Thursday, February 17, 2011

school chaplaincy - thoughts from a chaplain

Have you ever tried discussing a serious topic on twitter? It's insane - 140 character sound bytes whizzing back and forth, madly linking one comment back to another to another. I'm pretty sure that's not what it was really intended for, so I'm officially giving up.

Well, partially giving up and transferring to another tool. I love all the fabulous links to thought provoking articles too much to throw twitter away completely. Anyway, if you're not on twitter and don't follow @happychatter or @LeslieCannold - welcome midstream to our conversation about school chaplaincy.

Where to start? School chaplaincy has been funded in Australian schools since 2007. I won't bother you with the details of how many chaplains work where in which percentage of primary or secondary school. Suffice to say, there are a lot of chaplains, the overwhelming majority of whom are Christians being paid by the government via Christian service providers or agencies.

While many people value the input and support chaplains provide, not everyone is happy. They take issue with a secular government funding a religious service in a secular institution. In May they will take their argument to the High Court and challenge the constitutional validity of school chaplaincy. Both sides are calling for donations as they gear up for what is, at core, an ideological battle.

As a school chaplain, this causes a frisson of fear to run through my heart. I love my job, and I don't like the thought of it being threatened. It also seems like a personal attack on work I do with all my heart. I've only received positive, appreciative feedback from students, parents and teachers, and I have more and more students and parents seeking me out. I feel mildly incensed (if you'll permit the oxymoron) that a program recognised for offering support, that is achieving good outcomes for students, would be challenged in this way.

It's not that black and white. I'm not being personally attacked - I'm small fry in the school chaplaincy world, my name virtually unknown. Those fighting against school chaplaincy aren't arguing against caring people being paid to work in a school. They're angry that Christians have been favoured to do the caring.

While the majority of school chaplains are Christian, the Federal Government's chaplaincy guidelines don't specifically state a chaplain must be a Christian. Instead they say:
The nature of chaplaincy services to be provided, including the religious affiliation of the school chaplain, is a matter which needs to be decided by the local school and its community, following broad consultation.
Not that this guideline in any way placates those who want to see an end to chaplaincy. While much of their angst is directed towards Christianity (and with a history like Christianity has, it's not hard to see why), they state that their opposition to school chaplaincy is not merely anti-Christian rhetoric. They see it as a matter of principle - one religion (any religion) should not be favoured over another in a secular institution, therefore state funded school chaplaincy should not be allowed.

My natural reaction is to argue and defend: the NSCP guidelines make it clear that chaplains are not to discriminate or push their point of view or belief onto another person. School chaplaincy is not a vehicle for proselytising the vulnerable. It's there, black and white, written in the guidelines. I'm an idealist and an optimist and I believe all chaplains work within these guidelines.

I'm sure the vast majority do, but (here we go back to history again) Christianity hasn't got such a great record on protecting the vulnerable and letting people choose for themselves. All the arguing in the world is not going to change the minds of those who've seen multitudinous travesties actioned in the name of religion. They know religious school chaplains will never stick to those guidelines. And the minute a school chaplain does slip up, they sniff it out and broadcast it, ignoring a wealth of positive chaplaincy stories, because the slip up proves their point - school chaplains can't be trusted. So I see no purpose in arguing and defending this one.

To be honest, I don't see much point in arguing about chaplaincy full stop. The lines are drawn. Those against it are convinced they have winning arguments and damning examples of school chaplaincy's failures. Those for it believe school chaplaincy is doing good work and is a worthy program provided by good people. Neither side is likely to change the others' mind and the whole thing rests in the hands of a few lawyers and High Court justices. At which point I confess I know very little about our constitution, though I'm tempted to start studying it immediately!

I choose not to argue with those against school chaplaincy because I don't see the point, but also partly because I do see their point. On so many levels school chaplaincy is a noble and worthy program, but if I was not a person of faith, I might well take issue with someone hanging around waiting to offer religious advice to my child. That chaplains don't do this would not necessarily comfort me. It's the thought that they might, that they could if they just had the chance.

So why did I start responding to Leslie Cannold's tweets about school chaplaincy? At first I was too scared. She has a following, her replies would be there for the world to see. And they'd draw attention to me, and what if I looked like a fool? Eventually though, I couldn't stay silent. What Leslie Cannold was tweeting did not match the reality of chaplaincy on the ground. Putting principles and ideologies and beliefs to the side, chaplains aren't threatening children. If you talked to one, those 'God botherer' stereotypes might start to crumble a little.

