Do we want chaplains in public schools? Part 2 – What is a chaplain anyway?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

(This is Part 2 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.  This post talks about what it means to be a chaplain. – ABT)

One of the bills passed in the 88th Texas Legislative session this past spring that has now been signed into law is SB 763. It allows public schools to employ chaplains or accept chaplains on campuses as volunteers. Sometime between now and March 2024, all school boards at public schools and/or public charter schools across Texas will be required to vote on whether to allow chaplains on campus, either paid or volunteer.

If you know me at all, you can probably predict that my knee-jerk reaction to the idea of chaplains in public schools was, “Nope, nope, nope-ity, nope.  That is a clear violation of the separation of church and state!”

I watched a good chunk of the testimony before the Texas Senate Education Committee, mainly just to make sure I had completely and thoroughly stirred up my righteous indignation in opposition to this bill.

Instead, I found myself appreciating some (not all) of the people who spoke in support of the bill.  They mainly seemed like kind people who were worried about our students and teachers and urgently wanted to help. For the most part, they seemed less concerned with proselytizing and trampling on religious freedom — and more concerned with providing a “ministry of presence” for students and teachers who are discouraged, angry, confused, exhausted, drained, lonely, bullied, traumatized, in despair or facing any one of a seemingly endless list of spiritual/mental health crises — crises that I see every day at the school where I work and know without a doubt are very real.

After watching a little bit of the testimony, I realized that, apart from a dim memory of Father Mulcahy on M.A.S.H, I didn’t actually know what a chaplain does.  So, in an effort to learn a little, and hopefully un(knee)jerk myself some, I visited a few websites, did a little reading, and visited with a few actual chaplains. (Thank you Sarah Miller, Gin Courtney, Alberto Melis and Kara Leslie for taking the time to help me learn what chaplains do!)

Specifically, I poked around in the websites for the following three organizations:

Here are some things I think are worth thinking about from what I learned…

I shouldn’t have to say this, but a Chaplain is not necessarily a straight man. – For goodness sakes, I already knew this before doing my research! I only mention it because G. F. Watkins, one of the folks who testified in favor of the bill at the Texas Senate Committee on Education public hearing (4:09:07), made a point of saying that he supported the bill because we live in a fatherless society, and he believes SB 763 would put a “father figure” into every school.   I agree with Mr. Watkins that fathers are important, but most of the chaplains I know personally are women.  According to, a website that claims to be “The career expert,” almost a third (32%) of chaplains are women and 16% are LGBT.  I love this “THIS is what a Chaplain looks like” page.  It shows the wide variety of people who are called into chaplain ministry.

“Chaplain” does not necessarily equal “Christian.” – For example (speaking of Father Mulcahy), the Go Army career page, states the following: “The Army Chaplaincy is a multi-faith program—ministers, priests, imams, rabbis, and more, make up the Chaplaincy. While each Army Chaplain is a clergy person in their specific denomination or faith group and won’t be asked to perform services or duties outside of their denomination, their role is to promote spirituality and faith as a whole, and serve all Soldiers, regardless of background and religion.”

The Association of Professional Chaplains states that part of their vision is to “Strengthen the multifaith and multicultural professional competency of chaplains.”  The last sentence of their on-line history states, “Today membership in APC is representative of a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups and invites those in the ministry of chaplaincy to become a part of this exciting organization.”

A quick google search turns up national associations for Jewish and Muslim Chaplains.  The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University, an organization that seeks to “bring chaplains, theological educators, clinical educators and social scientists into conversation about the work of chaplaincy and spiritual care” lists Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish and Muslim chaplaincies amongst those for whom they provide resources.

Chaplains don’t all do the same thing.  – According to A Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Care (Page 2), an e-book published by the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, “There is no single definition of a chaplain or spiritual care provider and no single path for entering the work.”  The e-book does offer this suggestion of what a chaplain does, “First and foremost, chaplains provide compassionate presence to vulnerable people in need of spiritual care” (page 4).  The International Fellowship of Chaplains describes the work of a chaplain this way on their website, “The office of Chaplain is a diversified position of help. The Chaplain is a spiritual leader that specializes in workplace, or on-site, short term intervention ministry.”   The National School Chaplain Association says, “…School chaplain duties include but are not limited to prayer, counsel, and spiritual care for the school staff, the students, and their families. In addition, they provide guidance and help build resilient young people….”

Chaplains serve in a wide range of circumstances including airports, seaports, sports teams, the military, prisons, hospitals, hospice, higher ed, crises response, police departments, fire departments, the U.S. Senate and other government branches, and industry.  Tyson Chicken in Waco has a chaplain!

