It’s time to dispel the myths about school chaplains

It’s time to dispel the myths about school chaplains

10 August 2011

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Australia — The school chaplaincy program has become the subject of dire pronouncements of “religion being forced on our schools” and now a High Court challenge that began this week.

It’s surprising that this relatively benign decision — to allow school communities the option to receive federal funding for a chaplain – is so controversial, considering chaplaincy has existed within many spheres of Australian society for years.

During recent disasters, such as bushfires, floods and cyclones, chaplains were well accepted as providers of an important role in the multi-faceted community response. Chaplains have also proved valuable in more than just disaster response. For example, the “Salvos” embody the pastoral care and spiritual support that typifies the role, and have been a much loved part of the Australian landscape for decades.
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Similarly, chaplaincy in schools is not new, having started in some states more than 50 years ago, and chaplains have long been in the emergency services, hospitals, the defence forces, and even professional sporting teams.

The High Court Challenge threatens funding for more than 2500 chaplains across Australia, and whether the current concerns spring from ideology or from a lack of information, understanding the National School Chaplaincy Program is important.

Importantly, having a school chaplain is voluntary. In the first instance, a school community will decide whether it wants a chaplaincy service, and then they agree on the faith background of the prospective chaplain. The reason that the majority of school chaplains come from the Christian faith is because the school community has made that collective choice.

Nevertheless, no matter what the faith of the chaplain, they provide comfort and support to all students and staff, regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs. People often make the mistake of equating religious education classes with chaplaincy, however, the two are separate and distinct in role, function and personnel.

A key piece of misinformation muddying the issue is the false assertion that chaplains are there to proselytise. The inability, or unwillingness, to differentiate between imposition of religious beliefs, and serving spiritual needs, is fundamental to this confusion.

Spirituality is not something to be denied or feared. Rather, the 2008 “Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians”, which was developed by the state, territory and Commonwealth ministers of education, states that schools play a vital role in ensuring the economic prosperity and social cohesion of Australia through “promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians”. It’s a fair statement then to say that the spiritual development and wellbeing of young Australians can’t be promoted without people who have been trained to serve spiritual needs when they arise.

Further, a false dichotomy being parlayed is whether we should employ chaplains or counsellors in our schools. This “one-or-the-other” approach doesn’t recognise that chaplains work in partnership with other caring professionals in the wider school community, yet have a unique and distinctive role.

A chaplain serves the community in a “first-response capacity” by providing pastoral care, spiritual support and referral pathways to access specialist crisis support.

They are able to do this as they are approachable, having a neutral, rather than disciplinary role. They are also accessible, proactively building networks of relationships with school communities. This accessibility often allows them to be made aware early of situations, allowing them to provide effective referrals to other professionals. Some anecdotal reports suggest that more students are now accessing professional counselling due to increased referrals from chaplains.

A misrepresentation that often fuels suspicion or angst is the cost of the program. Rarely does it get pointed out that the annual funding for each school in the program is $20,000. This means about one-third of chaplaincy funding needs to be raised from the community, and has led to a type of government-community partnership, which is both cost-effective and increases community cohesion.

The care of school communities is of critical importance, and unfortunately, the issue of whether chaplains are capable and qualified is awash with misunderstanding. It’s important for the community’s peace of mind to know that all chaplains employed by member organisations of the National School Chaplaincy Association (which employs 85 per cent of chaplains in government schools) have minimum training requirements, and they receive ongoing professional development.

Importantly, qualified educational professionals overwhelmingly endorse the program. In a 2009 national survey it was found that 98 per cent of responding principals who had a chaplain in their school wanted government funding for school chaplaincy to continue.

Whether school principals get their wish remains to be seen. The High Court challenge is based around constitutional federal and state rights, and it’s difficult to know where the decision may fall.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: chaplains promote wellbeing in our community, and we must find a way to keep them in schools.

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