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.