Things Parents Should Know About College

Note: The following is an abbreviated version of a talk I will give to parents of rising college freshmen at Shades Mountain Baptist on July 31st, 2014. Special thanks to Arliss Dickerson, a long-time campus minister at Arkansas State, who originally blogged on this topic and I got the idea and title from him. I compiled my content from a variety of sources, including campus ministers, student affairs professionals, and academic research, but the opinions expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of my colleagues.

  1. College is worth it. In purely economic terms, college is a good investment. Even with escalating tuition costs, high unemployment among recent college grads, and falling wages, a college degree today is still worth over $1 million in additional earnings through age 65 (an average ROI of 14-15%). In terms of emotional growth, psychologists suggest that the two greatest times of change in a person’s life are (1) birth to age one, and (2) the first year of college. In educational terms, students who want to learn will learn, and most students still want to learn, although not all. (Rebekah Nathan has an interesting book on this subject).
  1. College is difficult. This seems obvious, I know, but somehow many freshmen seem surprised when they take their first tests and get back their first papers and their grades are lower than they expected. Professors assign more work and expect better work. The most successful students attend class almost always, take good notes by hand (not on laptops), ask good questions in class, meet their professors outside of class, and generally take the educational aspect of college life very seriously.
  1. The most common mistake students make … parking tickets! There are many places where students can make mistakes, some serious and some trivial. Never fear the statistically improbable. Chances are, your students aren’t going to make the most serious kinds of mistakes. The most common mistake is parking. Parking is extremely limited on most campuses. Parking tickets are usually really expensive and the folks who give tickets are typically highly skilled, vigilant employees!
  1. Generally speaking, faculty culture is averse to traditional Christian belief. This is increasingly true at state universities, and even true at some private Christian colleges. Students who write papers or give speeches in support of traditional Christian beliefs and values should be prepared for disagreement from classmates and faculty members. This is not to discourage students from addressing such topics with courage and conviction, only to encourage them to do so with great care, intelligence, and humility. Many faculty members have spent years interacting with arrogant students who hold Christian beliefs but have not applied intellectual rigor to those beliefs.
  1. Almost all campuses have spiritual growth opportunities available to students. Students aren’t merely preparing for a career, they are seeking a vocation. This is best done in Christian community. Fortunately, with the exception of a very few colleges, freedom of religion is alive and well on campus. Campus ministries and college friendly churches abound, particularly in the south. Learn about them and communicate your expectation your students find a place to connect spiritually. Students who nurture their spiritual lives while in college tend to be more settled emotionally and less likely to be overwhelmed academically. (See research from HERI on this subject). The sad reality is that nearly 80% of students who grow up regularly attending church, abandon all connection to the church while in college. I can assure you that this drop out rate isn’t for lack of resources.
  1. Alcohol is a serious problem on most college campuses. Alcohol has powerful symbolic meaning for most college students. Students associate alcohol use with freedom, adulthood, community, and belonging. And they make these associations long before they take their first drink. American culture and the billions spent on marketing represent incredibly powerful forces that shape perceptions about the role alcohol plays in the transition from childhood to adulthood. The most serious problems on most college campuses, from academic failure to the growing problem of sexual assault, have strong correlations with alcohol use. You should know that if your children pledge a fraternity or sorority, you may be unwittingly supporting a culture of alcohol abuse. Of all the conversations you should have with your sons and daughters before they start college, the alcohol conversation is a must!
  1. Let your children handle their own business. Have you heard of helicopter parenting? Once upon a time, parents dropped their children off at college and left them alone until Christmas break, sink or swim. College is so expensive now that parents can’t afford for their students to fail, and so parents hover. Resist the temptation! Problems with roommates? Refer them to Residence Life. Struggles in a class? Refer them to the professor, a campus tutoring service (most are free), or the academic success center. Teach them to solve their own problems, manage their own social lives, and take care of their own business. Don’t give them all the answers. Let them make mistakes. Give them space to think and act for themselves. Intervene only after they’ve done everything possible to solve a problem and the issue is still debilitating them or you in some way.
  1. The first three weeks of school can determine a student’s college career. Talk to your students about starting off on the right foot, setting the right priorities, making the right plans, and finding the right connections (a church, a campus ministry, a campus organization). Start off with good habits of sleep, diet, exercise, worship, etc. If your students go away to college, make sure they do NOT come home during the first three weeks of school. Students who get involved in a campus organization do better in school, are happier, less likely to transfer, and more likely to graduate.
  1. Universities are businesses. Learn the business. Schools care about you, but they also care about their own bottom line. Financial aid, course loads, textbook sales, residence life, campus dining, etc. are all complicated, all specific to a particular campus, all streams of revenue for universities, and are all EXPENSIVE. Not every college is worth what it charges. Some degrees are worth more than others. Even though students change majors 3-4 times on average, an extra year of college (“the victory lap”) is usually not worth the money (it decreases ROI). Without intervening in your student’s business, learn to navigate your particular university’s academic culture and business climate. Work the system, avoid debt whenever possible, save money, expect your son/daughter to have a job, and communicate your family’s financial realities with your student.
  1. A good college experience is not terribly complicated or difficult. One study suggests that a good college experience is as simple as finding 2-3 good friends and building 1-2 strong faculty/staff relationships (which includes campus ministers and college pastors). If your students go to class, prioritize academics, work intentionally to connect during the first three weeks, and keep the faith, they are highly likely to do well. I pray they do!

