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Building relationships, encouraging hope: University chaplains during COVID–19

Building relationships, encouraging hope: University chaplains during COVID–19

University chaplains are facing a campus mental health crisis. Simon Perfect discusses our new research into their COVID–19 experiences. 18/02/2021

Among those on the frontline of the COVID–19 crisis, there are chaplains. Across the country they have been doing vital work, supporting the isolated, providing pastoral and spiritual care to anyone who needs it, and comforting the ill, dying and bereaved.[i]

Their stories often go unheard, but they deserve to be told. That’s why Theos has undertaken new research into the story of chaplaincy during the pandemic, in one particular sector: higher education. There are about a thousand university chaplains providing pastoral and spiritual support to students and staff, regardless of their religion or belief. They have been frontline responders to a massive mental health crisis among students: 52% of students say their mental health is worse than it was before the pandemic, according to an NUS survey in November. At the same time, chaplaincy itself – support which is usually so rooted in physical presence – has had to adapt considerably to the restrictions caused by the pandemic.

Our new report, Relationships, Presence and Hope: University Chaplaincy during the COVID–19 Pandemic, draws on research with chaplains and faith advisors in 15 universities across the country, conducted in the autumn 2020. It explores the unique contributions of chaplains to campus life during this time, and the significant challenges they have faced, as they have had to shift their activities online and close their chaplaincy spaces. It also raises important issues for big employers (both within and outside of higher education) about how to meet people’s spiritual needs and keep teams bonded at this very difficult time.

As one Muslim chaplain in a Welsh university said, “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.” Even when chaplains have been unable to be physically present on campus, they have still sought to provide this kind of accompanying presence from afar – a sense of ‘being around’ and emotionally available, journeying alongside students and staff alike as they navigate the challenges of lockdown life on campus.

As part of this, chaplains have been supporting people pastorally, with many seeing significant increases in requests for pastoral support from students and staff; supporting people spiritually, with some noting increased interest in people talking about big issues of meaning, mortality, faith and God; maintaining community life from a distance (whether in online discussion groups, or major online events); and, above all, encouraging hope. Chaplains have, quite simply, been agents of hope in a time when hope has often been difficult to maintain. They are unique on campus in viewing this as a specific part of their particular role, and need to be confident in articulating this as a core part of their role to their managers.

Of course, encouraging hope does not simply mean disavowing any feelings of despair. Sometimes the best (or only) thing a chaplain can do is to accompany people in their hopelessness, and to affirm that it is alright to feel that way. Thus, chaplains can also act as space–holders for the expression of pain – people who create opportunities for others to vocalise their grief, hopelessness and outrage at suffering without pressuring them to change how they feel. Holding these two roles together is challenging but critical – and it is something the chaplains do uniquely well.

None of this has been easy. In some universities, shifting online has made chaplaincy more accessible, with more people able to access chaplaincy services than when these were solely provided in–person. But in others the loss of physical presence on campus has created real barriers to chaplaincy. Lockdown has taken away informal moments of socialisation outside of meeting settings (what we call ‘water–cooler moments’), meaning chaplains have lost crucial opportunities to offer informal pastoral support. Some also report feeling undervalued and side–lined by university managers. And in some universities, volunteer chaplains (who often primarily serve people of minority faiths) have not been able to provide the same level of support as paid chaplains, meaning some students get better provision of religious and spiritual support than others.

Despite these challenges, the pandemic has reiterated the significant value of chaplaincy as a unique emotional, spiritual and communal resource on campus.

Looking forward to life after lockdown, our research recommends that big employers of all kinds should consider providing access to chaplains – people who can offer employees an informal listening ear and help them navigate specific challenges, or larger existential and spiritual questions. More generally, giving access to chaplains can also be a way for employers to prepare for the future of work. Even after the pandemic, work life will not go back to the way it was; research with big companies suggests many will be selling their offices and moving, sometimes entirely, to remote working. Employers are already worried about the loss of informal opportunities for socialisation which are so crucial to team culture.[ii] In this hybrid working space, chaplains can be the safeguards of the water–cooler, finding ways to create opportunities for informal chat and socialisation, with a particular eye for identifying and supporting those who may be isolated or lonely.

Ultimately, our research demonstrates why chaplaincy matters, and why universities and other employers should care about it. As we continue to process the trauma of COVID–19 over the coming years, they will be needed more than ever.

You can read the full report here, and an executive summary here. 

Sign up to attend our upcoming event on 17th March, ‘Care under Covid–19: Providing spiritual and pastoral support at a distance’, here.

Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

[i] Most people offering the kind of pastoral and spiritual care we are discussing refer to themselves as ‘chaplains’, so the report primarily uses this term. As discussed in the Introduction, however, some people feel it is inappropriate to describe their work using terms originally associated with Christianity and prefer other terms, such as ‘faith advisor’ or ‘non–religious pastoral carer’ (if they are not religious). 

[ii] See this tweet thread from February 2021 The author, a member of the company Firstbase, says that from his conversations with over 2,000 companies over 2020, 30% of the companies spoken to plan to get rid of their office and move entirely to remote–working. Many worry about the loss of “water cooler chat”.


Image: Mary Long/Adobe Stock

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).

Watch, listen to or read more from Simon Perfect

Posted 18 February 2021

Chaplaincy, Coronavirus, Mental Health


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