Make chaplaincy secular? No! Abolish it!

wolf-in-sheeps-clothingFollowing the reversal of the decision to allow the employment of secular welfare workers under the umbrella of the National School Chaplaincy program, there has been much chatter on social networks about how outrageous it is to deprive schools of this option.

Increasingly, attention seems to be turning away from the idea that the National School Chaplaincy Program is an ideological and political pork-barrel program based on no research and with no performance indicators. Instead, there is nostalgia for those halcyon days when the NSCP (renamed the NSCSWP) included secular welfare workers.

“If only the government would allow schools to ‘choose‘,” go the online arguments, “all would be well …”

Well, excuse me for being blunt, but this is absolute, unadulterated bullshit. And, frankly, I’m sick to death of hearing this ill-informed, wishy-washy argument from people who should know better.

The National School Chaplaincy Program was initiated by John Howard for the express purpose of putting evangelical missionaries into schools. It is not student focused. It was never about helping kids. Let me repeat that. It was never designed to help kids.

The National School Chaplaincy Program  did not emerge out of any identified need in schools for welfare workers. It did not derive from any campaigning on the part of schools. It was not initiated in response to independent research by education and mental health experts. No!  It was conceived to advance an ideological position which held that ‘secular’ schools were ‘value free’ spaces and that if parents and teachers weren’t going to instill ‘Christian values’ into children, the government would respond by sending in an army of Christian soldiers to do the job.

It is a program designed to win the hearts, minds and votes of conservative Christians in marginal seats. And the strategy might have worked if John Howard hadn’t been outfoxed by Kevin Rudd who launched a ‘holier than thou’ campaign to win back Christian votes for Labor. Julia Gillard continued that mission by selling out to the Australian Christian Lobby – not only over chaplaincy but also on the issue of equal marriage.

Howard insisted that he was calling these evangelical missionaries ‘chaplains’ because that word had a certain ‘connotation’. The program was absolutely intended to be religious from its inception. When Julia Gillard extended funding for the program to $220 million, she promised the Australian Christian Lobby that it would not be secularised and that it would be a chaplaincy program with everything that word implied.

After Ron Williams’ first High Court case, the criticisms of both the public and the High Court justices prompted (then) Education Minister, Peter Garrett, to open it up to ‘secular’ welfare workers – but you can be sure this was done after consultation with the ALP’s religious right faction and with a ‘wink wink’, ‘nudge nudge’, don’t-you-worry-about-that we’ll-say-it’s-secular-but-it-won’t-be-really assurance.

The ‘secular option’ was never a viable choice for most schools. It was mostly smoke and mirrors.

Initially, the ‘secular’ option was not available to schools which already had a chaplain – only for the 1000 extra schools that would ‘benefit’ from the extension of the program. In reality, the number of truly non-religious workers employed in the early days of this secular munificence amounted to a single digit number.

Never slow to grab on to a taxpayers’ dollar, para-church organisations like ACCESS Ministries signed on to supply ‘secular welfare workers’ as well as religious chaplains – from the same pool of people!

Further, in order to gain employment through the para-church organisations, the ‘secular’ workers still had to provide religious references and attest to their Christian faith.

I wrote about this in an article on ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal:

“In two separate advertisements on Seek.Com, faith-based funding recipient, Young Life Australia, calls for student welfare workers to fill positions at the Sunshine Coast and in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. To obtain this ‘secular’ position, applicants must commit to attend the Christian charity’s ‘training events’ throughout the year and align with Young Life’s values and statement of mission purpose. Central to this is a commitment to ‘the evangelisation of young people’.  ‘Highly desirable’ qualifications for these ‘secular’ positions are a ‘background in youth-related Christian mission’, a committed Christian faith and a reference from the applicant’s minister or pastor.”

When I rang chaplaincy funding recipient, Campus Crusade for Christ, they confirmed they will provide student welfare workers but stressed their employment conditions require all staff to be practicing Christians.”

