Given the kind of coverage universities have had in the media recently, you probably won’t be surprised to hear me say that both staff and students at the University of Bristol often face considerable pressure for all sorts of reasons. Our Multifaith Chaplaincy team serves the university community by responding to psychological and spiritual challenges that arise in various ways.
I have been Free Church Chaplain in this team for nearly five years now, and one of the things I have observed in this time is the way in which being at university can provoke a new phase in students’ spiritual journey. Undergraduate students especially tend to experience university as a transitional time, involving several kinds of change. For an intense period of a few years, most are living in a new place with its own culture (in many cases, a new country), experiencing the freedom and responsibility of living more independently of parents, meeting a wide range of potentially lifelong friends, and learning a wealth of new knowledge and skills in their course of study. With change touching every aspect of their lives already, I have frequently found students are eager to find a willing sounding board to reflect afresh on their future place in the world. They have questions that are broader and more ‘existential’ than just identifying job prospects with the help of their faculties and the Careers department.
Chaplains, familiar as we are with seeing such questions as the vital and lifelong work of discerning our ‘vocation’, become natural companions on campus for these conversations; they don’t readily fit the brief of any other Student Wellbeing service. Negotiating so much newness can similarly cause questions about personal beliefs and values to surface: ‘Do I really own the beliefs I have about God and the right way to live, or am I just holding onto what I have been brought up to believe out of habit?’ – this is a question that I think has lurked below the surface of several conversations I have had with students. I have known both staff and students who have opened a bible for the first time as part of their desire to appraise life in a new situation, and who have looked to the chaplaincy for guidance in exploring its meaning.
A ‘Duty Chaplain’ is always available whenever the Multifaith Chaplaincy Centre is open as a drop-in space for anyone in the university community. They are there so that anyone who seeks them, be they staff or student, can be treated as a priority and patiently listened to, whatever they want to talk about. Plenty of other students will come and go during the day, making use of the Chaplaincy common room and kitchen as a ‘home from home’ and chatting to the chaplains along the way. More often than not, these exchanges are about such everyday things as how they are, how much work they have to do and whether relationships with flat-mates are going well. But these chats are also valuable; through them grow relationships of trust and a sense of belonging to a supportive community (a key factor in mental welfare).
My work as a chaplain brings other regular opportunities to build community and enable learning about faith. Right now, my in-tray includes planning for a weekly staff bible study, this term’s student retreat, interfaith conversations about moral themes and the University Carol Service. In these and other ways, I feel privileged to spend my days embodying a sign of Jesus’ call to us all, by offering students and staff an unconditional welcome, patient and attentive presence, and opportunities to deepen their spiritual journey.
(Mike Peat is a Free Church Chaplain at the University of Bristol’s Multifaith Chaplaincy)
This article first featured in our Autumn edition of WEBA News