[Special thanks to Lauren Taylor, Janna Pennington, Paige Acker, Kyle Bailey, and Laura Breedlove for their particular contribution to the content of this talk/blog post.]

Campus Ministry

Choices (for college freshmen)

[The following is a brief version of a devotional I’ve done for years at Freshmen Orientation at Samford University.]

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”
Proverbs 19.21

In 1986, at the age of 17, I left home for college. I loaded up my car with all my possessions, and drove, for the first time by myself, the 60 miles from my hometown of Lafayette to Louisiana State University. I got directions from my dad, who told me to drive East 60 miles and take the first exit after crossing the river. “You can’t miss it,” he said confidently. But after 60 miles I saw no river, no city, only farmland. I pulled over and called my dad to tell his directions were less than adequate. He asked me for a landmark. The last sign I’d seen said “Lake Charles – 10 miles.” After a long pause on the phone, my dad sighed and said, “Son, you drove the wrong way on the interstate.”
As a result of my directional faux pas, I arrived 2 hours late to check-in at my assigned residence hall and I was assigned a different floor and a different roommate. Denis McCain, a guy I knew from my hometown, later introduced me to Jon Barton, who introduced me to Chris Place, who introduced me to Jonlyn Robson, who later became Jonlyn Kerlin – my wife of nearly 20 years and the mother of my 3 children. The moral of the story is that because of a driving error, I met the love of my life.

The author of Proverbs recognizes two realities that we sometimes see as contradictory. First, we must make choices, and hopefully wise ones. We consider our options, weigh the pros and cons, seek wise counsel, pray and follow what we know from God’s word, trust the direction of God’s Spirit, and then make a decision. We don’t always hear with crystal clarity the obvious voice of God telling us specifically what to do. Sometimes our choices are between two seemingly equally good options. Often, we must make decisions with limited information and take risks. Decision-making is a complex business, especially for those seeking to follow God’s will. We will often get it right and we will sometimes get it wrong. We are redeemed and we are fallen. Such is life.
But the author of Proverbs also recognizes a second reality – the Lord’s purposes prevail. This means that sometimes God creates, from our worst mistakes, His greatest plans. Consider Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, mistreated by his owners, but ultimately promoted to second in command in Egpyt. “You meant it for evil,” Joseph tells his brothers, “but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50.19). Consider Judas, that most reviled of biblical characters. Who greedily sought to profit from Jesus’ downfall. Could there be a worse mistake? Yet all that he did was to fulfill prophecy and to accomplish God’s overarching purposes for His creation. This is difficult for us to wrap our brains around, to be honest. That God can take our mistakes and those of others, and use them to accomplish his greater purposes, is a testament both to our frailty and God’s sovereignty. So take courage and make decisions boldly and wisely. Do not be paralyzed by the fact that you aren’t sure which way to go, which school to attend, where to live or exactly what to study. Do the things you know you must do to consider wisely your ways. And then, even if God has not spoken to you in an audible voice (God does this rather rarely you know), be bold, make a choice and own it, whether it turns out well or not. Sometimes your most embarrassing choices, rather than your best ones, will result in God’s greatest blessings.

God's Will

How College Works – Faculty Connections are Key

Recently, the president of Samford University, Dr. Andrew Westmoreland, offered the following succinct summary of a book entitled How College Works, by Dan Champion and Christopher Takacs: According to their research, “A great college experience is built on relationships with two or three friends and meaningful encounters with one or two faculty members.  Everything else, according to Champion, pales by comparison.” Here are the book’s major recommendations for improving the learning environments at colleges, as summarized by Dr. Westmoreland:

1.  Deploy the best teachers for maximum impact.  He says that it is okay–even preferable–for good teachers to teach large classes because it improves the chance that all students will encounter good teachers, hopefully in their first semester. It is a mistake to offer small sections of first- and second-year courses, taught by bad teachers. The bad teachers should teach upper level courses where they will do less damage.

