Listen for Jesus on Campus
  • Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Common Life

By D. Stuart Dunnan

There is a wonderful passage in the farewell letter William Augustus Muhlenberg wrote to his favorite student and spiritual son, John Barrett Kerfoot, when he sent him to be the first headmaster of St. James School in Hagerstown:

Be patient; be kind; be gentle; be long-suffering; consider every little trial and vexation as it comes along, as a little cross, to give you some opportunity continually for following after Christ. The true Christian teacher has a burden known only to himself. He is a sufferer, if not a confessor, for Christ. Bear all things for His sake; expect to make sacrifice of your time and your convenience, and be content to be forever accommodating those who seldom think of accommodating you. “If ye love them that love you, what thanks have ye? Do not even the publicans do the same?” (Hall Harrison, Life of the Right Reverend John Barrett Kerfoot, vol. 1, p. 54)

Muhlenberg’s point, I think, is that there should be something Christlike about the life of the teacher, and this is perhaps even more true today than it was in the early 19th century. A qualified teacher is a very educated person with an engaging personality and the ability to speak and write effectively. That person, especially when fresh out of college, has choices: teach, or attend law school, medical school, or business school. Small wonder that most teachers in America today last only about two to five years before they move on to a higher-paying job or more promising career without students to defy and frustrate them and parents to second-guess them and treat them like servants.

Now consider further the priest teacher these days, the chaplain or even head of school. By choosing school ministry, we are consciously taking ourselves out of the usual career path for clergy: associate, small parish, big parish, bishop! And we are also choosing, frankly, to work at least five days, in most cases six, and in my case seven days a week, for much longer hours, and to conform to a general and observable schedule, fully accountable as a working member of the administration or faculty.

This is surely a “servant ministry.” We offer as educated and able persons a different model for career and life choices to a highly talented, worldly, and motivated group of students. Again, our schools are typically college prep schools, so our own example of having pursued our education to serve and teach the young and to be priests is discordant and arresting, even subversive. It certainly subverted me.

The priest as schoolmaster is therefore a person of faith and Christian conviction engaged in “the world” as it now exists around us — not as we can pretend it exists if we surround ourselves with the right group of like-minded believers and volunteers in our parishes, but as it really exists: aggressive, selfish, and unbelieving. This means that the schoolmaster priest has to engage the academic assumption of systemic doubt with inspiring belief, the careerist purpose of self-promotion and accumulation with self-sacrifice and generosity, and the moral neutrality of “whatever works” with truth, courage, and love.

It is the particular (and sometimes brave) role of the priest teacher, whether as chaplain or head, to be the believer who is also intelligent and articulate, who can really speak to the faith side of the equation and insist on a determining good, confronting the achieving and ambitious with a greater cause than “me.” We are called to teach and to help, to go out and win disciples by the transparently good purpose of our lives and the quality of our work.

And we do this by living in community — especially of course in a boarding school like mine, but really, I think, in all of our schools to the extent that they remain faithfully “Anglican” in their purpose and identity.

We do this by engaging each other honestly and respectfully. We share, help, and honor each other, bridging the differences of talent, interest, background, race, culture, and sex in all the ways uniquely available to us in a school: eating our meals together, playing on teams together, sharing our days and our weeks together. We typically do not do this as adults, so school provides the perfect opportunity to build the right foundation.

It is the job of the priest in a school to gather and build community in all the ways that we are empowered by that community to do. Thus, a good chaplain is different from the rest of the faculty, more connected to the students and to the parents. A priest head is also much more connected to students, parents, and alumni, and cannot just interact with teachers and staff as “employees”; they are also “parishioners,” if you will. As priests, we are by nature concerned and connecting and, by vocation, gathering.

In this way, we are called to walk with our students on their many roads to Emmaus: to answer their doubts with faith. If I have gained one insight in the ministry I have attempted to describe to you, a life of service among teenagers, it is simply this: faith is always best understood as courage. And this of course is what our Lord made real to those disciples. By walking with them, listening, and then breaking bread, he encouraged them, and put his courage into them, so that their hearts burned. “You know, Father, you’re right. I can do this.”

This, then, is the work of a school priest: to encourage and believe in your students, to make sure that they know that they are loved, and that love is itself the redeeming purpose of life: not just romantic love as our culture would celebrate and exploit it, or family love as parents might insist on it, but the love made real for us in Jesus Christ, as he is known to us in the breaking of the bread.

This leads to the more practical and important question in school ministry: How do we do this? How do we make Christ real? My answer would be that we do this in five ways, which I will describe very briefly: in conversation, both personal and general; in worship; in class; in crisis; and, again, in community.

