COMMERCE, Okla. (BP)–Billy Bissell, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Commerce, Okla., figured if it was okay for a chaplain to go into a school after a tragedy occurred it should be okay for that same chaplain to go into the school before such an event happened and possibly help prevent it.
Clinging to that philosophy, Bissell approached Commerce School Superintendent Jim Haynes with the idea of instituting a chaplaincy program for this northeast Oklahoma community’s school system. After several steps — including many hours of helping to draft a code of professional ethics, and writing a justification for the program — Bissell witnessed the Commerce School District Board of Education endorse a chaplaincy program through a resolution passed last year.
“The proposal was, in part, a response to an invitation that Sandy Garrett, state superintendent of schools, mailed to state pastors, encouraging them to find ways to become involved in helping schools address the problem of violence on state campuses,” Bissell said. “Jim was very receptive to the idea when I initially approached him about it, and I later presented the proposal about such a program to the school board.”
The first step was to organize the pastors who would serve as chaplains. The result was the formation of the Commerce Area Ministerial Alliance (CAMA). Initially, pastors of about a half-dozen area churches got involved in the process.
After drafting their proposal and code of ethics, CAMA approached the Commerce School District’s legal counsel to get his approval.
“After a couple of meetings with the attorney, we reworked the wording in some areas he had concerns about,” Bissell said. “Then, he signed off on it and recommended that the school board pass a resolution commending the ministerial alliance for putting the proposal and guidelines together, and encouraged the administrators to use the chaplains whenever it was appropriate.”
Bissell said it’s important to point out that the school board did not approve the CAMA policies and guidelines as such; they passed a resolution that encouraged the schools to use the chaplains wherever it was appropriate.
“We are completely autonomous from the school system, but are offering our assistance where they (school administrators) feel it is needed,” Bissell stressed. “The board’s resolution shows its confidence that CAMA has put into place a well-thought-out program.” Bissell added that the Code of ethics and proposal were drafted carefully to avoid the issue of separation of church and state.
“I wanted to be sure that the chaplains had access to the schools,” Bissell added. “We’ll work out a schedule which will not disrupt the normal educational process, but I wanted the chaplains to begin to have a presence before something terrible happens.”
Although chaplains have yet to visit the campuses in an official capacity, Bissell has interacted with students on several occasions at the three local schools. “I presented a six-week study on what the Bible says about self-esteem at the middle school in their after school program,” he said. “We averaged about 30 students at each session.”
“I’ve been pleased with the openness of the school officials here in Commerce; the school board and superintendent, as well as the principals, have been very encouraging and understanding of what we’re attempting to do with this program,” he concluded.
Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SCHOOL CHAPLAIN.