2.  Use space to help people meet. In an interesting observation, Champion says that long halls in residence halls with shared bathrooms offer the greatest chance that new students will develop friends. Apartment-style housing is not friendly toward friend development.  Spaces on campus should prompt “hanging out.”

3.  Use strategic scheduling to improve the odds for learning. The best teachers and courses should be placed in the best time slots. Champion calls for active management of scheduling by deans and department chairs.

4.  Help motivated students find each other. His suggestions here apply primarily to extra-curricular organizations, but he also offers the observation that an invitation to dinner at a faculty home is perhaps the greatest single factor in promoting long-lasting student satisfaction.

5.  Focus especially on students’ early careers. He offers nothing surprising on this subject to long-time observers of new student orientation, but he affirms a strong effort to achieve a positive welcome to the campus for all students. Also, learn their preferred names and call them by their names.

6.  Use the arithmetic of engagement. The arithmetic needs to be focused on connecting those few, key relationships.

I would like to add a personal comment with regard to number 4 above. This past spring, my staff implemented a Home Group program at Samford University. The idea is that groups of 10-12 students meet weekly in the home of a faculty or staff member to share a meal, Bible study, prayers, spiritual conversation, etc. The kickoff was tremendous with remarkable student participation and faculty support. This fall we anticipate nearly 30 groups hosted by Samford employees. We got the idea from a campus ministry at Pepperdine University, and would love for others to steal it too and report back about how it works.

Do you remember visiting the home of a faculty member during your university years? How did the experience shape your college experience?

Campus Ministry College

The Problem of Pain

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.  This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

– C. S. Lewis

The problem of pain represents the most serious intellectual challenge to the rationality of Christian faith. Many have rejected or abandoned faith as a result of the failed attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the realities of evil and suffering. Here I want to outline briefly how Christian theologians have answered this problem and offer a few suggestions for those suffering and those seeking to offer comfort. I make no claim to provide a complete solution to the problem. I do not think such a thing exists. Every answer includes insights and shortcomings. If we examine this issue long enough, we will likely be forced to admit that we have as many questions as answers. Along with the Old Testament character Job, whose suffering is legend, I must eventually confess: “I am of small account, what shall I answer? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4) Eventually we should all confess as much, but not before seeking answers as Job did. We may not get all of the answers we seek, but in the process we may get something better.

To begin, it would be helpful to define evil and to distinguish between natural evil and moral evil. Evil is often defined as anything without which the world would be a better place. By implication, some of what we might call evil might make the world a better place. Natural evil (disasters and diseases) results from features of the physical universe that are arguably necessary for survival. Gravity keeps me from floating off into space, but gravity also means that when I trip and fall I may get hurt. The cells in my body regenerate, divide, and mutate in order to keep me alive, but sometimes these characteristics of cells lead to the spread of disease. These examples of so-called natural evil lead to suffering, but the possibility of such suffering is unavoidable in a physical world that operates according to natural laws that keep us alive, making the world better on the whole. Moral evil, by contrast, occurs when people violate divine law, harming themselves and others in the process, rendering the world worse. Of course, there are ways that natural evil and moral evil mingle, such as when drought followed by monsoon rains cause mudslides in communities with substandard housing. Poverty, climate change, unscrupulous builders, and natural weather cycles coalesce to cause suffering. For someone with a biblical worldview, however, both moral evil and natural evil find their ultimate origins in Genesis 3; they result from sin that tainted human society and the natural world.

Now I’d like to review four historically prominent explanations for suffering in Christian history, and show some of their strengths and weaknesses. Theologians sometimes call these ideas theodicy, a term that means “defending the justice of God in light of evil.” These ides have a long history and for the sake of brevity I will avoid attributions, but if you’re curious, feel free to comment. The four ideas are as follows.

Free Will – God created humans with freedom and we may choose to use that freedom for good or ill. Implied in this explanation is a kind of retribution principle – evil behavior is punished, either passively or actively. If I operate an automobile while intoxicated and wreck my car, my injuries are the direct result of my behavior. Whether my suffering is God’s punishment or the result of natural law (or both), I deserve it and few will call it unfair. But what if, in my intoxicated state, I drive my car into a crowd of pedestrians? Free will explains well my pain, but not theirs, or that of their loved ones. Why didn’t God intervene to trump my free will to protect others? Turns out, free will is a helpful explanation for some instances of suffering, but a troubling response to others.