1. Father Tony Jarvis, director of the Educational Leadership and Ministry Program at Berkeley Divinity School, has written quite movingly about the power of the encouraging conversation in a young person’s life, and this has been my experience as well. Lest you think that such conversations are remarkable, I have many every day. On the most superficial level, school life gives us the opportunity to notice the child and to say a kind word in passing or after the game, but also to be part of the conversation at meals, on the bus, in the dorms, and in the common rooms: in all the many and different circumstances and settings which are available to us in schools and not in churches. Most powerful are those wonderful conversations when the student seeks us out, in my case in my office or even my living room, to ask a brave question, to share a loss, or to seek advice. But there are also those important conversations we initiate: “That was rude,” “That was unkind,” “Are you ok?,” or “I had a call from your mom, and I need to tell you something.”

These conversations continue and deepen over time and long after students graduate. I receive several emails or calls from alumni every day and several visits in any given week. I marry alumni to their wives and husbands and baptize their children. I have even buried one of them, which was one of the hardest things I have had to do.

The conversations that a school priest is privileged to have with the young are varied, constant, and deep, and there is no other ministry in the Church which affords clergy this kind of influence for good. Maybe the parish was like this before the automobile and youth soccer leagues, but no longer. You can try to entertain and even engage parishioners with some kind of youth ministry, but you are competing with the world. By serving in school ministry, you are engaging young people where they are and helping them to succeed — but more importantly helping them to feel loved and called by God to lives of substance and value. You are also teaching them that there is a difference between happiness and joy, loss and hopelessness, arrogance and confidence; and that there is a link between anger and hurt.

2. Every school has its own traditions and habits of worship. But however the priest is empowered to lead the community in worship, there is always the opportunity to introduce the discipline and function of prayer: a common foundation of humility and gratitude, incorporating a greater awareness that we are human, and therefore called as human beings to live and grow in relationship to God. For some of our students this is a familiar concept, for others brand new, and for still others something we approach differently than they do. But for all there is the opportunity to learn what prayer is, and how we as a community worship God.

Here is a sobering truth: a good chaplain who speaks well and engages the students effectively can make chapel the center of a school’s whole life, while a bad chaplain can kill it. The job is that important.

3. Episcopal schools are not creationist, so we are comfortable teaching Mr. Darwin’s theories in science class. We are also however keen to teach Milton and Herbert in English class, to sing Howells and Stanford in choir, and to teach the sad story of the Reformation. We are, in short, not afraid to point to the role of faith in history, literature, music, and art, and to raise faith-based questions of perspective and morality in science. In this way we are among the most open academic environments in America today, as we fear neither faith nor reason and appreciate the great power and value of both.

The school priest must be an effective teacher: not just a specialized “religion” teacher, but ideally a very good history teacher or English teacher or science teacher; just as “smart” and “useful” as all the other teachers, but bringing the additional insights afforded by a theological education. In this way, students are encouraged to take faith seriously and to know the history and doctrines of their own faith, how our different religions and confessions compare and interact, and how they should inspire us to live and to relate to each other.

4. Schools are full of crises, both real and imagined, and the role of the school priest is to respond to the real ones with the advantage of faith, and thus compassion and courage, and to offer the right balance of consequence and forgiveness, challenge and support. Sometimes this means working discreetly with an individual student and family, sometimes with a smaller group of students, sometimes with the whole school. As headmaster, my role is sometimes quite different from the chaplain’s, but more often the same, and our roles are always mutually supportive.

In each case, we are responding to the individual with concern and to the whole with faithfulness; we keep the two in balance. We keep confidences when this is safe, but we never lie, and we try to be as open and transparent as we possibly can. Every crisis brings a wonderful opportunity to teach the right lessons and to model the right responses, which does not always happen at home.

5. All of this brings us back to community, which is in the end the true work of a school priest: to build and sustain the community of the school as priests are called and commissioned to do. Quite simply, we take care of everybody, attend to the outcast and include the new, teach powerful humility and empower gentle good, and gather the faithful and not so faithful — and mostly the not yet faithful — at the altar of God. We guard for Christ his chance to speak to them, and then help them to listen, knowing that he will.

If you do not think that Christ speaks to teenagers then you have forgotten what it means to be a bold and terrified, self-confident and insecure, generous and self-centered, delightful and miserable, promising and doomed young person. How powerful to stand as Christ’s priest among them, against the devil in their wilderness, helping them see that stones cannot become bread, that we worship God alone, and that very tall towers are not safe to jump from.

The Rev. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of St. James School in Hagerstown, Maryland. This essay is adapted from an address he gave at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.


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