Christian Groups in High Schools: Good Boundaries Make Good Neighbours

Recently, a friend wrote about a problem at the high school he serves as a teacher. Apparently, a staff worker with a well-known Christian organization (let’s call it “Jesus Youth,” since I’m pretty sure there is no such group) has been volunteering at the school. Trouble arose, however, when this staffer volunteered to drive some kids to a drama festival some distance away for the weekend, and sent home permission slips to parents emblazoned with the logo of “Jesus Youth,” and not the school. A parent (whom I’m calling “Mr. Fraun”) complained that he didn’t want some missionary taking his daughter on a school outing.

I was asked to comment, and I would be interested to know what you think of the issues involved. Here it is, with all of the particulars changed to protect identities.

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Dear Carlo,

Thanks for bringing to my attention the letter of Mr. Fraun to the school board. It raises a couple of crucial issues that concern all of us, and I am glad to be able to offer a few comments that I hope will be useful to you and your school.

My sense is that Mr. Fraun is raising at least two legitimate points. On the narrow point in question, namely, the permission slip for the trip to McGee River, I agree with him that the slip ought to have been from the school in order to indicate the school’s responsibility for this trip. In that regard, it wouldn’t matter whether the slip was from a religious group (such as Jesus Youth) or any other group. If the trip was a school trip, as it seems to have been, then it ought to have been officially run by the school, down to the permission slip.

On the broader point, namely, the involvement of Jesus Youth (JY) staff or other professional religious workers in the public schools, I think Mr. Fraun also is correct to be concerned about full disclosure. Every volunteer at a school comes from a particular religious or philosophical point of view, of course, and will perhaps, depending on circumstances, speak out of that particular point of view in the course of working with students. I would do so, Mr. Fraun would do so, and so on. I don’t see Mr. Fraun saying that Christians cannot volunteer at schools, as he does not rule out people of other faiths–which would be, of course, absurd anyhow. So the muzzling of volunteers’ religious and philosophical commitments seems not to be his aim. (If it is, then we would have a bone of contention between us.)

What I read him to say is that the JY staff member in question has a job whose explicit mission includes proselytizing. Having a “missionary” (Mr. Fraun’s term, and one I think is entirely apt) volunteering at the school, and one who does not seem always to make clear to students, staff, and parents that he is a missionary, is a serious problem for me, too–and I say this as someone whose faith commitment is very close to the ethos of JY.

One of my tests for genuine multiculturalism is to “turn the tables.” In this case, how would I feel, as a Christian parent, about our son going on a school trip in the company of a Mormon missionary, or a Muslim missionary, or a Marxist missionary? Not good. Indeed, I would be upset with a school that allowed such a person such access to, and authority over, my child.

So what are groups like JY to do? Are they to be banned from high schools entirely?

No. They can help students run clubs at school, the way other interested volunteers can support a club focused on Sikhism or Buddhism, or GLBT issues, or other matters of religion, philosophy, morality, and politics. They can also serve as resources for schools interested in exploring various religions and philosophies as part of a genuine curricular investigation.

They might provide other services to the school, but frankly I think they have to be circumspect in the extreme, and the staff has to be vigilant, to ensure that such service is neither tied to privilege for their particular group on a quid pro quo basis (“We helped you do this, so you give us special access to the students”) nor itself exploited as an occasion for proselytizing (“Well, kids, it’ll be a long drive to McGee River, so let’s talk: What do you think about God?”).

We parents presume that teachers have been trained to handle issues of multiculturalism, sensitivity to religious difference, preservation of open discourse without privileging a particular outlook, and so on. These issues are difficult and complex, to be sure, and I have sadly come to believe that many administrators and teachers actually don’t understand and handle these issues very well. But then again, most of us in the general public don’t, either–and nor do our leaders in politics, the courts, the educational system, and the mass media!

All the more likely, then, that someone whose job it is to evangelize students (as well as to confirm believers in their faith) may well not understand and abide by the strictures of public school accommodation of, and respect for, different views. Nor may that person, however well-meaning, see how his or her explicit advocacy of a particular religion or philosophy renders him or her now less able to perform the volunteer role, as he or she is now possibly viewed with apprehension and even fear by students who resist that particular view. According to Mr. Fraun’s account, at least, the JY staffer seems to be in that category. To seize on the particular example in view, to send home JY permission slips for a school trip seems to me to be a pretty stark misunderstanding of how JY should be relating to the public school system.

Mr. Fraun or I may have gotten the facts of the situation wrong. I apologize if I have done so and thus misunderstood what happened and particularly if I have misunderstood the JY staffer’s actions. I hope you will set me straight if that is so. Otherwise, then, I hope that these remarks are in some way helpful to you as you consider what to think and do next.

With warm regards,

John

0 Responses to “Christian Groups in High Schools: Good Boundaries Make Good Neighbours”

  1. DDB

    I work for an organisation very similar to JY- I suspect it is the same one.

    We have to mandates, which basically come down to 1) love kids and 2) share the Christian faith.

    Where I am working, we are very involved in the local schools. For example, last year I ran lunchtime intramural s and next year I am coaching a soccer team. I think by doing this we are doing a great service to teens (who have fewer and fewer non-family adults willing to be involved in their lives) and school staff (who are overworked).

