Hero photograph
Jill and Lui
Photo by Image supplied by Jill Shaw

Ministry Corner: Interview with Jill Shaw

Stimulus —

Recently Stimulus sat down in a café with Jill Shaw.

Jill is a university chaplain, part of the Aotearoa New Zealand Tertiary Chaplaincy Association, and lives in west Auckland with her flatmates and yellow Labrador called Lui, who sometimes accompanies her to her work.

Jill, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do?

I’ve been described as having an insatiable curiosity. My favourite holiday includes me jumping off a perfectly good boat with no land in sight. Snorkelling provides the most profound solitude. I love seeing God in his creation and seeing how everything works together: the currents, the sun, the symbiotic relationships. 

I grew up in Indiana, USA. I was a missionary in Zimbabwe for 13 years and I’ve lived in NZ since 1999. I came here originally to work with a church for people who don’t like church. I’m now a chaplain, discipler, volunteer with refugee background youth and I run spiritual retreats.

What does chaplaincy mean to you?

Chaplaincy provides spiritual support outside of a religious institution. A story is told about the cloak of St Martin of Tours (316-397). As he rode his horse in the rain, he noticed a beggar in the ditch. Martin was overcome with a crisis of values. He told his servant to cut off the lower part of his luxurious cape and give it to the poor man. The servant was reluctant, but Martin was adamant. Eventually, the cape became a relic which needed a place to be housed. They created a capella (chapel), which needed a caretaker, thus the chaplain, the keeper of the sacred. This illustrates justice, compassion, and conviction. As a chaplain, I am the “keeper of the sacred” in each person I meet.

At different times chaplains are prophetic, priestly, and pastoral. We are prophetic in that we challenge the powers that be by calling out injustice whenever we see it and work toward justice. Injustice might be found in the institution, society, or the world systems. On campus, we coordinate Peace Week where there’s an intentional focus on justice, or on whatever causes unpeace. A priestly role happens when we are needed to provide ritual, as in a memorial service or a solemn event after the Christchurch massacres, the blessings of buildings, dawn prayers, or a pōwhiri. Then there’s pastoral care. This is about embodying care, often holistically.

I did a Masters in Practical Theology. There are so many ways to apply theology, but chaplaincy in a secular context has helped me find some “further” boundaries for applying theology in relevant everyday ways, i.e., indigenous rights, displaced peoples, modern slavery, sustainability, sexuality, or sanctity of life issues. I might not have chosen to explore these if I had stayed primarily in church ministry.

When students and staff engage with me as a chaplain in a secular university, they are in a space where they feel comfortable. While they may never knock on the door of a church building, they are open to meeting with me in the library, on a bench. They are relaxed. We can venture into conversation, especially if my dog is nearby to provide a helpful distraction.

I see it as a ministry of confusion and conversation. I try to live in such a way that makes people curious. I'm having a conversation with people in that university over the course of several years, and I'm in conversation with people who have no connection with a pastor in their ordinary lives.

Could you talk about significant people or places that shaped your journey towards this ministry?

A failure did this. When I was studying journalism at Indiana University in the 1980s, I could not defend my faith adequately in the political, liberal, and antagonistic environment of that secular context. Journalism can be very political. Journalists often go into journalism to right the world's wrongs. I couldn't defend my belief system there. I was well-versed in scripture; I’d memorised lots of it. Yet I couldn't communicate the good news into a context different from my own. I couldn't make the leap to their worldview. We were in entirely different bubbles and there was no bridge. So I went to Bible college for a year to polish my apologetics skills [Jill laughs!]. There's no way to nail apologetics as a nineteen-year-old in a year! I graduated with a degree in theology and intercultural studies and went to Africa. 

How do you see yourself participating in Jesus’ mission in the work you do?

When I say the name Jesus, hardly anyone is offended in a university context. The concept of God, on the other hand, can be divisive. Jesus noticed people. Jesus had time for people. He had no devices. When people approached him, he saw them. He wasn't impressed with power. Whether I'm talking to the Vice Chancellor or the groundskeeper, they are both created in the image of God. If I can help them get a clearer glimpse of his design in them, then I've done my job; I've fulfilled my role.

Could you tell us a particular challenge in this work?

One challenge is reminding myself that it’s not about me! Every meeting I walk into, I’m not sure how I'll be received. I've been verbally abused before by a scientist staff member who challenged the role of chaplain in a secular university. Jesus said we’d be persecuted. Again, he wasn’t wrong. In that situation, I chose to lean in. That person was created in the image of God as much as I am. I listened. I asked some questions. I represent Jesus on that campus, and that offends some people. But I chose to lean into it in a way where I listen and their opinion matters. Our worldviews were diametrically opposite. She (the scientist staff member) was in her bubble and I was in mine. Again, a bridge needed to be built. To build that bridge, to enable connection, is chaplaincy. As 1 Corinthians 9:22 says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (NIV). I am inadequate to become all things to all people, but The New Living Translation says, I seek “to find common ground with everyone” (NLT). I can do that with just about anyone.

What do you feel a sense of satisfaction about in this work?

One of the staff came to me after she’d had run into a former student. They said, one of the lingering memories they had were the chairs that were placed “randomly” around campus during Spirituality Week. Those chairs were painted white and had different faith labels (see photo). I put the chairs singly the first day, then facing each other in twos, and eventually in a circle. This former student said she realised that through conversation we learn from each other. She learned that not from the lecturers, but from the chaplain. Instigating conversations, sometimes through confusing guerilla art, is one way of doing chaplaincy in a secular context where we just need to grab people’s attention. Each chaplain brings their own style to the role.

White Chairs — Image by: Jill Shaw

If you could say one thing to the reader of Stimulus about chaplaincy, what would you say?

Chaplaincy is about connecting with people as they and where they are and helping them move forward. I'm amazed at how overlooked the potential for ministry is with tertiary campuses on the doorsteps of many of our churches. All our major cities have multiple campuses. There are huge opportunities here for people who are comfortable working on the margins or in the grey areas.

What sustains you in it?

It is a lonely context. Chaplaincy is not always understood by the universities or by the churches. I show up on campus and I never know how I'm going to be received. When there's a death or a crisis, the administrators and academics often realise their limitations, and our phones start ringing. Recent attention to holistic wellbeing respects the wairua of Te Whare Tapa Whā and includes us in broader student support conversations. Other times, we are sidelined.

Chaplaincy challenges my own personal faith in practice. Jesus sustains me. Jesus was out there with people who were antagonistic. The religious people were more antagonistic to him than the regular folk. For me, it’s following Jesus’ example as he engaged with people; trying to make Jesus accessible. It's all about creating conversations, whatever that takes. It’s not about being comfortable or knowing what to expect.

Thank you, Jill, for your insight and inspiration. We wish you very well in your chaplaincy work.

If you are interested in finding out more about chaplaincy, contact Jill Shaw at: jshaw@laidlaw.ac.nz