Category Archives: Chaplains

A Case Against School Chaplaincy – Part One: A Fox in the Hen-House

This is Part One of a three-part series of articles. See also:

Part Two:  Russian Roulette

Part Three: Gay Teens at Risk from School Chaplaincy

“Don’t set a fox to guard the hen-house.”

You can put a silk hat on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

“A leopard can’t change his spots.”

“Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.” – Douglas Adams

Australia’s national school chaplaincy program was introduced by the Howard government in October 2006 and was continued and expanded by the Rudd Government.  Provided at enormous cost to Australian tax-payers, the result is that over 2,000 state schools currently employ chaplains, providing the chaplains and their churches with direct exposure to approximately 720,000 children in state schools. (Overington, 2008).

A key plank of the program is that chaplains are not permitted to evangelise.*  It is passing strange, then, that the major bodies contracted by the government to supply chaplains to schools are evangelical – and expect their chaplains to conform to that religious tradition.

To me, the fundamental flaw in the national school chaplaincy program is that the government is specifically hiring evangelical Christians to go into state schools – and then telling them not to evangelise.  It’s like hiring a fox to look after the hen-house under strict instructions it’s not to eat the chickens:  the directive is neither fair to the chickens nor the fox.

Let’s consider, as a case study, the Scripture Union, a major supplier of chaplains to the nation’s schools.  Scripture Union Australia’s aims, mission statement and working principles are all strongly centred on evangelism.  Further, chaplains employed by the Scripture Union are required to adhere to its core principles and beliefs.  The Scripture Union, for example, believes – and expects its chaplains to believe – that:

“…  the Old and New Testament Scriptures are God-breathed, since their writers spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit; hence are fully trustworthy in all that they affirm; and are our highest authority for faith and life.” (Scripture Union – Aims & Beliefs)

Given this commitment to the literal truth of the Bible, one can only assume that they consider the call to evangelise as a holy commandment.  Growth Groups, an interdenominational group in the UK explains this divine imperative:

“The call to evangelise is clear from Scripture. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus gives His disciples the “Great Commission”.  In Acts 1:8, He tells them that they will be His “witnesses” (Acts 1:8) and the remainder of the book of Acts tells the story of how they spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

“We acknowledge the commission of Christ to proclaim the Good News to all people, making them disciples, and teaching them to obey him.” (Growth Groups)

Of course, Tim Mander, CEO of Scripture Union Queensland, and spokesperson for SU Australia,  insists that all chaplains work under Education Department guidelines.  Mander tells us, reassuringly, that:

“One aspect [of the school chaplaincy program] is that the chaplain cannot proselytise or evangelise and we respect and adhere to that.” (Percy, 2008)

Curiously, this directly contradicts a directive from a Scripture Union International policy paper which says, in part:

“We believe that our mandate is to bring children and young people into the life of established churches by programs that serve them in environments in which they feel comfortable.”

“We believe that, in the case of families that are not Christian, the evangelism of the whole family rather than of children in isolation is still our objective. However, if this cannot immediately be realised, we believe that God still calls us to evangelise children themselves.” (Scripture Union International, 2005)

While the Scripture Union says they resist approaches that treat children as ‘targets’ of evangelism – how can this be reconciled with their stated mandate to evangelise?

The truth is that they can’t and don’t reconcile these conflicting directives.  It is clear from reading anything written by the Scripture Union that their entire raison d’être is to be a recruiting agency for Jesus.  This is their primary purpose in our state schools and there should be no mistake about it.

Of course the chaplains’ missionary zeal is circumscribed, somewhat, by the government’s guidelines –  but only while they are dealing with the children within the confines of the school grounds.  That’s why there is an all-out effort to encourage the children to participate in out of school activities where they are removed from the scrutiny of parents and teachers and the ‘grooming’ process can be continued.

“The good news is that God is doing some incredible work through the ministries of SU Queensland. School chaplaincy, camps and missions are exposing thousands of young people and children to the good news of Jesus every year.” (SU News, June 2006)

“In Australia, SU operates in every state and territory and mobilises around thousands of volunteers each year to engage young people and families in holiday programs at beaches and in urban or rural townships, camps, secondary and primary schools, through sports, recreation, outdoor education and school chaplaincy.

