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Religious Groups at School: The Challenge of Hospitality and Encouragement

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D.
December 06, 2011
For many of our schools, the question of allowing and encouraging particular religious groups to meet on school grounds, in or around the regular school schedule, is a daunting one. Where does a school draw the line? What guidelines should be in place for a religious group to accept and follow? How does a school monitor what goes on in the gatherings of those groups?

In so many cases, the heart of the issue focuses on evangelical Christian groups, particularly those groups that utilize the small group context and the building of one-to-one relationships as their principal method of meeting, praying, and building up of their common life. School officials wonder if these groups are busy proselytizing, maintaining exclusivity, or espousing moral values contrary to the mission of inclusivity and acceptance at the school. Indeed, the difficult experiences many schools have had with such groups have led them to ban all religious groups from meeting on school grounds or in and around the school schedule.

From time to time we get inquiries about the allowance of such groups at individual schools. An athletic coach wishes to start a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group, the youth minister at a local evangelical church seeks to be a presence at the school, or a group of students wish to form a chapter of one of any number of Christian groups for young people on campus. The school may feel caught between what it would like to be doing—encouraging a variety of religious expression at the school, as an outgrowth of its religious mission and chapel program—and what it feels it must do, namely, limit activity that it may feel might get out of hand or run contrary to the school’s mission.

All the more important, we believe, for a school to be ready for such requests, and that this readiness needs to be based on some fundamental principles as well as practical guidelines that reflect the overall religious mission of the school. Here are a few I would suggest as worthy of consideration.
  • Any religious group that seeks to be active at school needs to be represented by a faculty or staff member who understands and is eager to further the mission of the school. A school that allows a religious group to operate at school, without a member of the faculty or staff actively advising it, is opening itself to a variety of vulnerabilities. The faculty or staff advisor needs to understand and be eager to promote the mission of the school and its values of inclusivity, open inquiry, and its belief that all people are children of God regardless of their current or future belief system. This person needs to understand and be accepting of how the school views possible opportunities the group members may have to proselytize or seek converts.
  • The meetings of such groups are open to all students. As with all school activities, a religious group cannot be restrictive in terms of belief or tradition. This reflects a fundamental difference in how a school operates from how a house of worship might operate.
  • The intention of the meetings of these groups is clear and appropriately described in advance. Announcements and promotion of group meetings are well explained—this includes how the groups describe themselves and articulate the purpose of their meetings via social networking—and the descriptions of what goes on in these meetings are clear and accurate. These announcements should stress that the meetings are open to all students regardless of their religious tradition or lack thereof.
  • If the religious group operates as a chapter of a larger organization, the school is familiar with and maintains contact with representatives of that organization. In many cases the quality and effectiveness of a local chapter depends on the regional advisor, or the representative of an organization who works in that local area. Frequently these advisors are young and, unfortunately, lack experience in working in school contexts. That local advisor should not be the only person the school knows from that organization; the school needs to be aware of the national reputation of the organization and maintains access to officials from that organization. Many colleges and universities (less so the case for schools) require that the local advisor of a larger organization be credentialed (ie., ordination, theological degree) in a manner that is acceptable to the institution.
  • All advisors of religious organizations need to understand and accept in writing whatever set of guidelines the school puts in place. Obviously, a key person in the discussion of particular religious groups or the guidelines for such groups is the school chaplain. That person needs to be in close contact with advisors—both within school and without—of any religious groups that operate at the school. The chaplain should be familiar with how these groups function; ideally he or she could serve as an occasional presence in the group. It has been my experience that often the school chaplain is the person who has the most difficulty with such groups functioning at the school; perhaps that is the result of his or her discomfort with the particular brand of Christianity, for example, that these groups may espouse. To my mind the chaplain loses an opportunity should these groups be operating at the school and the chaplain is not playing some type of role in their functioning. At the very least the chaplain should be in close contact with the faculty or staff advisor to that group, and if more than one such group is operating at the school it is wise to be holding regular group meetings of these advisors.
Given that mainstream/liberal Christianity spends a good deal of time defining itself in opposition to more conservative expressions of Christianity, it is helpful for school officials—including the school chaplains—to know more, not less, about such conservative expressions. This includes, hopefully, an awareness of what it might be about conservative Christianity that they find most uncomfortable, most foreign. My experience has been that the more one knows about evangelical Christianity, particularly the younger and more contemporary expressions of it, the less intimidating it will be.

All of us are aware of the worse case scenarios of religious groups that demean the dignity of other individuals or groups, use coercive tactics in recruitment, and espouse viewpoints contrary to the values of the school. It is important to stress that such worse case scenarios are most likely to occur in a vacuum—where the school takes a hands-off attitude to religious groups or is opening hostile to their mode of operation. The more a school is engaged with these groups, maintains an atmosphere of ongoing communication, and holds to a set of guidelines that both encourage religious expression as well as keep these forms of expression accountable to the mission of the school, the less likely those vacuums are to exist.

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