    When I approached the school I did not do it covertly at all: I went straight to the principle, explained exactly who I was and what my organisation was, and offered to introduce myself to the parent council.

    When we are in the school, I am very clear with my self and my coworkers what our role there it: our first mandate, not the second one. When we are at our own programs, that is when we share the Christian faith. When we are at the school or a school-sponsored event, we are there just to love students, not to promote the Christian faith or even our own programs. This means that we never, ever, ever bring any promotional materials to the school. We also do not initiate any conversations about religion or about our organisation. However, this does not mean that going to the school does not help our second mandate along (which is sharing the Christian faith): it allows us to better pray for the school, and if a student from my team does someday show up at my program I am better able to share the Gospel with them.

  2. Murray Baker

    I spent 30 years as a high school educator and 15 of those as an administrator (VP – Principal). In my mind there is no question that the school takes responsibility for the permission slip. In fact a parent should not sign any permission slip for a school activity that is not on school letterhead or clearly indicates that it is a school activity for which the school is taking responsibility. I am sure the JY worker had nothing but good intentions but the method was incorrect. It was, however, the school’s responsibility to see that this process was followed properly and to correct anyone (like the JY worker) who may have misunderstood.

    I would also like to comment on volunteers in a school. Although volunteers can add a great dimension to our schools they can also cause a great deal of difficulty. I have experienced both. The key to a good volunteer is that they do a good job of the work for which they are volunteering. Seems simple doesn’t it? It is this commitment that impresses the staff and admin. I have to admit to being upset with volunteers when it became clear that the work they were doing was only an “in” for some other purpose. Christian workers in a school need to be prepared, should they volunteer to help with other activities in the school, to do only that activity. Their volunteering (like driving students to an event) is an end in itself that is appreciated by the school staff. If they are only doing it to get a chance to “witness” I suggest they don’t do it. There is great value in just helping out.

    Although I do agree with John re. the use of volunteering to gain special status there is a reality here that needs to be understood from the inside. When a volunteer does a good job I have brought them into my office to thank them and then my next question is, “What else would you like to do?” People who do good work for the school do gain status. It is called trust and it does take time to earn. It is, as mentioned above, based on doing well the job for which you are volunteering. They become known and trusted by the staff and it does make it easier to grant further requests to serve in the school. This privilege is extended to any one who has earned it.

    I would suggest that all Christian workers in a school find a place to volunteer that is totally separate from their work with the Christian kids. Setting an example by loving and serving the school is a great way to demonstrate how you would like the Christian kids to respond to needs in the school. Sports, Drama, Music, Clubs, Special Events, Fund Raisers, Building Sets for a Musical, Special Ed. Tutoring, in-class support, personal tutoring, intra-murals, driving students to events – Should I go on?? I have discovered that all Christian workers have so much more to offer to a school beyond what they do with the Christian kids.

    I would like to comment also on Christians living out their faith in the school. I do believe when Christians act “Christ-like” in a school the school is a better place for everyone even those who do not accept Christianity. When you read the “Sermon on the Mount” it seems pretty clear that living out our Christianity is the central message of our faith. These actions really do bring the Kingdom of God into our schools (and there are many activities that qualify under this heading). We are sometimes so intent on “witnessing” that we ignore the power of living like Christ. I really liked the response from DDB on July 3. Sometimes we are only allowed to “love kids”, as DDB says in his/her response blog, and we are not allowed to “Share our Faith”. (running intra-murals and coaching are incredibly valuable and give you personal contact that is really meaningful) I’m not sure how the divorce between loving and sharing happened – DDB does not make this distinction and I am happy to see this. Loving a student/school because you understand this is what Jesus would want you to do is a powerful witness not to be underestimated. I wish more Christian groups in schools would focus on this as their mission in a school. It would make the school a much better place to be and it becomes again a powerful witness to the love of Jesus. Over the 30 years I have been in high school I have been discouraged by the Christian groups that think their job is to meet, study and pray (behind closed doors) and think they have done God’s work. Study and prayer should lead to loving students and your school more. Ask yourself, “What would Jesus do if he walked the halls of your school today?” Schools are needy places and when Christian kids are taught to address these needs in the name of Jesus they are “witnessing” and their impact cannot be underestimated.

    Proselytizing (which to most administrators means using adult coersion to convince students of your particular religious position) is not something that we should encourage. This is a public institution and using any sort of adult coersion on students for any means is wrong. Principals generally are expected to stop the practice of this type of action while students are in the care of their school. This does not mean workers from an organization like “JY” can never talk about faith issues. There is a non-coersive way to discuss any issue and we are obligated to find and use these methods when working in a public high school. Combine this with the service or “incarnational” model of living out our Christian lives and we will make a significant impact for God in our schools while maintaining our intergrity.

    I would like to thank you John and DDS for bring back to mind some great years and experiences in my high school life. I can only hope some of this has been helpful. When I retired from education I joined one of the “JY” organizations working at the High School level and have found it to be incredibly rewarding and challenging work.

    Murray

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