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The School’s Chaplain Is The Pandemic’s Prophet

The School’s Chaplain Is The Pandemic’s Prophet


The community, chaplain included, needs to be reassured that “God’s Got This!”

Over more than a decade of teaching fourth grade Old Testament in two different schools, I spent a substantial amount of time on the prophets. Their stories appeal to nine and ten year-olds, especially as we together recognized that prophets seemed to fall into a predictable pattern and performance as they assumed the role of “reminderer-inchief ” of the People of God, whenever these needed a reset in faith, identity, and purpose. Since the earliest days of the Covid19 pandemic, and even more so seventh months into the unexpected and unprecedented ministry of school chaplaincy in the midst of it, I find myself recalling those fourth grade lesson plans as I repeatedly step into a prophet’s role, reminding the various school constituencies of who and whose they are, where they’ve come from and where they must go, and also who and how they are called to be.

“To be living reminders,” wrote Henri Nouwen, “means to be prophets who, by reminding, point their people in a new direction and guide them into unknown territory.”1 There is no doubt that the Covid19 pandemic has thrust us all into “unknown territory” to which Nouwen refers, and this suggests that there is a place for a prophet as a guide in the community. The increasing challenge, however, is ascertaining how comfortable or willing the school and its people may be with the “new direction” the chaplain feels called to proclaim.


Early efforts at worship and faith formation (two primary components of school chaplaincy) were at the same time high on the “things they don’t teach you in seminary” score and yet are still as basic as anything I’ve ever done. The community, chaplain included, needs to be reassured that “God’s Got This!” (the simple and catchy title of my first “Faith-Filled Fridays” video) and to be retold just the key faith story – God IS with us, even (especially!) when we are not with one another. In the same way as the prophets of old would tell the faith story, recounting the promises of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” so too the pandemic’s chaplain engages formation and worship as the storyteller, in that most primal work of reminding in order to reassure. As the pandemic season, and its related restrictions, have carried on, the longing for “the way we used to do chapel” has been echoing across the voices of faculty, students, and families. As a cathedral school, it seems people are missing the grandeur and whimsy of worshipping in such a hallowed space (my living room via a Zoom screen cannot compete!) but this has opened a tremendous opportunity to teach about the holiness of every moment and every space and to invite the community to consider how to find the God they worship in the most mundane, even virtual, places.


Every aspect of school chaplaincy is pastoral, based in the ridiculous and revered honor of a trusted relationship with a large and complex community that is forever in a process of growingup and renewing itself.2 Just as the biblical prophet demonstrated care and longing for God’s people by “speaking the truth in love” about both their circumstances and their hope in the midst of them, so I’m learning that the school needs its chaplain to give words to the innumerable feelings and needs that have taken a hold of us all. Thankfully, Scott Berinato and the editorial staff of the Harvard Business Review gave a name to a predominant and pervasive feeling before I could clearly articulate it: “We also talked about how we were feeling. One colleague mentioned that what she felt was grief. Heads nodded in all the (Zoom?) panes.”3 In my community, my sharing of this expressed truth gave needed permission, noticeably eased anxiety, and then informed and shaped expectations in our “new normal.” In pastoral care, the realization that we were all grieving freed me to remind people of what they most needed to hear: for the children, “You are safe and loved;” for their parents and caregivers, “You were your child’s first teacher and you are ready for a time such as this;” and for the faculty, “I thank God for you.” These messages, speaking to feelings of fear and loss in us all, were (and still are) as essential as the Biblical Prophets constant reminder to the people that their God had brought them out of Egypt. In the eighth month of the “new normal,” however, a division has been created in the community as most have returned to the school building to teach and learn, while some continue to work or study from home because of health risks in their own bodies or in those of their loved ones. Everyone is under an incredible amount of stress— those in the building — because of so many safety measures and as many tangible worries, and those at home because of guilt, loneliness, and ongoing frustrations with technology. In both environments, the chaplain does a lot of judgment-free listening and takes on the risk of advocating for one cohort of colleagues in the company of the other, all while maintaining the classic stance of ‘non-anxious presence’ while feeling an anxiety she’s never experienced before. The pandemic pastoral work is hard, and yet the need for the prophet’s proclamation of hope has never been as urgent or as necessary.


