Do we want chaplains in public school? Part 3 – Sadly, no…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

(This is Part 3 of a 3-part blog series about SB 763, a new law to allow Texas Public Schools to hire school chaplains.  Part 1 covers the nuts and bolts of what the new law says.  Part 2 talks about the role of the chaplain. In this post I explain why I oppose chaplains in public schools. – ABT)

A wonderful chaplain could be a wonderful thing

My faith brings me peace, not all the time, but usually when I need it most, and even sometimes when I don’t know I need it.  It helps me live in a spirit of gratitude.  It helps me have patience and grace toward myself and others.  I believe my faith helps me with all the “fruits of the spirit” described in the Bible: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. I’m not saying you can’t have those things without some kind of religious faith, but for me, my religious faith helps me find them, live in them, recover them when they are lost.   Although my own life has been easy so far, I have seen faith provide profound comfort and peace to others in times of unimaginable pain and fear.

On the other hand, I have seen religion cause terrible pain.  While I have found freedom and grace in my religion, I have seen other people weighed down by terrible burdens of guilt, and shame and confusion by that same religion.  I have seen religion used hatefully as the door that shuts people out instead of lovingly as the door that welcomes people in.  I have seen it cause people to question things they know to be true and force themselves to believe things they know to be false.  I have seen it cause people to question their very right and reason to live. I have seen religion inspire people to incredibly beautiful acts of love, and I have seen it used as the excuse for terrible cruelty.

So, what does this all mean for the question of whether or not we should have chaplains in Texas and Waco public schools?

As I was preparing to write this blog, I spent a little time learning more about what it means to be a chaplain.  I did some reading.  I explored a few websites that offer chaplain certification, and I talked to a handful of wonderful current and former chaplains.  (You can read more details about what I learned in Part 2 of this blog series.)

I ended up believing a wonderful chaplain could be a wonderful thing for our children and educators.  Chaplains, at their best, provide a compassionate presence to vulnerable people in need of spiritual care.  At their best, they are committed to the dignity and worth of all persons, inclusivity and diversity, and justice and equality for all.  They respect your spirituality – they don’t try to impose their own.  Two of the chaplains I interviewed said they would love to be chaplains at a public school.  They would both be wonderful.  I can see how any child or teacher who interacted with them would be better off for it.  Relevant to the purpose of SB 763, yes, I believe a chaplain – the right chaplain, at the right time, in the right circumstances – might make a huge difference in a person’s life.  The kind of caring intervention a chaplain might provide could very well help prevent a suicide or a tragic turn toward violence.

I would love to live in a world, a state, a city where all children and educators have access to the kind of loving, compassionate, non-judgmental, open-minded, interfaith, spiritual care that the right school chaplain might be able to provide.   That is why it makes me sad to say that, unfortunately, I don’t think we live in that world.

I am sad that despite the benefits I think a wonderful, well-trained school chaplain could provide, I am extremely wary of the idea of having chaplains in public schools.   I do not think it would be a good idea to have them Waco public schools at this time, at least not as this bill is written.

Serious concerns

I have several concerns, but I will focus on the three that are, to me, the most difficult…

  1. Getting into the business of religion is a no win for schools. — I cannot think of a more fraught topic than religion. What if a gay student from a family who believes God hates gay people comes out to a school chaplain who tells him that God loves him no matter what, just like he is? What if a student has gay parents and the school chaplain tells her that her parents will have to repent of their lifestyle or they will be eternally separated from God’s love?

Would these conversations be confidential?  Would we want them to be? How would a school chaplain work with a child if a parent’s religious beliefs were at the root of the child’s distress?

I can certainly see how a caring, well-trained chaplain would be a great benefit to a child in that kind of situation, but I don’t think public school is the right setting for that kind of care.  The risk of conflict between the school and parents is too great. I see nothing but trouble for the school if a school chaplain’s guidance (purposefully or accidentally) comes into conflict with a parent’s religious beliefs – and by “trouble” I mean distraction from the school’s core purpose of instruction.

Would Waco schools only hire Christian Chaplains since that is the most common religion here?  Would they be willing to hire a Muslim or Humanist chaplain if one applied for the job?  Would it be legal for a public school district to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion?  Figuring out the rules for hiring a chaplain and how to make sure we hire chaplains that do more good than harm is too much to expect from our schools.  I don’t think it is realistic that a school could find a religious approach that would be acceptable to the whole community.  That’s why we have different churches and different religions.  That’s why we have separation of church and state.

The public schools can do many things for a child, and they seem to be expected to do more and more every year, but religious guidance is a step too far.

  1. There is too much variation in what it means to be a chaplain. – While a wonderful chaplain might be a wonderful thing, a terrible chaplain is also a terrible thing. Whereas with teachers and counselors and other school professionals there are pretty strict rules about the kind of training they must receive, SB 763 makes no mention of what training chaplains must have. The only mention of training/education at all in the bill is to specifically say chaplains do not need the same training as a school counselor. Hopefully any school district would set reasonable rules about what training a chaplain would need to have – but there’s nothing in this bill that requires that.  And, as I described in Part 2 of this blog series, there is no “standard” chaplain certification.

That is too loosey-goosey for me.

While I might be able to see my way to support a chaplain certified by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, I would definitely not be in favor of someone certified by the National School Chaplain Association (more on that later).  Without significantly more structure around the idea of who can be a public school chaplain and what training is required, I fear it is just as likely a chaplain may contribute to a suicide or a violent outbreak as help prevent one.

  1. Zealots in chaplain’s clothing. – I worry that some within the Christian church see school chaplains as an opportunity to promote their particular religious beliefs rather than to hold a sacred space for students to explore their own spirituality.

