Chaplains in schools

  • Sumo

This week’s federal budget included money for school chaplaincy. The most unfortunate thing about this is listening to raving loonie ideas as it is discussed on the airwaves – and it’s not just the callers who say weirdly offbeat stuff, it’s journalists too.

I wanted to find some of the facts of the program. The details below come primarily from this (pdf file), the National School Chaplaincy Program guidelines. There are more of the specific guidelines here. All from the website of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

(Since I am a church minister, my personal thoughts on being a chaplain might be relevant. So, here it is: I am not against the idea, but would be a touch uncomfortable about being employed in such a position. I might do it, but my preference is for churches to pay for church workers.)

State religion?

Some folk froth at the mouth, stating that this program reverses the separation of church and state, that it ‘establishes’ a faith. There’s huge misunderstanding of church-state separation, but let’s leave that aside. Instead, look at who can be employed in this program.

To receive funding, schools and their communities must engage a school chaplain/secular Pastoral Care Worker and demonstrate how the services provided by the school chaplain/secular Pastoral Care Worker achieve the outcomes required by the Program.

Did you see that? Secular pastoral care worker. It’s in the guidelines. I have heard no one bother to mention this. Why not? If they did, it would end the ‘established religion’ hoo-ha. Paying someone from public money – be they of faith or not – does not compel citizens to believe the same. At most, it permits a place for such beliefs in our society.

By the way, the difference in qualifications between these two categories is the addition, for the chaplain, of appropriate training and authorisation by some religious body.

Religious teaching?

This one really got me today. People were agahast that chaplains used their position to teach their beliefs. Shock! That’s awful! They should just stick to the counsel that they are employed to provide.

Not so.

Secular pastoral care worker guidelines include this:
an individual pastoral care worker will in good faith express views and articulate values consistent with his or her own beliefs

Chaplain guidelines include nearly identical words:
an individual chaplain will in good faith express views and articulate values consistent with his or her denomination or religious beliefs

It’s expected that anyone employed in this program will express their beliefs. There’s no need for silence. Religious – or anti-religious – ideas are premitted.


This final criticism is closer to having some legitimacy. Are chaplains (and we should include secularists) using the program to get converts? Here’s the relevant principle in full (only partly quoted above):

While recognising that an individual chaplain will in good faith express views and articulate values consistent with his or her denomination or religious beliefs, a chaplain should not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise for that denomination or religious belief.

This is the chaplain version. The secular version uses ‘advocate for a particular view or spiritual belief’ in place of ‘proselytise’.

It’s very clear that proselytising is out. Unfortunately, proselytise is not defined in the glossary. Does it ban any mention of conversion, for example? Some would say so. Or is it saying that conversion is ok, but the problem is undue influence and pressure? Many would agree with this. I have been party to discussions in other ministries that distinguish between proselytise and evangelise on the basis of coercion.

For my part, and comparing the chaplain guideline with the secular guideline, it seems to me that proselytise in these regulations has a low threshold. The difficulty that remains is finding where the line is drawn between acceptable exression of views and unacceptable.

So then, is there a summary? At least this, the politics of the chaplaincy program will continue to play out. Often with no regard to reality or to the nuanced situation in which it stands. Yet we can, I hope, each strive to understand what is actually in place, rather than the bogey-man so many heard speaking through the budget papers.