Soul Making – God intends pain to build character, to make our souls more nearly perfect. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, yes? Or as the New Testament epistle of James states, “Consider it joy when you encounter trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Indeed, some instances of pain instruct. Who will disagree? The question is whether God could sometimes teach by a less painful pedagogy. In other words, do the ends justify the means? What souls are improved, for example, by the holocaust? Couldn’t the same good be accomplished with less evil? Couldn’t an omnipotent God make it so? Soul making, while helpful in some ways, seems to fail as an explanation for the most horrific evils.

Best Possible World – An all-knowing God would be aware of all possible worlds. A benevolent God would create the best possible world. An all-powerful God is able to create the best world. In other words, our world could be either more evil or less free, either of which would be worse that our current state of affairs. The only way for God to eliminate the possibility of evil altogether would be to eliminate freedom entirely, or not create a world at all. A world without freedom is not a good world, but a morally neutral world, and surely our world is better than no world, or so the argument goes. Of course, someone with cancer might conclude that even if this is the best world possible, it’s still a pretty crappy world. Sometimes we’d all agree.

Divine Suffering – God did not exempt himself from the world’s pain. God suffers with us (in Christ, God feels what we feel). God suffers because of us (moral evil grieves God). And God suffers for us (in Christ, God took suffering upon himself that spares us). Perhaps divine suffering is less of a philosophical explanation for evil and more of a recognition that Christianity situates the solution to evil squarely in Christ. Jesus doesn’t so much explain evil as he experiences it, overcomes it, defeats it, swallows it, and ultimately renders it powerless. Exactly how this happens is a matter for another post; that it happens partially is a matter of experience; that it happens completely in the end is a matter of faith.

So what can Christians offer to a suffering world? Explanations, especially poorly timed ones, can certainly do harm. Theodicy isn’t for funerals. In the middle of Job’s pain God didn’t explain. In response to Job’s questions, God didn’t answer. Instead, God listened. God was present. Job’s final words to God affirm this: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The final solution to evil is to see God, and in Christ we see God most clearly and experience God most poignantly. In the final analysis, this is surely better than explanations.


A Theology of Mental Illness

Sometimes when counseling students, I sense that there are some physiological things complicating the social, spiritual, and emotional issues we are discussing. I am not a counselor, but I have some training and experience in recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness. One of my greatest challenges in these situations is convincing students to seek professional medical advice from a psychiatrist. The taboo associated with mental illness is clearly present, but there are also theological prejudices in place as well. If you develop a sinus infection (an issue with the biochemistry of your respiratory system) you go to the doctor, get an antibiotic, and get well. No worries. But if you develop anxiety and/or depression (an issue with the biochemistry of your brain), this feels like a fundamentally different thing to most people. Some say that anxiety and depression are a spiritual issue. I agree, but no more and no less so than an upper respiratory infection. Some say that anxiety and depression are the result of sin. No more and no less so that any other illnesses. We are broken people in a broken world.

I have a long and sordid history with respiratory infections and asthma. Sometimes they develop because I don’t get enough rest, and sometimes they just happen because I have allergies or because I’m a runner and the air quality is poor. I’ve learned that sometimes a respiratory infection will clear up on its own, and I can usually tell by my symptoms whether or not I need to see a doctor. Similarly, I’ve learned from my work with students and from pastors, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists that anxiety and depression are sometimes episodic and will ease up without medication, but sometimes they are chronic and additional assistance is needed. Why do we place such theological weight on the decision to seek treatment for brain chemistry issues? Why do we classify respiratory infections as “physical illness” and anxiety and depression as “mental illness”?

The reality is that our understanding of brain science is relatively small compared to our knowledge of other bodily systems. We aren’t sure what everything in our brain does or how medications will affect it. It’s all scientifically hazy and so our thoughts about brain chemistry are theologically hazy. Some think that if people have faith or pray sufficiently, then their anxiety and depression will go away. Sometimes is does, in the same way that extra rest and proper diet can clear up the common cold. But sometimes that doesn’t do the trick, and there’s no shame or spiritual failure associated with getting help when help is needed, either for your body or your brain. After all, your brain is part of your body, and your soul and spirit are inextricably connected to all of it.

Are anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications a crutch? Of course! So are antibiotics and antihistamines. And for that matter, so are crutches, and when my daughter broke her foot, I thanked God for the crutches. Can antidepressants and other psycho-trophic medications be misused, prescribed prematurely, and used to the inappropriate exclusion of other forms of treatment? Sure, but this is true of all medications. All good things can be misused. It shows no lack of faith or no deficit of prayer to take medication when medication is needed and other treatments alone won’t do the job adequately. Can God heal? Sure. And why do we tend to think that God’s healing and medical treatment are mutually exclusive?


Mental Illness Theology