplains have an ear to the ground among students and staff and can bring valuable insights that can inform strategy.

And managers should explore ways to increase funding for chaplaincy posts. Reliance on volunteer chaplains, particularly for minority faiths, means universities cannot guarantee a consistent level of religion-specific chaplaincy support across communities—and that’s a problem for both equality and sustainability of chaplaincy provision.

Chaplains are, above all, agents of hope, and this is perhaps their key contribution to university life during the pandemic. Hope matters for wellbeing, and cultivating it is something that big employers, including universities, should care about. It doesn’t happen spontaneously but requires investment in people with a gift for encouraging hope in others. As we continue to process the trauma of the pandemic, and as our ways of work and study continue to change, chaplains will be needed more than ever.

Simon Perfect is a researcher at Theos and an associate tutor at Soas, University of London.