Feature: A day in the life of a URC airport chaplain

Jim Mackerness news bannerThe United Reformed Church (URC) has more than 600 active ministers across England, Wales and Scotland.

Many work in churches, but a variety work in other settings that include universities, prisons, the armed forces, hospitals, and other work-based chaplaincies.

The Revd John Mackerness, is a full-time chaplain at Heathrow Airport. More than 75,000 people work there and last year, more than 80 million passengers passed through it. John explains what his ministry entails.

I grew up in Bedfordshire and attended a small Congregational church. I came to faith with the support of the church, but made my commitment to Jesus in the back of a van on the M1 having been invited to attend an evangelical rally in Nottingham by members of the Christian fellowship at school. I became a URC member the day after the denomination came into being and an elder two years later. There were plenty of opportunities to lead worship and I trained as a lay preacher.

This started an itch that wouldn’t go away. I felt a calling to minister to people in the workplace so trained as a non-stipendiary minister while working for a firm of publishers that produced, amongst other things, airline timetables. I was ordained into the Luton and Dunstable pastorate in 2000, and in 2001 I left work and became a volunteer chaplain at a hospital before undertaking some more training at Westminster College.

In 2010, after a spell in West Yorkshire, I successfully applied for the special category ministry (SCM) post at Heathrow. God has given me the skills and talents to perform this role and the Church has supported me all the way.

I am part of a multi-faith team of 20 chaplains who provide a calming presence and a listening ear to passengers and staff in stressful times.

The chaplaincy is part of the airport’s emergency response team, so when British Airways flight 762 from London to Oslo made an emergency landing in 2015, and the passengers and crew were evacuated using the emergency slides, we were called into action along with our colleagues in Heathrow Travel Care – a team of trained social workers – to provide psychological support to the passengers who had been through quite a traumatic experience. Fortunately, no-one was seriously hurt but it was important that they had someone to listen to them as they tried to make sense of their experience.

We’ll sit with a passenger as they come to terms with the fact that their partner has just died on a flight, or support the crew who have had to administer CPR somewhere over the Atlantic. We’ll stop in the middle of a terminal to give a blessing to a cabin crew member on Ash Wednesday when their rota stops them going to church, or sit with a pilot who is a new Christian and cannot get to their church’s Alpha course because they have an early flight. We’ll hold simple memorial events for staff that have died and hold a service for a major event such as the 30th anniversary of Lockerbie.

As a workplace chaplain, it really helps to have work experience when talking to people because we have real empathy with the situations that they face.

I enjoy seeing the smile spread across a staff member’s face because I have said: “Hello, how are you?” reminding them that they are a human being not just a resource, or helping someone to find the gate in time for their flight, the loo, or where they can claim their VAT back.

But, it is sad sitting in a Border Force interview as a responsible adult when a minor who has been brought to the UK at great cost has been abandoned at passport control, by those who were paid to look after them, with no money, ID, and very little English. Usually our pastoral encounters are measured in minutes and we may never know the end of the story.

I am a great fan of the URC’s focus of lifelong missional discipleship, Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today. People should be encouraged to be whole-life Christians, but it is difficult. I like to think that seeing us around in the public sphere, with our high-vis tabards on, encourages staff and passengers to share their faith when the time is right. It might seem scary that someone will ask something to which you won’t know the answer to but, in my experience, God will always provide the words.

URC ministers who would like to enquire about this area of ministry, or any other SCM post, should make an initial contact with the Revd Craig Bowman, URC Secretary for Ministries, by email, or phone on 020 7916 2020.

Published: 2 April 2019