The National School Chaplaincy Guidelines changed barely at all under this new arrangement. The word ‘religious’ was changed to ‘spiritual’, no distinction was made between the duties of religious chaplains and ‘secular’ workers, and secular workers were perfectly free to provide ‘pastoral care’ and perform all the same religious functions as chaplains. All that changed was the nomenclature.

Certainly, some of the funding recipients that came on board to provide ‘secular’ welfare workers were legitimate. Many were not. Many of those listed by DEEWR, I found, hadn’t bothered to go ahead with their accreditation and were not available to provide secular workers. I spent hours one day trying to find a secular worker to no avail. Even DEEWR couldn’t (or wouldn’t) point me towards a singular, legitimate secular welfare worker plying their trade in a state school. Not one.

The ‘secular welfare worker’ interviewed on The Drum this week is a case in point. She used to be employed as a chaplain, now works as a ‘secular welfare worker’ but, under the new guidelines, will have to be reclassified as a ‘chaplain’ to keep her job. Same person, same beliefs – only the names have changed!

Some funding recipients which sounded secular turned out to have religious links. But, if you were a school and didn’t ask the right questions, you’d never know that your ‘secular’ welfare worker was being provided by an organisation with much the same ideology and employment criteria as the major parachurch organisations.

So please, please, please, people. Let us not get all misty eyed about the days when the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program provided ‘options’ to schools. In reality, the only real difference under the new scheme is that it is more open about the rampant religiosity of the program.

And even if the program wasn’t religious – even if ‘welfare workers’ had to show atheist credentials to get the job – it would still be  a shockingly bad idea to put poorly qualified people (of any religion or none) into schools to deal with kids with really serious issues. This isn’t about advancing an atheist ideology – this is about caring about kids’ welfare.

Yet, in the media and on social networks I keep hearing about the loss of ‘secular social workers’. Yes, it’s possible that some of the few legitimately ‘secular’ workers had social work qualifications. But it was never a requirement. The old scheme didn’t employ ‘secular social workers’  – it asked only for a Cert IV qualification or equivalent.  What’s more, there are ways of circumventing even that low requirement. A Cert IV is a low-level qualification that in no way equips someone to deal with at risk children. As the Australian Psychology Society says, placing people with such scanty knowledge in to schools is both ‘dangerous’ and ‘appalling’.  They should know!

Nobody who cares about kids’ mental health or welfare needs should be calling for the National School Chaplaincy Program to be modified to allow the ‘choice’ of  ‘secular workers’. Poorly qualified secular workers are barely better than poorly qualified religious fanatics.

It’s time to abolish this program. Its purpose is clearly to suit the ideological and political aims of the conservative right rather than the needs of at-risk kids. That, in itself, is appalling. To trade kids’ welfare – perhaps their lives – for political and ideological ends is a vomitously cynical act.

It makes me sick to my stomach that that’s how politics works in this country. It makes me sick that the more liberal churches are staying shtum on this issue. It makes me sick that well-meaning, enthusiastic young Christians are being thrown into a job for which they are poorly qualified, probably with no idea of the incredible harm they may be wreaking. It makes me sick that the ALP jumped on the bandwagon to appease their own powerful, fundamentalist Christian faction (take a bow, Joe de Bruyn) and to lure the ‘Christian vote’ away from the Liberals (take a bow, Kevin Rudd). It makes me sick that the lily-livered Greens are all rhetoric and no fucking action on this issue (take a bow Christine Milne). They whine about chaplaincy but do nothing in the Senate to arrest it. Sarah Hanson-Young is on record repeating the wish-washy, fence-sitting, misinformed position about giving schools ‘choice’.

Tony Abbott’s own audit committee gave the best advice on this program. “Abolish it.”


End it.

Get rid of it.

Don’t amend it. Don’t expand the ‘options’. Don’t reverse decisions about it.

Abolish it.

