I think my favorite part of any chapel is the sense of success every student feels after all the work and the incredibly terrifying moments of standing before the entire school delivering a chapel talk.
How does a chapel talk come to be? Who decides who gets to give a chapel talk? These are good questions, and the answer involves team effort.
At the hectic end of the school year, the newly elected John Hay Vestry – the five Sixth Formers who will guide the larger John Hay members through the upcoming school year – meet with me, and I ask them to consider charities we might support, possible fundraisers they might organize and who among their classmates might give a chapel talk in the upcoming school year. Then, the current Head of John Hay writes an email to the entire form, asking classmates to get in touch with me if they think they would like to give a chapel talk. These days, most of our student chapel speakers are Sixth Formers who are ready to stand up in front of the school and talk to the community about something that matters to them, but any student is welcome to give a chapel talk.
Over the summer, I will hear from about 10 or so rising Sixth Formers asking if they might reserve a chapel date. Almost all of them ask if they could give their talk “sometime in the spring,” i.e. after they have finished college applications and once they have gotten into college. Obviously, I have to do a bit of cajoling to nudge some to consider giving a talk earlier in the year. Once I start filling in the students, I also look to our faculty members to consider giving a talk at some point. It is these faculty members, along with the occasional visiting guest, who fill in much of the fall term speaker slots while the Sixth Formers sort out their many responsibilities.
About three weeks before a student is to give his or her chapel talk, that student and I meet to look over the draft. After this meeting, rough as that written draft may be, we go to the chapel for our next meeting and begin reading the talk out loud in the microphone. We both hear and review, revise and edit as we listen to how the words sound for a listening audience – different than words on paper written perhaps for an English teacher. We discuss if a line is going to be funny and how important it is to get the delivery right, so that humor succeeds. We also talk about “heartbeat sentences,” lines that are important to the “theses” of the talk, sentences that should resound with the audience. Often, we bold
these sentences to make sure they are delivered with pause and deliberation. Most students preparing to give a chapel meet with me three or four times to rehearse that talk, but I have met with some up to eight or nine times, working to make sure that student feels comfortable in front of the microphone, reads slowly and enunciates, looks up at the audience and smiles (very important), letting the audience know he or she is prepared, confident and having fun giving the chapel talk.
Walking back to the front of the chapel after a talk is a wonderful moment. Friends rush up to hug and congratulate the student. There are laughs, many smiles, sometimes tears. Advisors and faculty often join all at the podium. The speaker is always relieved and proud, usually still shaking, but certainly gratified. And finally, there is a new tradition that has taken hold in the last five or six years. At the end of every service, after the school has processed out and back to Armour, the students in John Hay circle back to congratulate, shake hands and join in the hugs with the morning’s speaker. It is at that moment that I stand once again reassured of the grace and warmth that surrounds all of us here at Westminster.
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to see the latest Chapel Talk, and a playlist of recent Chapel Talks.