Public School Chaplains Concern Me

Public School Chaplains Concern Me February 22, 2024

Public school chaplains concern me for several reasons. I do not even include the obvious separation of church and state issues.

Chaplains Cannot Stand in for Counselors

However well-intentioned, chaplains cannot stand in for mental health counselors. Are chaplains both a less expensive and less effective way of helping troubled students? I think so.


Image with religious symbols and "Why are untrained chaplains replacing public school counselors?
What would Jesus do if he saw chaplains without training counseling students?s

Several states have considered or are discussing the placement of chaplains in public schools. In Kansas, state representative Bill Rhiley, suggested that

“mental health challenges experienced by educators and students were linked to a disconnect from spirituality. He said that calamities of bullying, low self-esteem, depression, peer pressure, anxiety and violence could be deflated through direct intervention of chaplains with faith-based advice.”

A person without any relevant education or mental health credentials may harm a child unintentionally. If prayer is the answer to society’s problems, then I believe many of these problems would have disappeared by now. A healthy, trained chaplain’s support can complement counseling. Both the chaplain and the student, however, must understand the difference between the roles.

Christianity does not have the best track record regarding mental health. If students have a mental health issue, might a chaplain suggest prayer or church attendance? Rhiley said that he would prefer that the districts follow the National School Chaplain Association’s guidelines. One of their guidelines says, “We believe the Bible is God’s Inspired Word and the only infallible Rule of Faith and conduct.” Providing students with Bible verses may be helpful. When a student is dealing with complex emotional issues, however, they need a referral to a qualified mental health practitioner.


The Texas legislature passed a bill allowing school district boards to decide whether public school chaplains can provide mental health services to students. Before this law, schools employed licensed counselors, psychologists, and social workers. Those who supported the law said that there was a counselor shortage and that some districts find them too expensive. Those who oppose the law say that the only qualification to be a chaplain is not being a convicted as a sex offender.

Children and Teens Of All Faiths and No Faith Attend Public Schools

How would a volunteer chaplain with no training work with students of all religious backgrounds, including atheists and agnostics? Would a National School Chaplain Association trained chaplain stray from the Bible, the “only infallible Rule of Faith and conduct?”

The National School Chaplain Association’s training involves Oral Roberts University. I went to the College of Theology & Ministry at Oral Roberts and did not find any courses about non-Christian religious traditions. I wonder how non-Christian students have fared thus far with Christian chaplains.

Students in Trouble are Vulnerable to Child Abuse

Plenty of healthy, caring people would want to be chaplains. Without serious training or screening, however, people inappropriately attracted to young people could become chaplains.

Christian ministers and priests with seminary training have been convicted of child sexual abuse.  An individual who passes a state and federal background check may have no history of child abuse. The background check could also mean that he or she has a history and has not been prosecuted.

Students who feel alone, unloved at home, depressed, or have serious psychological needs, are prime targets for predators. Many schools require that their employees learn the signs of grooming. Counselors have training in this area. Just because a person reads the Bible and attends a church, does not mean that he or she might consciously or even unconsciously groom students.

Mixed Motives from the National School Chaplain Association?

This organization advocates legislation promoting public school chaplains.

Since the success in Texas, the organization is “spearheading” legislation (behind paywall) elsewhere like Oklahoma, which is expected to take up a similar bill soon. The proposal is supported by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who said “we need prayer in our schools now more than ever before” in a recent video posted on the National School Chaplain Association website. Chaplain proposals have been filed in at least a dozen states, including Iowa and Indiana.

I suppose we are familiar with organizations that promote their own products. Offering public school chaplain certification and promoting them through legislation is suspect.

Many parents can seek out their own ministers to provide spiritual advice to their children. Chaplains, in the absence of counselors, I fear, will let mentally ill students fall through the cracks. States need to find other ways to pay counselors with advanced degrees. Historically, mental health has been underfunded society-wide. Identifying mental illness early improves a child’s likelihood of approaching adulthood with developed coping skills.

A place like the National School Chaplain Association does not train people to minister to students of all faiths or none at all. Such positions could attract people who do not have the wellbeing of children in mind.

I hope that families in these states do not suffer losses or experience crises that could have been avoided if schools did not substitute chaplains for counselors.

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