It’s a rort. It’s funded unconstitutionally. It isn’t student-focused. It isn’t based on kids’ needs. There is no credible research which establishes a need for the program or recognises a role fulfilled by by it. There is not one skerrick of evidence that it does any good at all and a great deal of growing evidence that it is ill-advised, dangerous, wasteful, homophobic, divisive, disrespectful of other religions and cultures, and that chaplains are routinely over-stepping the mark, both in respect to proselytising and counselling.

Abolish it.


Chrys (getting really, really annoyed) Stevenson


23 thoughts on “Make chaplaincy secular? No! Abolish it!

  1. Jayel

    Bravo! You have articulated the frustration I too have increasingly felt over the past few weeks. While it is encouraging that this topic has stayed in the news for a lot longer than it has in the past, it saddens me that: 1. this seems to have arisen from hip-pocket concerns rather than any well thought out critique of the program, and; 2. those who are commenting are arguing for ‘choice’. There should be no specifically religious positions in state schools, period! A psychologist parent and friend also says while chaplains a less desirable than a secular welfare worker, the low level of qualifications required of people in either of these positions actually potentially hampers children getting help in a timely fashion – like an extra layer of bureaucracy to get through. She suggests more funding for existing school counselors to allow them time to get out on the playground themselves and see what’s going on first hand, rather than having one day a fortnight stuck in a room at the school doing reports.

    1. Margaret

      Agree wholeheartedly. Thank you Chrys for your great articles and advocacy on this issue. When my children were young (now they’re all in their 40s) I worked with others to stop a program of integration of religion with all subjects within the Tasmanian state education system. Now I want my grandchildren – and others’ – protected from this insidious infiltration of religious zealots into their lives.

  2. Parent

    There is a growing awareness among many groups of the true impacts that this program is having in schools and with some families. I agree Chrys that only removing this program is the only choice we need and I will never be fooled to support or advocate for secular welfare workers, as it is apparent that there is and never has been a real choice and this program was implemented for theological and political reasons only. I know what it is like to feel frustrated when you are in the minority on a committee and saying this is not right or I have problems with this and being ignored? We need to stop wasting Millions of dollars by giving it to organisations who prioritise their own vested evangelical interest at the expense of our children. Our schools here In Tasmania have said on numerous occasions that they are desperate for more student support staff hours, for School Psychologists and social workers. these staff could provide support or preventative programs rather then handing these over to unqualified chaplains. We need more impartial and qualified support staff for vulnerable children, adolescents and their families, not poor advice or evangelism hidden in well being and esteem programs. Enough is enough!

  3. Vance

    What people need to understand is that public schools don’t have any right to make choices that are exclusionary or divisive or not in the best interests of the school community as a whole. The chaplaincy program, even with the so-called ‘secular’ option, is all of those things.

  4. onemeremember

    GO GIRL!!!! I agree with you one hundred percent. We need to stand up for our children and stop them from being used by the politicians and the churches. Get rid of the shit – clean it out and let’s put the money to something constructive that will truly benefit the children.

  5. Paul

    What’s the difference between a secular chaplain and a religious chaplain? Well a religious chaplain has been professionally trained in proselytising, whereas a secular one has not had the training and so is not as effective in the proselytising.

    There is a lot of confusion abroad about proselytising. In its worst form it is presenting religious beliefs as fact. To say “Jesus died for your sins” is proselytising. To say we (inclusive of the child) believeJesus died for your sins is proselytising. To say I ( authority figure) believe Jesus died for your sins is proselytising. To say some people believe Jesus died for your sins is not proselytising.

    1. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

      Paul what we’re saying is that often there is no difference between the two at all. That ‘secular’ workers are just religious chaplains using another title. Same people, same bat-shit crazy beliefs, same minimum qualifications, same religious ‘credentials’ employed through the same evangelistic, homophobic para-church funding recipients.

  6. Team Oyeniyi

    Maybe you should rename to “Gladly, the cross bear”? 🙂

    Great work, Chrys. As always on this topic, AGREE!

