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Relationships, Presence and Hope: University Chaplaincy during the COVID–19 Pandemic

Relationships, Presence and Hope: University Chaplaincy during the COVID–19 Pandemic

Chaplains and faith advisors have been on the frontline of the pandemic. This report explores the unique contributions of university chaplains during this time. (2021)

Throughout the pandemic, chaplains and faith advisors have been supporting the isolated, comforting the bereaved, and providing pastoral and spiritual care to anyone who needs it.

In universities, chaplains have faced a massive health crisis among students. In November 2020, a survey of 4,193 students conducted for the National Union of Students found that 52% said their mental health was worse than it was before the pandemic, but only 29% of those people had sought any help.

This report captures the experience of higher education chaplaincy during the pandemic, drawing on interviews with 16 chaplains from universities across the UK. It explores the unique contributions of chaplains during this time, the challenges they have faced, and what lessons can be learned by chaplains and employers.

Download the full report here and read an executive summary here.


University chaplains should:

·       Build on their learning throughout the pandemic to ensure their future provision is as creative and accessible as possible. This should be part of an active conversation with students and staff – what do they want from chaplaincy?

·       Look for ways to boost their visibility. On campus (when restrictions are eased) this means being visible in public spaces as often as they can. Online, it means developing a persistent presence on student social media. After the pandemic, they should continue to offer the opportunity for online meetings (for pastoral support and community activities) as well as in–person activities, to maximise their accessibility.

·       Embrace being agents of hope and space–holders for the expression of pain as essential and unique parts of their role, and articulate the importance of this to their managers.

·       Look to generate new informal opportunities for socialising (‘water–cooler moments’), particularly for staff. This may mean proactively inviting staff to join online or offline groups. It is particularly important to reach out to part–time teaching staff, and non–academic staff.

·       Be proactive in emailing individual students and staff in their networks to check in with them regularly.

·       Check in regularly with faith and belief societies to offer support. Bear in mind that many will be struggling to maintain their activities during the pandemic.

University managers should:

·       Get to know their chaplains, meeting with them regularly to learn about any challenges they face and to affirm that their work is valued.

·       Involve chaplains in relevant university committees where appropriate. Chaplains may have more to contribute to university strategy than is realised.

·       Ensure 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.

·       Encourage their chaplains to adopt a system for measuring their impact. Managers should also recognise that the impact of chaplaincy lies in the small things.

·       Expand the range of chaplains to reflect the major religion or belief groups on campus, and 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.

 Religious organisations should:

·       Consider the provision of chaplaincy (in universities and in other sectors) as part of their service to the community.

·       National level churches (including cross–church partnerships) should seek to ensure that there is at least one funded chaplaincy post (ideally full–time) in each university. National religious minority organisations should explore routes to accrediting, supporting and training chaplains from their community.

·       On a local level, the main religious minority communities should each consider working to fund a part–time chaplaincy post representing their faith in their local university. They should explore whether universities are willing to share part of the funding costs for a chaplain, to make the role more financially sustainable.

Large employers should:

  •  Consider employing or appointing chaplains as a means of improving their support for employees’ mental and spiritual wellbeing in the long–term, especially as homeworking becomes more common.

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 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

Chaplaincy, Coronavirus, Mental Health


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