SU’s ministry brings us into contact with hundreds of thousands of children, young people and families per year making SU one of the largest mission movements to children and youth in the world. But what drives us is a desire to see lives transformed. We are serious about making a difference.” (Scripture Union Australia – About SUA)

“With urgency. We intentionally make opportunities to present life-giving messages that invite children to respond positively to Jesus. Our approach is urgent because children will, by their nature and because of the world in which they live, turn away from God unless they are evangelised and nurtured.” (Scripture Union International, 2005)

According to a 2006 Scripture Union newsletter:

“Last year alone, over 2500 kids went on SU Queensland camps where many committed their lives to Jesus for the first time.”

Don’t tell me that those children – many of whom are now recruited through SU’s chaplaincy programme – weren’t ‘targets’ for evangelism.

Of course, it is up to parents whether to allow their children to be involved in these out of school activities.  But, as Ron Williams of the Australian Secular Lobby explains:

“Chaplains go on excursions and on school camps, so if you want your children to have no exposure to the chaplain, you’ve ‘volunteered’ for them not to go to the museum or the bush camp.” (Williams in Potts, 2010)

SU’s mission is clear.  Groom the children within the schools, win their friendship and the trust of their parents and then invite them to a fun adventure camp.  Get the unchurched and non-Christian kids to put pressure on their parents to let them attend.  Once you have the children in your care, and beyond the jurisdiction of the Education Department and their parents, work on them to ‘give their lives to Jesus’.

Now, some may take exception to the use of the word ‘grooming’.  After all, isn’t that what pedophiles do? Yes it is – and I use the word deliberately.

While I am not suggesting that chaplains (in general) are grooming children for anything more than religious conversion, it is impossible not to see the similarities between the two approaches.

In his article, “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis”, former FBI agent Kenneth V. Lanning identifies the stages involved in a pedophile’s grooming process (Stang, 2008):

  • The first stage is to identify a child who is vulnerable in some way – often the same kind of ‘at-risk’ child that may be ‘targeted’ by a chaplain.  One of the best ways to do this is for the pedophile to spend a lot of time in places like ‘your child’s school and playground’ – exactly the place where the chaplain identifies children who may be open to conversion.
  • The second stage is to win the trust of the child and his parents in order to gather as much information as possible about the intended victim.  Similarly,  we have the kindly chaplain listening to the child’s problems, playing sport with them in the playground, maybe visiting the parents to discuss the child’s welfare.   We also have the use of the intimate and familiar term ‘Chappy’.
  • In the third step, once the pedophile knows a little about his victim, he steps into that child’s life to fill a need.  For example, a lonely child might receive extra time and attention, and a child who feels unloved might receive unconditional affection – exactly the kind of attention provided by a chaplain.
  • The fourth step in the grooming process is to lower the child’s inhibitions about sexual matters.  Of course, the chaplain (generally!) doesn’t do this, but taking a child on a camp where all the ‘cool’ counsellors pray publicly and give testimonies about how Jesus made them happy and successful and confident may certainly lower a child’s inhibitions about following a religion.
  • The fifth stage for a pedophile is the overt sexual abuse of the child, often resulting in marked changes in personality and behaviour.  Again, the correlation with chaplaincy is the successful religious conversion of the child  – an event specifically designed to result in marked changes in personality and behaviour.  Indeed, a stated aim of the evangelical Christian is to ‘change lives’.  And what else can we expect when a child is finally convinced to accept the premise that they are a sinner whose only chance at redemption is to live in the humble service, and in accordance with the moral (or immoral) precepts, of a supernatural deity?