    I’m for cultural intelligence glasses as part of what used to be Social Studies. Teach all kids about all religions as part of that, to foster understanding and tolerance. Teach that religions are diverse and NOT proven or science, but cultural belief systems.

  7. Victoria

    Thanks for writing this article Chris.

    I live in Qld and can’t find any state schools without a chaplain in our area. My child attends the state school for which we are in a catchment. The principal promotes the chaplain at any given chance. The principal and P&C donated $500 to Scripture union qld last month during the high court challenge. The principal publishes in the school newsletter that Religious Instruction must be attended by all students and only a letter written to the school can see them removed. It is sad to see a principal pushing his ideas onto families at this school. Our complaint about all of this was submitted to the education dept and they never replied. So we have chaplains, RI volunteers, and principals pushing their Christian beliefs and an education dept who are failing to perform their job.

    As Australians we need stand up for what is right. Every child deserves a safe and equal education free from discrimination. So, yes, abolish the chaplaincy program and while you are at it, abolish RI, and ensure schools and teaching staff stick to the rules. Make schools secular as they were always meant to be.

    1. Jayel

      Hi Victoria. This is exactly what used to happen at my kids’ school too. I made myself thoroughly familiar with the regulations so I knew I was on solid ground and eventually wrote to EQ about what was going on, citing their regulations and how the school was in breach of them. They investigated and found the school was indeed in breach of the guidelines and compelled the school to comply.

      You should also push for proper supervision of non-participating students. It took a couple of years but, with a change of principal in the meantime, our current principal finally told the RI instructor provider that he would not allow RI if they (the provider) couldn’t send enough instructors for any given grade at the same time on the same day so all the participating students could be in one room with the RI instructor and one teacher, and all the the non-participating students could be together in another room with the other teacher supervising. It would best if the school got rid of it altogether, but at least they are complying with the guidelines, such as they are. You have to keep nagging and chipping away, but I have found that ambitious principals in particular will act if you point out where they are in breach of regulations because it will look bad on their record if you end up taking it to EQ.

  8. diana

    A wonderfully articulate “rant’! You are doing a great job, Chrys, and I agree with everything you say. This blatant and iniquitous indoctrination should be abolished.

  9. Ecks Why Zed

    Important points well made. Problem is that big biz is letting the government do this. Rest assured, if they had a problem with it Abbott would not be allowed. More than anything, it comes back to Rupert Murdoch’s conservatism and Christianity.

  10. Rhonda Cale

    I hear ya, bear-girl! I, too, will never stop shouting about this bullshite – I don’t give a flying fuck who gets sick of hearing about it. High Court Challenge 2 : so much riding on you!

  11. Leafy Green

    I totally agree, let’s not bother arguing about the semantics – get rid of the fear-mongering, guilt-inducing, money-making, fairy tales from our public SECULAR schools. My local primary school has this on their website in regards to CRE and the alternative “values” program: “Both programmes will emphasise shared values such as respect, cooperation, tolerance, unity, compassion, sharing and justice.” I know which one will be more tolerant.. and as for unity, what BS!

  12. trudi

    I wish you had been able to find me when you couldnt find one ‘unadulterated’ secular person employed under the Student Welfare Program! While I respect and understand, and in many instances agree with parts of your article, being a non religious, qualified, gay student welfare worker I would have liked you to know that some of us are totally ‘student focussed’ and really care for our young people and their families. My wish, along with most in my school is that all young people get the support and help they need to access the best education they can. Education gives them choices and may allow them some power in their decision making into adulthood. Having the support, both in school and within the wider community, is often necessary for many of the young people and their families that I work with if this is going to happen. Having a person that they trust and can act as a advocate for them within the school and wider community is vital. The young people, their families, my school and I dont know what will happen next year …. I probably wont have my job. I live 1 hour away from my place of work in regional australia so even though I am tempted to volunteer my bank balance wont allow this! So please dont think that there isn’t caring, committed secular people out their looking out for young people with no ulterior motive – cause I know I am at least one!!!


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