Pioneer Ministry and COVID-19 In the University Sector

Halls of Residence, Stirling

The impact of the lockdown in March 2020 on the student campus was immediate as all classes were cancelled. The students themselves were not necessarily able to travel home, many being stuck in halls of residences and student flats for the duration of the lockdown. The decision of the Church of Scotland to furlough its Pioneer Ministers was controversial and caused some friction within the group. Although I accepted furlough, in retrospect if I had known others were to refuse I might Have questioned that decision.

However, my furlough did release me to become part of the NHS Louisa Jordan chaplaincy team and the church was very supportive of this vital role, after the training took place the NHS LJ facility was not required and so my volunteer hours were transferred to NHS Fife where I worked in several community hospitals visiting patients who were unable to have family visits due to COVID-19. I remain on the ‘Bank’ list for NHS LJ should that facility be required. 

On my return to work in July I immediately received an email from the Chief Executive of the Students’ Union, ‘It’s really so good to have you back !’ she wrote. That feeling of being missed and valued continued as I reconnected with the students and staff. I supported overseas students still stranded in the UK, in particular a student I had worked with all year from India, two from Italy and one from Germany. These students were either trying to find a way home, or struggling to deal with the economic hardships caused by lockdown, three out of four of these students lost their jobs.

Another nursing student was ‘graduated’ without ceremony early and then found himself in empty wards, as all the regular surgery patients were not being booked in. We have all found the disruptive force of COVID-19 difficult in many ways. Supporting the students through this has been the major part of my role since 1st July.

The highly successful Patches4Peace sewing group has been moved online and the first session is to take place this week. Chaplaincy is also being offered as an online service and getting prepared for that has been a huge piece of work. Unfortunately, the distribution of our sewing to the drop-in group in Paisley has had to be postponed until that group and our group can meet in person again. On my YouTube channel I am putting up videos of prayers and meditations.

The student community itself is fractured, some students returning to flats and halls, others staying at home. A bigger divide than usual is opening up between mature students and those in the 18-25 age range as the impact of COVID-19 falls differently in their population groups. In halls of residence students are now restricted to their own flats, and no visiting is allowed, they are also not allowed at time of writing to return home.

A new initiative that I am involved in with the Archives is the #StirDiary project where students can chronicle their semester in art, writing, or any form of creativity, and then hand in their journal to the archives to be part of the permanent record of COVID-19 and its impact on our times. This is an imaginative, practical and inspiring project that combines good mental health with respectful human understanding.

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The work that I routinely do around food and fair distribution of food resources is more needed than ever, at the CPG Food Secretariat it was disclosed that an additional 70,000 people are expected to be made redundant in Scotland, ‘new to benefits’ and to be destitute by Christmas. On top of the increased food distribution and financial impact we have already seen it is clear that the student population will not remain unaffected by the economic realities of lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions.

In terms of student mental health and well-being this was already an issue of concern, and one which is under further strain as students who are away from home had to cope with the restrictions, whereas those at home have feelings of loss of progress in life, and the natural rite of passage which is leaving home. For mature students financial worries and carers responsibilities take centre stage. The importance of community, such as the Student Community Garden, a collaboration with the Students’ Union and the University, is clearer than ever with over 50 students in the first three sessions, an unprecedented uptake, with more students emailing and getting in touch asking if they can join the garden team. COVID-19 restrictions mean we need to garden at 2m distant, mask wearing though not compulsory is recommended outdoors, all tools are being sanitized and gloves provided and washed.

Two of the gardening students have made promotional videos with me talking about how positive the gardening is for their spirits.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has consolidated my role, outlined the importance of Pioneer Ministry communities to students in a time of crisis, and demonstrated that the students who are completely new to church are more than willing to turn to this community in a time of need. This is the fruit of regular, dedicated group building during the first three years of my Pioneer Ministry here.