University chaplains in person during Covid-19

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this that over the coming year the student experience will be characterised by virtual learning environments and online social interactions.

In developing teaching and learning provision for the new academic year, many institutions are maintaining some level of “present in person” contact, with labs, seminars and performing arts remaining part of on-campus activity.

The development of student community has been high on the priority list of students’ unions and universities, with both seeking to maximise the sense of belonging experienced through this virtual existence. The challenges for all involved in this have been further accentuated by the recent “Rule of Six”, causing many to revise yet again their provision and rethink what relational community will be like.

A dispersed community

For those who work in university chaplaincy, this is no different. The issues hit us at the same time as the rest of the sector. With the shutdown of campuses in March, Chaplains found themselves without chaplaincy centres, chapels and prayer rooms from which to operate, and with a now dispersed community in an even greater need of support. Pastoral provision and faith support went online, with support being provided to groups and 1-on-1 by Chaplains from the full gamut of faith backgrounds.

One of the consistent queries raised by Chaplaincy colleagues around the country has been about what a socially distanced Covid secure chaplaincy presence would look like. For many of us, although communal worshipping opportunities are important, these are by no means the sole activity we oversee.

The regulations that allowed for the opening of Places of Worship back in early July have allowed Muslim Prayer spaces to become available (with or without congregational Friday prayer) and Christian chapels to open in line with denominational guidance – all, at present, without congregational singing. Face masks are to be worn, and appropriate distancing to be followed.

Belonging

But most of our work is based on building relationships, forming community, and imbibing belonging. We have, like students’ unions and student societies, needed to develop our face-to-face offering around the “Rule of Six”. We’ve had to think about how we put together events that help people deal with loss and trauma associated with the year that has past.

We’ve had to share with other student wellbeing colleagues in developing Covid-secure ways to meet one-to-one for pastoral support and faith guidance. In Newcastle, prior to the recent local restrictions, we had created opportunities for Chaplains to meet in person with up to five students at a time to go for a socially distanced walk, building upon the Five Ways of Wellbeing, giving plenty of fresh air, important orientation, and opportunity to meet new people from a variety of backgrounds (we’ve since put these on hold).

Colleagues across the sector have been thinking creatively about how to provide a student experience that is rich with interaction, intersectionality, and inspiration.

Present in person will be a limiting factor throughout the year and Chaplaincies will also need to respond in ways that are virtual and online. Activities will be taken into the online space. Support groups will form virtual communities. Pastoral care will take place over video and voice calls.

Our space has changed, but our fundamental offerings have not. Though limited in our ability to congregate to celebrate, commemorate and foster community, Chaplaincies will continue to interact with students and staff, to be present at the times of struggle and doubt, and provide some vision and hope in what will continue to be challenging circumstances.

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