We don't all view your children as targets, we're not all out to bag another soul. Many of us hate religion as much as the anti school chaplaincy crowd hate religion. Yes, we believe in something beyond what we can see, but we don't believe forcing or tricking people into joining us is permissible. We love God, we love life, and we love to share our joy.

That's what motivates me in school chaplaincy. Not getting converts, not brainwashing children who are not competent or consenting. I view my role as giving children options - and I'm not talking about spiritual options. The school I work in is located in a low socio-economic suburb. These children do it tough. Many are neglected and abused. They don't get lunch, their clothes don't fit (leave alone see a washing machine). Many cannot learn or flourish or develop as they should. They live out disadvantage in ways I could not have imagined before I started working in this school. They're beautiful, beautiful children, but the odds are stacked against them. If I can help even one of them see that they are precious and beautiful; that there is a whole different world out there; that they can break free of the cycle of poverty and abuse and teenage pregnancy, then I would consider my job as a school chaplain well done.

Christianity may have narrowed spirituality to a creed here and a rule list there, a tedious sermon on Sunday and a guilt laden offering bag on the side, but it is so much more. It's about freedom and life. If I never once say a word about Jesus in school but I help a child realise they're of infinite worth; or help them gain confidence to speak out; or help equip them with life skills so they might escape poverty; or help them find ways to express their feelings; or any multitude of positive outcomes - then I'll be happy I've done my job well.

Perhaps that might be considered worse than evangelising them, I don't know. Roman Caesars were pretty threatened by the early Christians and their holistic faith (before it all went wrong). Those who take issue with school chaplaincy might find someone who views everything as spiritual even more threatening than someone preaching. For me, it means I'm doing my job caring for people at the same time as working within the government's guidelines - without needing to say a word about my beliefs.

On a practical level, chaplaincy has a number of things going for it. Much has been made of chaplains being unqualified and ill equipped to work with students. Many are qualified (I am), but qualified or not, we all know the boundaries of a chaplain's scope of practice and what must be referred to a social worker or school psychologist.

A school chaplain's role is less defined than a social worker or school psychologist's. There is room for great flexibility and responsiveness. We can be proactive and preventative. For example, this week I've had time to go and sit with a very scared student in a prep class, two mornings in a row. I coloured with them, played games, and helped them connect with other students before quietly exiting when they were more settled. The need was real but not only were the social worker and school psychologist unavailable, the situation didn't fit with the way their role works. Their case loads don't allow them to hang out with students for extended periods for comfort's sake. Later I sat with a student while they cried about the names they'd been called - not a mental illness that needed intervention, but certainly a hurting heart that needed a listening ear. As I said, I am qualified, but even an unqualified person with common sense and a caring heart can listen and love and meet a need.

There you have some of my thoughts on school chaplaincy, and a little of my experience working in the role. The internet is buzzing with a fair bit of negativity towards chaplaincy, so I offer this to contribute to the broader picture of the reality of chaplaincy on the ground. We may never see eye to eye ideologically on chaplaincy, and we all have to wait and see which argument wins in the High Court, but there is more than one story to this debate. I look forward to hearing more.

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At 6:34 am, February 18, 2011, Blogger Cherie said...

Well done, Cecily. Well done.

At 8:37 am, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Chrys Stevenson said...

Cecily, the High Court challenge has nothing to do with the value or otherwise of chaplains. It's about whether the Federal govt has breached the constitution in funding it. All Australians should be concerned if it turns out our govt has not followed proper procedures in spending 100s of millions of taxpayers' dollars. Especially if it turns out the funding method was intended to circumvent the constitution.

At 8:54 am, February 18, 2011, Blogger Robyn said...

I so agree Cec. We love our school chaplain too! :) It will be a tremendous loss to many schools and children if the funding stops. Doesn't make sense to me.

At 9:22 am, February 18, 2011, Blogger Seamus said...

Really well said, and your conflicted sentiments echo mine.

I am not a religious person, what I am is a school teacher who has worked with 2 amazing chaplains at a school with a very low SES. Whilst I believe their own faith is of the Christian variety, the majority of the students at this school are Muslim, and yet they are greatly valued by the student body. I had the pleasure of working with the Chaplains to help deliver the CASA Sexaul Assault Prevention Program, and not for one second was there a hint of the "no sex before marriage" or "condoms are the devil" that so many seem to fear. Their work is integrated with the rest of the student welfare team, and if they were to be forced to leave the school would have it's welfare staff reduced by 50%. Not the kind of thing we need to be happening.

