dipping the oar on school chaplaincy

In response to a friend’s suggestion that I might unreasonably have it in for all Christians because of my experiences with fundamentalism, I’d like to make my views on school chaplaincy a little clearer.

Can I start by saying that my personal views on the failings of Christianity are not what influence my opinion on public school chaplaincy. I’d feel the same way if the chaplains were Moslem or Hindu or just general unskilled workers…volunteer mums for example.

School chaplains, such as they currently are, are not adequately trained and, in my view, parents should send a message that we expect the highest standard of training, practice and accountability from those who want to work with our kids.

Currently, the requisite for being a chaplain is more or less ‘enthusiastic Christian’ plus ‘a wee certificate in something or other’. As a parent of two young adults who suffered adolescent mental health issues, it is a concern to me that the qualification requirements for chaplains are clearly inadequate (considering the serious life-problems and psychiatric illnesses chaplains say they regularly encounter). And those requirements do not acknowledge the needs of non-religious students or their parents who, according to school enrolment data, are in the majority.

In any case, public schools are secular institutions (secular meaning ‘everyone is treated equally’ not ‘we hate Christians here’). Because of this, no religion should hold the privileged position of influence in public schools that Christianity currently does. My US friends – Christian and non-Christian – can’t believe that we have State-funded Religious Education and Chaplaincy Programs in Australian public schools. But then they are probably under the misapprehension that Australia also has enshrined separation of Church and State in our constitution. Apparently, this is not wholly true.

Further, Scripture Union and other suppliers of chaplains are just not honest. They would like the State and concerned parents to believe that they have no hidden agenda but that simply is not true. Their own websites reveal their true motivations, albeit sometimes in coded form (‘bringing a message of hope’ may seem an innocuous enough phrase but it is loaded with theological meaning for those in the know).

What’s really getting under the churches collective collar is that these tax-exempt, Christian organisations are coming under intense public scrutiny for the first time. They are not enjoying it…but I think they had better get used to it. There seems to be a groundswell of people in the community – religious and non-religious – who are wondering how Christianity managed to grab itself such a privileged position in the first place. And certainly those same tax payers would like to know why Christianity should expect to continue to hold it. In my view, from here on in, Christian chaplaincy provider organisations are going to need a better reason than, ‘but our god is the real one. You know…the book?! Like, der!’

So, this is why I believe Australia needs to change its guidelines regarding religiously-connected school counsellors. To level the playing field and upgrade the training requirements so that only skilled professionals need apply. To make all workers much more accountable, both to professional oversight, and to school principals and P & C. It isn’t about attacking Christianity – although Christianity is so used to its comfy position of privilege I imagine it looks that way to its members. It’s about making aspirants, whatever their religious persuasion, earn their right to work in a role as important as caring for our children.

So to my friend: Yes, I do know not all Christians are horrible. I’d certainly never think of you that way. And no-one is saying the better chaplains don’t care about kids or don’t try hard. But if they are the right people for the job, they shouldn’t be afraid of the standards being lifted, even if it means they have to do further training.

School chaplaincy is not a role for unaccountable amateurs, however caring.


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