Simon Chapman, Chaplain at the Aldenham Foundation, gives his perspective on pastoral work and the value of listening.
When a pupil presents to a member of staff in a state of emotional distress it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. It is also very common for the staff member to be left feeling that they need to take some kind of action to fix the problem. Sometimes it might be necessary to take action if there is serious concern that the student is at risk. However this will often not be the case. Very often the most helpful thing a member of staff can give to their students is their complete attention and a listening ear. This was proved to me very early on in my ministry as a chaplain.
I was visiting an Army Cadet detachment from another school on Salisbury Plain and was spending the day with a group of younger cadets, aged around fourteen, who were going canoeing. One young cadet had barely launched her canoe into the water before she broke into panicked hysterics and jumped back onto dry land. She ran into the back of the minibus and scrunched herself into a ball rocking backwards and forwards. Her detachment staff were at a loss to know what to do with her and were taken back by the strength of her emotional response. They asked if I would help. I sat with the cadet and a member of her detachment and after about 5 minutes of companionable silence I began talking quietly to her, telling her that I knew she was frightened and upset and that it was alright to feel like that. She began to calm down and gradually began to feel that she could talk again. I asked if she knew why she was so frightened…?
It turned out that some years ago she had been swimming in a public swimming pool and had drowned, needing to be resuscitated. Sitting in the canoe had brought back all of those memories. I explained that with a buoyancy aid on and a team of instructors keeping a close eye on everybody, she could feel very safe if she wanted to have another go but it was entirely up to her. I offered her the chance to sit in the canoe with me holding on to the side of it to while she told me how she was feeling. If it felt too frightening she could easily step out of the canoe. She decided to give it a try. Twenty minutes later she was tentatively paddling out with an instructor to join her friends. By the time the session came to an end, the cadet was laughing and splashing around like nothing had ever happened.
I personally believe that one of the most powerful ways of helping somebody is by offering a listening ear. There’s often no need to do anything else. While it can seem that the most helpful thing is to tell someone what they should do, or to offer advice aimed at helping them to solve their problem, many people are capable of working the solution out themselves if they’re given the opportunity to speak and they feel properly listened to.
Top tips for pastoral work:
- Give the student your full attention
- Listen without interrupting
- Don’t be afraid of silence or emotion
- Allow the student to reach their own decision (unless you are feel the individual is a risk to others or at risk)
What are your top tips for pastoral work?
Simon Chapman is a Church of England Priest currently ministering at Aldenham School as the School Chaplain. Prior to ordination he worked for an overseas missionary society, Thames Valley Police, and as an Emergency Department staff nurse. His interests include cycling, flying and diving combined with travelling to new places.