In response to Chrys I am happy to leave constitutional concern to the lawyers. If something unconstitutional has happened then it must be rectified, and I believe it will be. However, this is not merely a legal issue, it is a political attack on a particular program. The evangelical atheist crowd are against this program for reasons that have nothing to do with constitutional integrity.

My own position is that I would hate to see any program that delivers positive results destroyed.

At 11:29 am, February 18, 2011, Blogger luke said...

I couldn't have said it better than Seamus.

The reality is that if our chaplaincy program is dropped, it will not be replaced by an equivalent secular program, because (a) it would be too expensive (chaplains are cheap); and (b) it wouldn't be politically expedient.

Ideology and constitutionality be damned; this would be a BAD OUTCOME, achieved entirely for political reasons, based on irrational fears and fuelled by overplayed stories from a minute number of schools where chaplains have acted improperly.

At 1:05 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Mitch S said...

I read this post yesterday. I find nothing in it that I strongly disagree with. I am concerned that Chrys's comments regarding the constitutionality of the program are nodded at and then dismissed, however. If violating the constitution is not a valid concern then I don't know what is.

This is not the whole story, however, and if you're looking for another reason why Chaplains may not be a good idea, I can only direct you to my own post on the matter: http://tumblr.com/xmp1jeret2

I'm still waiting for someone pro-chaplaincy to even acknowledge the issues I raise, much less agree.

It's not only evangelism. It's not only qualifications. Chaplains can be as outwardly secular as Christopher Hitchens and it wouldn't matter. They're there to represent a faith. If it is too much to expect adults to get over faith differences, what right do we have to ask this of vulnerable children?

At 1:48 pm, February 18, 2011, Blogger Seamus said...

Hey Mitch,

I read your post and will reply here since Tumblr does not allow it.In advance I'd like to say that if my reply seems flippant, it is not.

Your argument to me seems like an argument for a diverse range of school counseling services, be it a school nurse, psychologist or chaplain. While faith was a hurdle for you, the lack of it in a school psychologist might be a hurdle for another. As you so correctly point out, it is unfair to ask children to compartmentalise their values.

The solution to me seems not to be in dismantling one apparatus, but to argue and advocate for more resources to be allocated to pastoral care roles in general.

As for the constitutional side of things, I have a fair amount of faith in lawyers to work that one out. As far as I'm aware, and I may be ignorant here, Australia does not have the kind of clear cut separation of church and state laws that countries like the U.S. have.

At 4:19 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous michelle said...

Such an excellent read. Cecily, you are doing a fantastic thing at this school and I really hope you can continue doing it :-)

At 6:36 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Chrys Stevenson said...

Cecily, first, there is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist. That would require a literal attachment to some kind of dogma. Atheists have no dogma. We simply do not believe in any supernatural deities. If undeniable proof of a supernatural deity came to hand, we would change our minds. That doesn't mean we'd worship said deity, but we would accept its existence. To date, no-one has been able to provide such evidence.

I imagine that you discount the existence of leprechauns and would be rather miffed if people started telling your kids they were real and formed lobby groups to get the government to make policies according to the Ancient Book of Leprechauns. Would that make you a fundamentalist a-leprechaunist?

No Cecily, atheists are not fundamentalists. We are ordinary Australians who see the secular government and public education system so hard-fought for by our Founding Fathers being eroded by governments courting the religious right vote. Now, it seems that even our Constitution is under assault.

Our Founding Fathers, Parkes, Barton, Clarke and others looked to the French and American Constitutions in drafting ours. Both were strictly secular - and with good reason.

Did you know that the separation of church and state was introduced in America, not to protect atheists but to protect warring Christian denominations from each other? Did you know that, in Australia, while the Catholics and Anglicans fought over who would have religious dominance in the new Federation, the Seventh Day Adventists argued vehemently for a secular state and secular education system so that *their* children wouldn't be indoctrinated by Anglican and Catholic zealots and so that a Catholic or Anglican dominated government couldn't introduce policies which imposed a particular religious view upon any Australian?

At 6:37 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Chrys Stevenson said...