Naturally, the day-to-day work of all these chaplains varies with the circumstance. Just because a person has served as a chaplain at a hospice, for example, does not necessarily mean they are trained to provide care in a traumatic situation such as a fire or a shooting and vice versa.  One size chaplain does not necessarily fit all.

There is no “standard required training” for chaplains.  – Unlike the requirements for becoming a teacher or a school counselor, there is no standard training or education required for becoming a chaplain.  There are a jillion different certifications and credentials available, with wildly different educational requirements.

Several of the chaplains who offered the most heartfelt testimony in favor of SB 673 before the TX Senate Education Committee were from The International Fellowship of Chaplains.  This organization offers an on-line chaplain training course (an adaptation of their 40-hour in-person training) for $325.  According to their website, “There are no education or prior training prerequisites required–simply a desire to serve! No bachelor’s or master’s degrees are required to become a chaplain with I.F.O.C.” After completing the course and a background check, you can apply for licensing and ordination.  One of their representatives explained to me in an email that  while a college degree is not required to obtain credentials, it is one of the many things that their credentialing committee takes into considering when deciding whether to offer a Chaplain license to someone.

The National School Chaplains Association, another organization that was well represented at the education committee hearing, offers a “Traditional Path” to chaplain certification for candidates with at least a two-year degree and 2,000 hours of hands-on ministry experience.  It is an 8-week on-line course from Oral Roberts University and includes some additional safety certifications in Active Shooter, Threat Assessment, and “Stop the Bleed” – a course where you literally learn how to stop people from bleeding to death.

To be a chaplain in a federal prison you need an accredited undergrad degree, an M.Div or equivalent graduate degree, and 2-years’ experience as a religious or spiritual leader.

In order to be “board certified” by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc. you need an undergraduate degree, a graduate theological degree and some number of “clinical pastoral education” (CPE) units – typically 1 to 4.  CPE units can take as long to complete as a college class.  It is similar to the idea of a residency for a medical school student.  It includes supervised interactions with patients and clients and a painstaking process of writing down your interactions and conversations with clients verbatim, then sharing that write up in a peer group setting to have your interaction picked apart, analyzed, criticized and put back together again. Getting board certified via this process can take a year or more in addition to the time it takes to get a graduate degree.

Ideally, chaplains support diversity and inclusion. – All three of the chaplain organizations I learned more about had some kind of statement about diversity and inclusivity on their website.  The International Fellowship of Chaplains describes themselves as, “… a Christian Chaplain Ministry that provides practical community support and spiritual counsel to emergency service workers, those in crisis, secular society and those persons in transition by meeting their needs – regardless of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status or socioeconomic status.”

The National School Chaplain Association, similarly, says 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 have some questions about this based on other things on their website, but more on that later…)

The Association of Professional Chaplains lists among their values Dignity and worth of all persons, Inclusivity and diversity, and Justice and equality for all.

This mostly new (to me) information about what it means/doesn’t mean to be a chaplain allows me to see the idea of school chaplains in a different light.  My attitude toward the bill has softened a little.  I can definitely see the appeal of having another trained, caring adult on campus to provide some sacred space and love to whoever might need it.  I am not convinced it is a great idea, but I am less convinced – depending on many, many factors — that it is a horrible idea.

Afterall, no one would be required to avail themselves of the chaplain’s help. A school counselor is required to be available for all public school children in Texas.  The idea is that a chaplain would be an additional resource available to those who find it valuable. Why not avail ourselves of that resource?

It seems to me that the potential for wonderful effectiveness or the danger for terrible ineffectiveness of a public school chaplain would depend to a huge extent on what hiring guidelines and rules the school district put in place, and ultimately who was hired.  But isn’t that true of any of the many professionals we hire to work with our children?  It can be wonderful or terrible depending on who you hire.

The idea of a school chaplain certainly presents some risks, but it also presents some opportunities.  Is it worth the risk?

Don’t worry, fellow defenders of the wall between church and state — I still have very deep concerns about having chaplains in public schools.  But I don’t feel as righteously opposed to it as I did.  In fact, I feel more wistful.  That’s what I plan to talk about in Part 3 of this blog series.  I hope you’ll stick around for that one.


Link to video: TX Senate Committee on education PT 2 (88 R – 2023) – 4.5.23.  Testimony on SB 763 starts at approximately 3:09:00.


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  1. Ferryn on September 16, 2023 at 11:45 am

    I do believe there should be people in public schools that serve those needs but it should not be under the auspices of any religion. A perfectly good example is CIS (communities in schools).

  2. […] 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 […]

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