In the best of times, chaplains should serve on school administrative teams, to speak to Episcopal Identity and the spiritual development of children, and to listen and watch intently for the sacred reflection of the school’s mission and values in decision making, communications, and more. In these times I am noticing that the school chaplain’s role in prophetic listening and speaking on administrative teams, though perhaps more challenging and tiring than usual, is critical. Leaders are stewards of many people, places, and things in a school, and in a culture of urgency and fear our vision can be so easily narrowed and shortened in order to feel more manageable or even possible. I find myself needing the courage to speak up and to remind my colleagues in leadership of the time pressures, or the food insecurities, or the health stresses, or the basic and complicated needs of our many and various human souls. That reminder is often a mirroring-back of what I hear being said, or it’s the retelling of the beautiful and beloved story of the school’s foundations, hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Nobody has really forgotten these truths, concerns, and priorities, but the pressing and worrisome nature of each moment is like a fog that blurs the vision of what matters most.

This pandemic has opened a tremendous opportunity to teach about the holiness of every moment and every space and to invite the community to consider how to find the God they worship in the most mundane, even virtual, places.

School administrators are daily in the business of assessing and tending to what immediately matters the most; we are bearers of the school’s mission in good times and in bad. But temperature checks, air purifiers, and contact-tracing have never been part of our mission or ministry before. It has become impossible to lead according to the pattern, style, and schedule that has served us so well for so long. The practical needs of a day on or off campus are nearly all-consuming. People accustomed to (and really good at) big-picture vision and planning have to step into classrooms so exhausted teachers, in full personal protective gear, can step away for a “bio break,” or call a parent to come pick up their child who just will not keep their mask on. It’s a trickly balance to keep up with these urgent, practical needs while not losing sight of the beautiful vision, so the prophetic chaplain just keeps mentioning both the goal and especially the grace that will allow us to delay its completion at this time.


When my fourth graders and I studied the Old Testament prophets, we noticed that a key component of their work was to challenge the people of God - having been reminded of their identity and story - to reset their ways in accordance with their promise and purpose. The school chaplain typically exercises this kind of prophetic voice in the community by organizing, overseeing, and reflecting on service-learning projects and partnerships. Given that outreach is a hallmark of an Episcopal education, reimagining this meaningful work during a time distance-learning has been a priority and a natural outlet for the transformation of our fears and sadness. Grief expert David Kessler, in his recent work Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, shares from personal and professional experience about the choice to find meaning in loss by (among many ways) stepping outside of ourselves and considering other perspectives: “Perhaps it’s time to put down the mirror and pick up the binoculars,”4 he wrote, and thereby inspired my schools “Thankful Thursdays” project. Our students (toddlers-3rd grade) have been writing notes and cards of gratitude for “the helpers” in our neighborhoods, those working to keep us safe and healthy and those providing for our basic needs. The prophetic voice of the chaplain has invited families to remember their call to serve, to look outside of themselves, and to exercise the attitude of gratitude – all practices that this pandemic response time may strengthen for us going forward.


And the hope going forward is where my reflections on the school chaplain’s work end, much as they began. My fourth-grade friends of years past would remind me that the prophet, the “reminderer-in-chief,” calls people back to their truest and best selves, knowing who and whose they are, and who and how they are meant to be, and I cannot think of more “essential work” than that. I’m already beginning to feel the call to continue prioritizing the prophetic ministry of my school chaplaincy, so my hope and prayer is that all we have learned about our best selves and best practices during our distance-learning will stay with us, as Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, has expressed prophetically herself: We’ll observe how the burdens braved by humankind Are also the moments that make us humans kind; Let every dawn find us courageous, brought closer; Heeding the light before the fight is over. When this ends, we’ll smile sweetly, finally seeing In testing times, we became the best of beings.



1. Nouwen, Henri, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ. New York: HarperCollins, 1977, 59.

2. For another article and larger conversation, but also for pastoral context here: The “congregation” is school ministry is sizeable when one considers students, alumni, and all their families, then faculty/staff/governing leadership and their families, too. The “on campus” membership changes by a certain percentage (in our case about 15%) every year due to graduation and new admissions. Constituents represent all faiths and none, and for many (child and adult) the school is the primary faith community.

3. Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020, That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief ( March 25, 2020).

4. David Kessler, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (New York: Scribner, 2019), p. 74.

5. The complete text of Amanda Gorman’s prophetic and hopeful Covid19 poem, both written and performed, can be found at Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman​ offers words of hope amid coronavirus pandemic.