For many years in my discernment for ordained ministry I felt a tension between pursuing religious education and parish ministry. I felt like I had to decide between being a priest or a professor. In 2016 I had the great joy of becoming a school chaplain and religious studies teacher at a PK-12th grade Episcopal school, the perfect intersection between being a pastor and an educator. I loved having the opportunity everyday to worship in the chapel with a community of students, staff and teachers in the morning and dive deep into Scripture, theology, and faith traditions in the classroom in the afternoon. After two years as school chaplain, I continued my discernment for ordained ministry as a student at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX, but the experience of working as chaplain and teacher at St. George’s Episcopal School in Milner, GA will always be foundational in my approach to ministry.
Here is some of the exciting work I got to do at St. George’s.
At St. George’s we had the wonderful gift of having chapel every morning. Most of these services involved the whole school together. Having chapel everyday gave us the opportunity to be creative and flexible with how each service was embodied. After arriving I reworked the chapel schedule so that each day had a focus. Monday was Contemplative Chapel which focused more on prayer. Tuesday was Reflection Chapel and featured a chapel talk by me, other guest speakers, or our 8th graders. Wednesday was Music Chapel which featured contemporary songs, old hymns, and ancient chants. Thursday was Diakonos Chapel and led each division of students in mini-service projects, such as creating Christmas cards for the local nursing home residents, picking up litter around the campus, or making alms boxes to collect money for the local poverty rights center. Friday was Celebration Chapel and featured celebration for those in the community who had birthdays or achieved significant accomplishments.
In addition to these regular chapels, at the beginning of each liturgical season we had a special Eucharist and at other times had events such as the Stations of the Cross and the Blessing of the Animals.
The highlight of these chapels was always the music. Having come from a background of leading church worship music, it was easy and fun for me to jump in introducing the community to new music and starting two youth praise bands. I also worked with students to create motions for many of the songs, who then loved to run to the front to help lead.
Check out some pictures and videos of these chapels:
An enormous part of my job at St. George’s was developing an overarching religious studies curriculum for the school, from PK-12th grade, and teaching all the classes. The curriculum I developed focused on story-based learning through various teaching formats including skits, art projects, games, show and tell, videos, journaling, and discussions. Middle schoolers also spent a semester learning the basics of how to read the Bible and what study tools are available to them so that they are not only familiar with the stories of Scripture but know their way around the Bible itself.
One of my favorite projects was creating and teaching a high school elective class on religious news of the world which was designed to promote religious understanding and literacy, especially in the context of today’s current events. Rather than read about each religion through a textbook, the course attempted to engage religious headlines through discussion, research, and relational connection. The class also aimed at equiping students with the ability and resources to find and engage in news articles in a healthy and constructive way.
One of our class highlights was the opportunity to have a discussion with Mansoor Shams via Skype (well before the pandemic). We watched a segment on PBS NewsHour which featured his story. Mr. Shams is a U.S. Marine Veteran who also happens to be a Muslim. He has made it his mission to help Americans unfamiliar with Islam better understand the faith, and breaks down the many false stereotypes and conceptions that some people have about Muslims. One way he does this is by standing on street corners with a sign that reads “I’m a U.S. Marine Veteran and a Muslim. Ask me anything.” We may not have encountered Mr. Shams on a street corner, but having heard his story on PBS, we decided to email him some questions of our own! Mr. Shams was gracious enough not only to answer, but to also Skype with us, first thing in the morning at our normal class time. Mr. Shams spoke about the love for his religion and how his faith also inspires him to love his country. He also spoke about the importance of digging deeper into your faith to make it your own. While his own religious journey led him into a commitment to Islam, he encouraged our students to follow whichever path God leads them down. For the class’ final project the students wrote their own religious articles featuring interviews with various religious leaders, and created their own religious newspaper.
As chaplain I also had the opportunity to facilitate religious and service opportunities outside of campus. In particular I worked to bridge our school body with diocesan events such as retreats, service days, and even marches/ protests when appropriate. The horrific school shooting in Parkland, FL took place while I worked at St. George’s and many of our students were concerned and eager to demonstrate. As chaplain I worked with them to find an appropriate and meaningful way for them to host a vigil for the students killed and raise their voice for school safety. Some of the students participated in nation wide marches that took place. While these events were student led, as chaplain I acted as mentor, pastor, and consultant in an emotionally charged time.
One other event I am proud of participating in is the SUMMA Theological Debate Society which takes place on the seminary campus of Sewanee each year. A number of our students spent a few weeks there learning about theology and methods of debate. I worked both as camp counselor and recruiter at our school. It’s an amazing camp which still takes place each summer.
Social media is an enormous opportunity to practice student ministry. As a chaplain I created an instagram account called SGESChaplain (St. George’s Episcopal School Chaplain) where I not only posted fun and goofy pictures but encouraging notes, Scripture passages, announcements, and ministry updates. While I do not interact with students via private message on social media, having a pastoral presence on a platform where students spend much time was helpful in building a community of trust, respect, and creativity. Instagram is no longer a primary platform for students and recently I created a TikTok account @priestandson to post fun and silly things which give voice to the gospel.
Pastoral Care and Administration
Providing pastoral care to the school body was an important part of being chaplain at St. George’s. From sharing in conversation and playing guitar with students who had lost a loved one, to mediating student arguments, to praying with students in the midst of crisis, being a pastoral presence in the community was such a blessing. While at St. George’s I created a locked prayer request box that traveled the halls so that students could place their own prayer requests in it and know their chaplain was praying for them. The box was often full of silly jokes, but also very serious and heartbreaking requests. The box was placed in various places throughout the school to be a continual reminder of the importance and power of prayer.
As chaplain I was also part of the administration team and worked closely with the rector of St. George’s church, the head of the school, and other faculty and staff to plan for the school’s future, interview faculty candidates, and plan school wide events. One favorite memory I have from this time was preaching a sermon at the 8th grade graduation ceremony.
Here’s a link to the sermon: https://derekmichaellarson.com/2018/05/23/celebration-of-the-2018-eighth-grade-class/