How to support Chaplains to support students during Covid

Simon Perfect lifts the lid on the work of university chaplains supporting students during the pandemic.

Simon Perfect is a researcher at Theos, the religion and society thinktank, and a Teaching Fellow at SOAS

Across the country, and across sectors from hospitals to police stations to sports centres, chaplains provide vital pastoral and spiritual support to anyone who needs it. Right now, in universities, they’ve never been more needed.

They’ve been on the frontline of the massive mental health crisis among students. 52% say their mental health is worse than it was before the pandemic, according to an NUS survey in November. NUS finds that the main thing students want is “someone to talk to”. University chaplains have been trying to be that someone.

This is the subject of a new report from Theos, the religion and society thinktank: Relationships, Presence and Hope: University Chaplaincy during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Drawing on research with chaplains in 15 universities across the country, it documents the significant contributions they have made to student and staff wellbeing during the crisis – but also highlights the major challenges they have faced as well. Chapels, prayer rooms and other chaplaincy spaces have largely closed, and chaplains have had to shift their activities online. University managers need to understand the challenges facing chaplains to help navigate them.

Landscape

According to the major Chaplains on Campus research project (2019), there are about a thousand chaplains in UK universities, with an average of 10.4 in each institution – though the younger Post-1992 universities tend to have fewer than more traditional elite institutions.

The majority (64%) are Christian, though the numbers of non-Christians are rising. Their role is to support people pastorally and spiritually, and most make that offer to everyone, regardless of religion or belief. Indeed a large proportion of the people they support are not religious.

Crucially, just under two-thirds of chaplains are volunteers. Having volunteer chaplains helps universities to increase the range of their chaplaincy service, but it is a very precarious arrangement. Our research found that in some universities during the pandemic, volunteer chaplains (including many minority faith representatives) have not been able to provide the same level of support to students and staff as previously. That means the burden of chaplaincy in the pandemic has sometimes fallen largely on the shoulders of the lead, paid chaplains (who are usually Anglican).

Community and hope

We identified the four most significant contributions chaplains have made to campus life during the pandemic. They have been:

  • Supporting people pastorally. Many have seen significant increases in requests for pastoral support from students and staff dealing with loneliness, illness or bereavement.
  • Supporting people spiritually. Some have seen an increased interest among those who seek them out in talking about big issues of meaning and mortality, and sometimes about faith and God. This reflects national polling which suggests that more people are re-evaluating what they consider important in life as a result of the pandemic. Chaplains have also had to challenge disinformation about COVID-19, and religious beliefs they think are unhelpful, such as that the pandemic is a punishment from God.
  • Maintaining community. Chaplains have transferred their existing religious or social activities online, and have also sought to generate new forms of community, for example setting up online discussion groups. They have also played a key role in sustaining corporate belonging among students and staff. Some are producing regular reflective videos or funny social media content, which help foster a much-needed sense of togetherness.
  • Encouraging hope. This is perhaps their unique contribution, which is crucial right now.

In these ways, chaplains have provided a valuable service that is distinct from formal counselling. As one Muslim chaplain told us,

“counselling is very much about trying to get you to think about things [differently], or how to address a problem”.

Chaplaincy, however, offers something different: “very often what students or staff need is someone to sit alongside them and tell them that they’re doing okay and that the way they’re reacting is normal”.

Virtual chaplaincy

In some universities, shifting online has made chaplaincy more accessible, with more people able to access one-to-one support and group activities than when these were solely provided in-person.

But in others the picture is quite different, and the loss of physical presence on campus has created big challenges for chaplaincy. Chaplains have lost opportunities to meet new students in-person, meaning it has been harder for them to explain what they do and what they do not do – in particular, that they are not just there to serve religious students.

Like everyone else in universities, they have also lost “water-cooler moments” – informal opportunities, such as in the lunch queue, to socialise with people outside of meetings. This is a major problem for chaplaincy, because it is in these moments that chaplains identify people who are struggling but who would not actively reach out for support. The loss of water-cooler moments risks vulnerable people falling through the cracks.

We found that many chaplains are exhausted from bearing the huge emotional burden of supporting the anxious and comforting the bereaved. Some are also suffering from low morale. While many have seen a rise in demand for their services, others have actually seen a fall – particularly if they were not very well-known among students before the pandemic.

Some have also felt side-lined and overlooked by senior managers in decision-making that they could have had a useful say in. How well chaplains’ roles are understood by other staff, and how far they feel appreciated and embedded in university life, varies considerably.

Finally, some chaplains told us that many faith and belief societies are struggling to keep going during the pandemic. This is a problem, since as previous research by Theos has shown, these societies are crucial support networks for students.

Worryingly, where societies are still holding events online, there is no way of ensuring they stick to the normal vetting procedures for external speakers. Some chaplains told us that certain external religious groups have taken advantage of the situation to try to access students, pressuring them to make substantial financial commitments in an exploitative way. This is a side of the “free speech” debate that many forget.

Supporting chaplains to support students

How, then, can university managers better support their chaplains, both during this crisis period and afterwards?

  • Getting to know campus chaplains (including the volunteers), meeting with them regularly to learn about any challenges they face. It is important to actively affirm that their work is valued.
  • Involving chaplains in relevant university committees where appropriate, such as on equality and diversity planning. Chaplains may have more to contribute to university strategy than is realised.
  • Ensuring that chaplaincy services are advertised regularly in communications to students and staff, clarifying that anyone can make use of them, regardless of religion or belief. This is particularly important right now, when chaplains have lost opportunities to meet new students.
  • Encouraging chaplains to adopt an appropriate system for measuring their impact. The Chaplains on Campus research found that chaplains working in universities are less likely to have impact assessment measures in place than those working in healthcare or prisons – and that the lack of impact assessment contributes to a lack of confidence among chaplains about their effectiveness.
  • Expanding the range of chaplains to reflect the major religion or belief groups on campus. In the short-term additional posts might need to be filled by volunteers – but as the pandemic has shown, this is not a stable long-term arrangement.
  • Universities should also increase the funding for individual chaplaincy posts, depending on the need. They could consider inviting religion or belief groups (national or local) to contribute part of the funds for the posts.

More important than ever before

Even after the easing of lockdown, Covid-19 will continue to have long-lasting repercussions for mental health on campus – including for staff, many of whom face uncertain futures because of the financial hit to their institutions.

Chaplains will be needed more than ever to support them, to help maintain a sense of community, and to encourage hope. Universities must make sure they are supported and resourced, and that their unique contributions are properly recognised.

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