... The intrusion of religion into our schools and governments might just work just fine for Christians now, but there could easily come a time in this country when Muslims control our government. That same secular Constitution you are happy to see flaunted now, is the only thing that would prevent them from putting Muslim counsellors into schools with an eye to converting Christian kids to Islam. It's there to be protect you - don't abuse it.

Did you know that the ideas of secular states and schooling were introduced because the citizens of Europe rebelled against the centuries of bloody denominational religious wars which resulted from non-secular states?

The secular government and education system is there to protect us all - Christian, non-Christian, atheist and agnostic. The intrusion of the NSCP into schools is an assault on this. It is fundamentally against all that our founding fathers stood for. It is now dividing our country.

If parents want their children to have religious mentors - let them go to church. Currently only 7.5% of Australians bother, so it seems there's really not that much interest. Meanwhile, our kids are being short-changed by pouring money into chaplaincy when it should be providing trained secular counsellors (whose religion should be incidental). Chaplains must be religious. Secular counsellors are only allowed when all options to get a religious chaplain have been exhausted. This is discriminatory.

Further, the incidents of chaplains abusing their positions are *not* isolated. They're widespread. Not a week goes by when I, one of my contacts, or the Australian Secular Lobby doesn't hear of a fresh complaint from a parent.

You only know what *you* do in *your* school. The Australian Secular Lobby receives feedback from parents, teachers,students and principals from across Australia and we know that chaplains are routinely breaching the guidelines.

It's not just atheists who have noted this. The Australian Psychology Society complains about the large number of chaplains counselling children with serious psychological issues, chaplains themselves say the thing they do worst is refer kids on to trained professionals, and the Northern Territory ombudsman found things so bad in her state the whole catastrophe has now been referred to the Commonwealth Ombudsman to investigate.

Chaplains have had a chance and they've taken huge advantage. Religion has been imposed on kids against their parents' wishes. At least one child who wasn't referred on to a counselor by their chaplain has committed suicide - the chaplain just didn't pick up on the signs - he wasn't trained to. Non-religious and non-Christian kids are being made to feel unwelcome in their own schools. We know, they contact us and tell us. Gay kids feel they have no-one to talk with because if they have an evangelical chaplain in their school they know their sexuality is not going to be accepted.

Religion may have a place in our society, but it is not in our public schools nor in our secular government. Let those who want their children influenced by religion take them to church.

Now none of this is related to the High Court Challenge - that's about funding - not the desirability or otherwise of chaplaincy. But yes, we want chaplains out of our schools - and for very good reason.

At 7:07 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Chrys Stevenson said...

Cecily, I apologise, I was sure I'd seen a reference on this thread to 'fundamentalist atheists'- it appears I was mistaken. Evangelistic is equally inaccurate, however. The vast majority of us are not trying to deconvert anyone - we just want Christians to stop imposing your views on us and our kids.

At 7:31 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous doug steley said...

If the case brought in the high court was about anything other than constitutional law then it would have been thrown out and never heard, it seems many christians including an appalling rant by the Queensland education minister Geoff Wilson MP who claims " a High Court matter which claims it is illegal for chaplains to work in our schools "


It would seem that christians and their supporters who are unable to cope with the truth of the matter have turned once again to the time honored tradition of slander and mud slinging at their perceived opponent.

I do not see the problem with christians and other faiths agreeing that many people object to having Christian chaplains in schools and that it would be better for all concerned to support secular guidance officers who have clear guidelines to care for the welfare of children without resorting to any religious messages.

If the chaplains are already doing this what will it matter if their name is changed from chaplain to support person ? Would you still be happy to help kids or would you withdraw your services if religion was disassociated from the position ?

If you would continue to support kids, and that is what this SHOULD be about then you should support the concept and vital need for secular care givers in our schools not religious ones.

We have no statistics on how many children do not seek help from school chaplains because of their religious affiliations, wen I was at school I would have run a mile before being seen talking to the schools chaplain. he was a good bloke but he was considered a "God Botherer and Sky Pilot" Better to cope with stuff by yourself than call on his help.

This matter is about constitutional law

If it gets up it is because of the law if it fails it is because of the law.

Stop being emotional stop being paranoid grow up and concentrate on helping kids in need not your own fragile ego.

At 7:52 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Doug Steley said...

Scientology is a recognized religion in Australia with a very aggressive recruitment approach based on so called "Self Improvement" Would you be upset or concerned if you found out that a group of scientologists, supported and funded by the federal government were placing chaplains in schools to "help" troubled teens ?