Take for example, the National School Chaplain Association.  They were one of the groups that testified passionately in favor of SB 763.  They say on their website that they are, “… a Christian chaplain ministry that provides spiritual care, counseling, and practical community support to Pre-K through 12th grade students, teachers, and their families regardless of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status, or socioeconomic status.”  I underline sexual orientation and gender identity because I doubt they would provide appropriate spiritual care or support for LGBTQ students.

The National School Chaplain Association was founded by a minister named Rocky Malloy who still serves on the board of directors.  He was one of the people who testified in favor of SB 763 at the TX Senate Education Committee hearing.

I watched an interview Mr. Malloy did with Sondra Heartstone on The Sondra Heartstone show.  I was particularly troubled to hear him describe his ideas about how to work with children who have questions about gender (around minute 36:00), “…You are a little kid, and somehow or another you know, you’re forced to read My Two Dads and now you ask a question: am I a boy or a girl? Somebody needs to go, ‘Whatever’s on your birth certificate that’s what you are, and that’s the only thing you can be to fulfill your call of God. Let’s pray and eliminate any confusion.’”  That seems to me to be a terrible way for a chaplain to handle this kind of situation.  I think “counseling” like this from a chaplain could easily cause more confusion, stress and depression than it would fix.

Here’s another exchange between Malloy and Heartstone that takes place around minute 40:00 of the interview.  It’s about the potential opportunity for school chaplains to review books in a teacher’s classroom library:

Malloy: …Our goal in these states with legislation is a full-time position so that you’re in the library. You’re reviewing the books in the library.  Somebody needs to go look at those books.  There’s three places where evil books are:  Public Library available to children, School libraries — but teachers’ libraries.  You walk into a teacher’s room, there’s a lot of books in there.  Who’s looking at those books? Bingo job for the chaplain!

Heartstone: Oh wow! That makes him kind of like an undercover agent!  Now if a chaplain finds a dirty book, what can they do?

Malloy: Well one thing they can do is talk to the teacher.  Why do you have this on your shelf.  Why do you have hardcore porn in a third grader’s room?

I seriously doubt third grade teachers having “hardcore porn” in their classroom libraries is a very common problem – and it worries me that Mr. Malloy seems to think it is. If this is how the chaplains from his organization are trained to think, I don’t want them in our public schools.

According to their website, The National School Chaplain Association is a subsidiary of Mission Generation, Inc.  Here is a description of the purpose of that organization that I found on-line: “The battle ground of the culture war is K-12 schools! According to a report from the Barna Group – two out of three Christians make a commitment to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior before their 18th birthday. Human secularists know this well and have deprived young people of the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Since the vast majority of school-aged children are unchurched, the only remaining solution to reach children is through school.”

I find this statement to be a chilling declaration of war against the idea of separation of church and state.  If school chaplains are covertly or overtly a step in this direction, I am against having them in our schools.  It could be that Mr. Malloy and his organization are the rare exception when it comes to understanding a chaplain’s role, but I fear they may not be.

A sad irony

I am not blind.  I see discouraged, angry, confused, exhausted, drained, lonely, bullied, traumatized, despairing students and educators every day.  (I see joyous, loving, hope-giving, kind, enthusiastic students and educators every day too, by the way!)  I think in a best-case scenario, the presence of a school chaplain might be a wonderful resource for children and staff who might voluntarily avail themselves of their services.

It is a sad irony to me that I fear the people who most want to see chaplains in our schools, would not want the kind of open-hearted, inclusive, multifaith school chaplain that I believe might actually be beneficial in a school setting.

I believe in pastoral care. In my experience and observation some of us have spiritual ills that secular cures cannot necessarily heal. I hope that the students and educators who could benefit from spiritual counseling and pastoral care will seek it and find it.

All things considered, however, I do not think the right place to find it is the public school.

Because of SB763, our Waco ISD school board will be required, sometime in the next six months, to vote on whether to allow paid or volunteer chaplains.  I don’t have a problem with volunteer chaplains who come to campus to help with a traumatic event, or even to help lead voluntary activities such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  I do not feel good about the idea of paid, full-time chaplains. I hope our school board votes “no” to that.


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  1. Karen LiBassi on September 18, 2023 at 9:55 am

    Excellent fair evaluation of the pros and cons of chaplains in schools. I agree this is wonderful or terrible and the Waco board should not approve!

  2. Pamela H Smallwood on September 18, 2023 at 2:52 pm

    Ashley, thank you for doing all the research for the rest of us who either don’t have another hour in the day to do it or, like me, just waste my time fuming about what comes out of the TX Lege! Very helpfu!

  3. Margo Yeager on September 18, 2023 at 8:05 pm

    As always, good research and presentation. I feel children sometimes need supportive, helping people to talk to – the definition of a counselor. But when school boards reduce the number of counselors and want to add chaplains, the reason is to proselytize. If there is a need to provide spiritual help to children, churches can reach out and work with the children outside of school.

  4. Debbie Ucci on September 20, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    Great research. Fair, well thought through post – as always. I appreciate all your hard work in putting these 3 sessions together. Very enlightening to me. As others have said, it is so helpful to have facts, thoughts, opinions all in one place to provide fuel for my growth and understanding. We are so lucky to have you and the fact that you are taking on some very challenging topics. Please run for president in 2024. You are our best hope!

    I also do not believe chaplains belong in the school environment. Let’s pay to have more qualified teachers there. Mr. Malloy is certainly not the kind of chaplaincy that I believe would be helpful.

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