In light of the above, consider the following video from SU Australia.  There is no denying that, in many respects, it is a ‘good news’ story,  and I am absolutely, unequivocally not implying that the chaplain or any of the camp counsellors are pedophiles. The correlation here is the process which is employed.   This process becomes very obvious in “Jarred’s Story”:

The evangelistic agenda is carefully avoided in the Jarred video, but for more insight into the SU Connect camps mentioned in the story, consider this:

“Keanu Schubert is 16 and lives in one of Brisbane’s headline suburbs. Now in Year 11, Keanu came to Connect in Year Nine – “pretty much a mess”. “There was not a lot of good stuff happening,” said Keanu. “I was close to doing things no one should think about.” One the first expedition Keanu made friends among boys he described as his school enemies. Part of his transformation included hearing about Jesus and becoming a disciple. He’s now connected to a number of church youth groups in the Springwood area.” (Journey Online – Queensland Uniting Church, 2008)

Further, training literature from SU Connect provides advice on how to engage children into talking about the Bible by using movies such as “The Matrix” or by talking about football. (Knowle Parish Church – Leaders Resources)

Make no mistake – religious conscription is at the very heart of everything Scripture Union does.  My issue is not that the children are being helped, but that they are being helped at a price by people with an agenda.  Indeed, sounding very much like a fox who’s been given the keys to the hen-house, SU’s CEO, Tim Mander admits:

“To have a full-time Christian presence in government schools in this ever-increasing secular world is an unbelievable privilege. Here is the church’s opportunity to make a connection with the one place through which every young person must attend: our schools.”

You can almost hear him salivating at the prospect of all those young, unsaved souls.

Now, with all this talk of foxes in hen-houses and wolves in sheep’s clothing and pigs in top hats, I must call a pause here to say, perversely, that I don’t think that the chaplains, themselves, are bad people.  In general, I believe, they are kind, sincere, enthusiastic, loving people with a genuine desire to help the kids in their care.  I also don’t dispute the fact that, in providing a friendly ear and some much needed attention for at-risk kids, they may fulfill an important role.  I don’t question, at all, the value of having someone in the school who has the time to play sport and ‘hang out’ with the kids and listen to their problems.  I don’t question that taking ‘at risk’ kids on adventure camps does wonders for their self-confidence and discipline.  What I question is why religion is brought into this process.  Why are evangelistic Christians, (often with no formal qualifications), who have an agenda which clearly goes beyond friendship and support, providing these services?  If our children need counseling and advice from adult mentors, surely these should be qualified people who have no agenda other than to assist the children in their care. If school counselors are less effective than chaplains because they’re not out in the playground with the kids – get them out in the playground!

State schools should provide a religion-neutral environment for children with parents of all faiths and no faith.  It is not sufficient to say that the Christian chaplain is ‘non-denominational’.  The act of placing an evangelical Christian chaplain into a school and telling them not to evangelise is unfair to both the chaplain and the children.  It places the chaplain in the position where they have to answer to two masters. When ‘God’ is telling you to spread the gospel and that children who are not ‘saved’ will burn in hell for eternity, and the Education Department is telling you that you mustn’t ‘target’ children for conversion – which ‘master’ do you think a good, evangelical Christian will listen to?  If you sincerely believe that, without conversion, a young person you care for will suffer eternally, how could you not find ways to defy government protocols or at least find ways to circumvent them?  And, indeed, this is exactly what chaplains do.  As we have seen, even if they have to take care what they do and say within the school, they use their position ‘strategically’ (SU’s own word) in order to entice the children into out-of-school activities where they, or other Christian agencies they work with,  are not constrained by Education Department policy.

For Christians reading this article, consider how you would feel if, instead of placing Christian chaplains in state schools, the government decided to employ Muslim counsellors whose role was to get close to the children, identify those ‘at risk’ and then encourage them to go to Islamic adventure camp where they were encouraged as part of a ‘long term programme’ to convert to Islam and accept the Koran as the true word of God.  Would you be arguing then that there is ‘no harm’ in bringing religion into state schools?

Chaplains are not evil, but they have no place in state schools.  You cannot place an evangelistic Christian into a state school and expect them not to create opportunities to evangelise.  They are compelled by their religious beliefs to do so.  Chaplains should not be put into that position and parents should not have their beliefs (or lack of belief) undermined by someone within the school whose primary aim is to entice their children into adopting a particular narrow, fundamentalist, literalist, Christian ideology.

It’s not fair to put a fox in a hen-house and tell him he’s not to eat the chickens while he’s in there.  You cannot expect him not to follow his innate compulsion to eat chickens.  Even if you happen to find a fox with remarkable self-control, a clever fox will simply invite the chickens to step outside – perhaps for a ‘really fun’ adventure camp –  and eat them then.  He is then able to claim, quite honestly, that he complied absolutely with the directive not to eat the chickens in the hen-house.  The fox is not evil.  You can’t blame the fox for doing what a fox does.  The blame lies squarely on whoever decided that it was a good idea to put a fox in a hen-house and direct him not to act like a fox.

