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Chaplaincy in State Schools

Tuesday, 1 July 2014  | Jim Reiher

A lot of good programs have been cut in the recent federal budget. One good program that was not cut, however, is the National Schools Funding for Chaplaincy Program.

Not cut, but definitely controversial.

Perhaps our community has reached a point of needing to talk about the place of religion in society. There are big questions that might be asked. Should governments use money to support religious activity in state schools? Or should it never be allowed? Should society try to make everyone in the community look the same? Should we become a ‘secular’ community with no mention of any faith at all in schools? Or do we want to promote multiculturalism (that acknowledges and celebrates different faith traditions)? If some say, “If parents want some religion for their kids, send them to the private religious schools”, where does that leave poorer families that might want some religious input for their children? Is that attitude discriminatory against the poor? If about 62% of Australians still mark down ‘Christian’ at census time, and about 3% are Muslim, and 2% Buddhist etc, what should we do with such numbers? 

Those are huge questions. In the meantime, it is clear that they are not settled. It is also clear that the majority of Australians still claim some kind of allegiance to the Christian tradition. And so it is no surprise that Christianity will be more noticeable and more relevant to most, than any other faith—especially at critical times in the life journey when a person more often thinks of spirituality and faith questions. 

That is not to dismiss the good and the valuable in other faiths. But it is currently the situation that most Australians—if they turn to any faith tradition in times of stress, or grief and loss—will turn to Christianity.

And right now, for the time being at least, we have a government-funded system in place that supports the presence of chaplains in state schools.

Let me say this loud and clear: chaplains do great work. Chaplains are a wonderful asset in the schools that have them. They run specific programs tailored to the needs of the school (perhaps anti-bullying programs that are targeting children who tend to be the culprits; or resilience programs that focus on the target of the bullies; grief and loss programs that work with children who have gone through recent loss; divorce recovery programs; body image programs; cyber safety programs, etc.). They do one-on-one pastoral care with children, parents and staff as required. They know when to refer on, and do so. They operate under the rules of mandatory reporting just as the teaching staff are required to. They provide care and support, and in times of crisis or grief and loss, they can provide spiritual comfort for those who want it as well. (That final aspect of their work is never pushed on anyone, and it is not the primary focus of their work – but a wonderful support when it is wanted and needed). 

Let me clarify how it works, just in case you are unaware. 

1)      Chaplaincy is completely voluntary in Australia. No school has to have a chaplain, and in schools with them, no family or their children have to see the chaplain. They miss out on the value the chaplain can bring them, nevertheless we respect the wishes of the families who are philosophically opposed to the notion that a trained, competent, professional, Christian worker be allowed to talk to their child. Note this: the chaplains are only in the school if the school requests it. They can be dismissed by the leadership of the school at the school’s unilateral decision. The whole program from start to finish is voluntary and up to the school to have or not have. 

2)      Different chaplaincy organisations exist. Most chaplains are “placed” in schools by a chaplaincy placement group that the schools link in with to help them find a suitable chaplain. There are hundreds of such groups who together provide the 2900 chaplains around the country. But there are some “main ones” that provide the majority of chaplains. In Queensland, the main one is Scripture Union (which supplies over 700 schools with chaplains in that state). In Victoria, the main one is ACCESS Ministries (with over 300 school chaplains). In South Australia it is Schools Ministry Group (with around 300 Christian pastoral support workers). In other states, there are other organisations. 

3)      Different chaplaincy placement organisations are different. Some are more evangelical than others. Some are conservative, others more ‘progressive’.  ACCESS in Victoria, which gets such criticism by some parts of the media, has a complete branch of its activities devoted to chaplaincy, and their chaplaincy department is not evangelistically motivated. It is unashamedly Christian, but it is not trying to do ‘undercover conversions’ of children and their families in schools. Their philosophy is to show the love of God through their actions; to do good; to work with wellbeing teams in the school to provide pastoral care to the school community. And they do a remarkable job of it.[1]

4)      All Chaplains funded by the Federal Funding sign codes of conduct that say they will not evangelise nor proselytise. All ACCESS ministries Chaplains are instructed to respect all people no matter what their faith (or no faith); no matter what their gender; their sexual preference, their cultural background, their ethnicity, or their worldview. They must not try to convert. They simply show love and support to those in need. They actually genuinely believe that service and love in action is the most significant thing they can do in this world. The code of conduct is not a ‘ploy’ that is treated lightly. If it is broken, the chaplain knows they will be dismissed. 

5)      Some mistakenly believe the money provided by the federal government for chaplaincy, is replacing counsellors or psychologists in schools. Not so: it is over and above those other services. Of course it might be said that if the $250 million that is given to this program over the next four years was not given to chaplains, then it could be given to put more psychologists or social workers in schools. That is theoretically possible. But it is not money replacing money for psychologists. It is a separate allocation to provide a different more holistic community-integrated worker in a school. It is a pity more money is not invested into psychologists, social workers, and counsellors as well. But scrapping chaplaincy won’t see the other fields automatically increase. 