Now ask the same question replacing the word Scientologists with Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Exclusive Brethren, Hare Krishna, Seventh day Adventists or any one of a multitude of other faiths, sects or religions.

Would you object if ONLY Catholic or Protestants were allowed to be chaplains ?

If you would be concerned, then in all honesty, how can you possibly support your chosen religion over theirs?

Would you trust them to be unbiased and not to sneak in subtle references to their beliefs ?

We have already seen that RE classes in some schools have been abused to actively discriminate against and bully children who choose not to attend.http://www.victorianhumanist.com/articles/34-member-articles/231-students-forced-to-listen-to-god

We are a multi-cultural multi-faith society we live in diversity and harmony we need to keep our society from becoming narrow and bigoted for or against any one belief, to do so only alienates others.

And no one wants to do that do they ?

At 9:13 pm, February 18, 2011, Blogger askegg said...

Bah! I tried to comment, but it was too long. Have blog posted a response instead.


At 10:39 pm, February 18, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People, answer me this: Why does a weathly private Roman Catholic School like Xavier College (Jesuit) in Melbourne get funding for a Chaplain. I know that for a fact. I went there in the 1950's for 12 years. I am now Atheist. I would have to assume that "Riverview" (Jesuit) in Sydney would get Chaplain funding and that is where Tony "Mad Monk" Abbott went.

At 12:16 am, February 20, 2011, Anonymous AndrewFinden said...

Hi Cecily,
Great post. Chappies like yourself do a great job (and thanks for showing what it is and breaking down the caracitures), and even though I'm an evangelical Christian, I have to agree that the current legal objection has merit. I realise it's very difficult to ignore the ideological agenda (clearly demonstrated in the comments here) that lurks behind such a legal challenge (I mean, really, we're supposed to accept that the line 'it's only about the constitution' when it's followed by 'but Chaplaincy is bad because...'?)but onn the point of separation, Chrys is right - it's there for our protection too. It does not, and should not, mean that chaplaincy has no place in public schools, but I think that as nice as the federal cash is, ultimately it is both unconstitutional and a potentially faustian pact. If it were being directed to anyone else, I suspect we'd see that pretty clearly.

We need to be careful that we 'give to ceaser' so to speak, in abiding by the laws that are for our own good, and operate Chaplaincy in that way.

At 1:21 am, February 25, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual the xtian prayer warriors are all high dudgeon about a legal question even being able to be asked in the High Court.

As for the challenge being 'political' one has to ask if you people are so stupid that you have not noticed just how 'political' the funding of the NSCP was and remains?

No, of course not.

There was no justification put up beyond public schools being a 'moral vacuum'- see the Julie Bishop media release still flying on the web to check that political statemnet please.

And since then there has been no evidence ever once put forward by DEEWR or anyone else that demonstrates the before-after situation in these schools, has there?

No, indeed not, just chaplains and their jolly anecdotes, oh yes, and some very dodgy ECU 'research' full of woeful mistakes that was repeatedly lied about to get Rudd to cough up.

Not 'political' enough for you yet?

The case is a simple one, challenging only the right of the Commonwealth to fund the NSCP, that is all.

Every church can fund chaplains in schools with their immense wealth, cribbed from taxpayers.

Just how much did the NSW Anglicans lose in their share trading?

Was it $100m? Add to that what all the others lost as they so greedily grabbed profits, and there is more than enough to give every student a personal 'chappie' of their own.

At 8:57 am, March 04, 2011, Anonymous deanna said...

Oh, my, Cecily, what a subject! A lot of good comments here. And some unkind ones. I will listen to and consider the civil-sounding ones that follow the spirit of your good post.

Hope things work out well for you.

At 12:04 am, May 19, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...


A blatant grab for the vote of those who believe in things that are not real.

From the churches point of view an opportunity for indoctrinating children while they are at their most impressionable by stealing credibility from the education system.

At 9:30 pm, April 06, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"They all have angst against Christians!!!" A typical misrepresentation of the argument.
In fact many people don't want they hard earned taxes spent on any variety of superstition being promoted in schools.
An in offering support for students why should people qualified only by possession of a mystical belief be funded in preference to trained counsellors?
The answer is that however it is dressed up it is a push for putting Christian proseletysing into the vicinity of young minds.


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