Chrys Stevenson

This is Part One of a three-part series of articles. See also:

Part Two: Russian Roulette

Part Three: Gay Teens at Risk from School Chaplaincy



8 August 2010: The Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, will today announce an allocation of $222 million to boost the number of chaplains in schools by more than one-third, which would mean about 3700 schools will be covered under the voluntary scheme introduced by the Howard government.

Clarification from Australian Secular Lobby

*”A key plank of the program is that chaplains are not permitted to evangelise.”

Although this is generally true, Hugh Wilson of the Australian Secular Lobby provides the following clarification:

It depends which programme you are talking about. DEEWR prohibit proselytising, but are silent on evangelising, but EQ prohibit both, so a NSCP chaplain in an EQ school cannot do either. The ASL discussed with DEEWR what they meant by ‘proselytise’, because the word is not defined by them. Within the private school section of DEEWR , there is a vague description of ‘proselytise’, and that comes out closer to EQs evangelise.  The new policy is here and says, in part:

“instruct volunteer and/or paid chaplain that s/he is not to evangelise or proselytise at any time in the delivery of chaplaincy program”

The words are defined here:

Evangelise: Engagement and dialogue with a student/s with intent to attract to a particular faith group.

Proselytise: To solicit a student for a decision to change belief system.

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Further Action

Yes!  You can do something.  If you believe that the National School Chaplaincy Program is contrary to Australia’s secular principles and that chaplains (however well-intentioned) should not be placed into state schools, please support the High Court Challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program being mounted by Ron Williams .

NSCP federally-funded state school chaplains across Queensland may: conduct Christian prayers on all-school assembly; at significant school ceremonies; hold lunchtime prayer/Bible study sessions and engage with students in the classroom, playground, school excursions, school camps and sport. Chaplains oversee and conduct Religious Instruction classes and on-campus church-designed and run programs including Hillsong ‘Shine’ which connect children with evangelistic off-campus clubs, programs and camps.

Contact with concerned parents in every Australian State and Territory reveals that occurences of the federally-funded National School Chaplaincy Program being utilised as a Christian evangelic ministry are common within the nation’s state schools.

After years of correspondence and meetings with state education and DEEWR executives as well as personal meetings with two Education Ministers and their Directors General, in 2009, a frustrated Mr. Williams sought advice regarding a possible High Court challenge to the constitutional legality of the Commonwealth providing treasury funds to the National School Chaplaincy Program. In February 2010, Horowitz & Bilinsky accepted the case.

This matter concerns more people than the Williams family from Queensland. It concerns all Australians, of all faiths and none, who support the secular ‘wall of separation’ concept concerning church and state. This ‘wall of separation’ is required to safeguard our multicultural, multi-faith  and non-faith liberal democracy that has become the hallmark of the civilised 21st century nation Australia rightfully claims to be.

Mr. Williams has established a trust account for the purpose of accepting donations to defray the considerable costs related to this s.116 ‘wall of separation’ constitutional challenge. Mr. Williams has instructed his solicitors that all funds deposited to the account are only to be applied for costs and disbursements associated with the High Court proceedings.

Considerable financial support from the broader Australian community will be required by Mr. Williams in order to meet his expected, and unexpected, legal costs. Whatever your faith position might be, this is a significant legal exercise aimed at ensuring Australia really is a secular nation-state, as our forebears clearly intended it to be.

Please secure a stake in your nation’s secular future by donating as much as you feel comfortably able to.”

Please note that funds donated go directly into a solicitors’ trust fund to be applied only to legal costs.  The money does not go to Ron Williams personally.

You could also write to or email your local Federal Labor candidate and/or the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard with your objections to the National School Chaplaincy Program and noting that the extension of this program will be a consideration in your decision on who to vote for at the forthcoming election.

Gladly’s Book Recommendations

Gladly’s favourite book store for online purchases is Embiggen Books.  If you’ve found this article interesting you may enjoy this further reading:

What Should We Believe? by Dorothy Rowe

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