6)      Chaplains get paid a very humble wage. If you replaced the 2900 chaplains in schools you would not get 2900 psychologists doing the same hours each week.  I doubt that psychologists would work for a FTE wage of a Chaplain. The funding is capped at $20,000 per school per year and has not been indexed since 2006.  

7)      Chaplaincy is not the same as providing Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in primary schools. SRI is legislated for in law in Victoria, and ACCESS has another Division that oversees that. The ACCESS chaplains do not teach SRI as part of their Chaplaincy duties nor do they coordinate it. 

8)      Chaplains are well-trained and competent in their field. Different placement agencies have different standards, but ACCESS in Victoria requires a Bachelors Degree or higher in a relevant field of study. The relevant fields are: Education (we find a steady stream of teachers who change over to chaplaincy over time); counselling/social work/psychology (trained counsellors and experienced social workers, make terrific chaplains); or pastoral care/ministry (pastoral care of the school community is the core business of chaplains). ACCESS does not employ good intentioned but unskilled people, because good intentions without skills and training is not enough. 

9) Regarding ACCESS ministries itself: despite some sensational media claims that ACCESS is a fundamentalist cult, the truth is that it is an ecumenical body of all the mainstream denominations of the Christian faith. The ACCESS Council has 12 different Christian traditions on it, from Anglican and Uniting, to Baptist and Salvation Army. It adheres to the traditional Christian doctrines of the church, and is definitely not cultic. It is actually a remarkable example of Christians from different traditions coming together for a common purpose. The people who make up ACCESS (from the board, to chaplains, to volunteers who teach SRI) are a diverse group from all the different traditions of the Christian faith. They will all hold their own personal views on various moral and ethical issues, (just like everyone else in society), and they will not all be the same. Some are conservative and others are progressive. Some support gay marriage, and others don’t. Some support defensive war, others are pacifist, etc. Like any group, you will get a variety of views. But note: when it comes to ACCESS chaplains in schools, personal views do not get pushed onto the children or the families of the school. The workers are professionally trained and act as professionals. Just as any school teacher with personal views will not push those views onto the children, so too the ACCESS chaplains. They are there to serve, not to convert.

10) Finally a quick word about Special Religious Instruction in schools. Even though this article is about chaplains, not SRI, and they are separate and different activities, let me just say the following. Even the SRI program is misunderstood. It is different to chaplaincy, and based on legislation in Victoria that gives it a place in schools. But the SRI program is still completely voluntary. It is, in fact, an “opt in” system. No family has to have their children do it. And people from other faith traditions can have their own classes taken by their own presenters. Only families that sign off saying they want it for their kids, get it. It is absurd to pretend that program is pushed on to unwilling families.

As noted at the start, it might be that our community needs to have a long and serious conversation about the relationship of religion, other faith traditions, secularism, multiculturalism, and how that all weaves into the life of the community, including school life. But until such big questions are settled, please keep in mind the points made above. 

Regarding chaplaincy in particular, I put out the following practical challenge to any critic: Go and talk to the Principals or AP’s or teachers you know in schools that have chaplains, and ask them what they think of those workers in their school. Schools have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about their Chaplains year after year. As a community we should be protective and proud of school Chaplains who add to the overall care of students and school communities.



Jim Reiher is one of 5 Regional Support Managers for ACCESS ministries, each overseeing the work of about 60 state school chaplains in Victoria. Jim helps recruit new chaplains, and does their performance reviews at the schools with the school leadership teams.

[1]  The writer of this article is most familiar with the work of ACCESS ministries and that is why most of the examples are from that Victorian provider. The writer is not suggesting that all providers have the same rules of operation, or standards, that ACCESS has.  



Andre Van Eymeren
July 1, 2014, 9:43AM
Great apologetic for school chaplaincy Jim, thanks.
Robert Coles
July 1, 2014, 6:18PM
The most complete explanation I have seen about the work of chaplains in schools. Well done Jim.

I have been financially supporting ACCESS ministries chaplaincy work well before the government funding came along. The government support is only part of the story, but a very important part now. Best wishes to ACCESS for the future.
Greg Cottrell
July 1, 2014, 11:38PM
Its great to read about the need for School Chaplains and the wonderful interfaith work that they do.
Keep up the good work
Nancye Cottrell
July 1, 2014, 11:43PM
Well done Jim. Very comprehensive and informative.
When are we going to see this information in the daily press to inform and answer all negative views.
Jeanne Maher
December 27, 2014, 7:39AM
This is very well written and a very comprehensive explanation of the work of chaplains. It's a pity that the ordinary people can't read this type of explanation in our newspapers. It might dismiss many of the negative comments made about chaplains. It is certainly true that if they replaced chaplains with psychologist the number would be greatly reduced because $20000 would go nowhere near paying for a psychologist. Well done Jim

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