Recently, one of our interns asked me how I provide pastoral care for students. This week I had two separate discussions with faculty members who asked about the kinds of meetings that I have with students. With these conversations in mind, I’ve tried to think more carefully about the kinds of interactions I have with students and what strategies and outcomes may be appropriate for each. Generally speaking, here are four types of conversations I regularly have with students and my strategies and goals for each:
1. Crisis Intervention. Regularly I am in conversation with a student who has suffered a significant loss, experienced a major tragedy, or is faced with the prospect of a crisis (perceived or real). Typically such a student is overwhelmed, has no experience with major trauma, and may be immobilized by the shock of the situation. In these cases, the ministry of presence is important, a listening ear invaluable, and only a few carefully selected words appropriate. Somethings students barely remember these meetings or feel embarrassed that they broke down in my office. Follow-up after the initial meeting is almost always necessary to be sure students are getting the support they need and to reassure them that their feelings are natural and my support unwavering. Instances where a student is a danger to self or others, immediate intervention in mandatory and in these instances alone, pastoral confidentiality is suspended to protect lives.
2. Pastoral Care. Often students not yet in crisis begin to feel significant levels of stress, grief, pain, confusion, depression or anxiety that begins to interfere with their ability to function, to grow spiritually, or to enjoy a reasonably level of happiness and enjoyment in life. Such students are often genuinely seeking advice, some action steps they can take to improve their life situation. Of course sometimes students just want some attention, someone to listen, and to know someone cares. In these cases, I try to determine what the student wants and needs and whether the student’s condition is episodic or chronic (some psychological training helps here). Sometimes a single meeting that concludes with me praying for a student is all that is needed. Often I sense that students need longer term assistance from a counselor and I make referrals. I help students frame the issues they face biblically and theologically, and hopefully set them up for some success in counseling when that is needed.
3. Theological counsel. Sometimes students just have questions about life and faith. What does the Bible say about a particular topic? What should I believe about a particular theological, social or political issue? What is God’s will for my life? How do I handle this complex relationship or family situation? Through the years, this has been the most common type of conversation that I have with students. Here I find that students genuinely want answers. I usually resist the urge to give them my answers, but instead try to give them resources so that they can read, think, pray, study, contemplate, and make decisions on their own. I obviously have strongly held convictions about matters of faith and I will advocate for those, but only to the degree that I am not acting manipulatively, recognizing that I am in a power relationship with most students so coercion would be easy.
4. Supervision and Mentoring. We have approximately 30 student workers in our office so personnel supervision is an ongoing responsibility. I have to correct, encourage, compliment, and sometimes fire student employees. Business training is helpful here since people are not necessarily born with managerial skills, but a general rule of thumb is practice open and honest communication and give timely feedback. For some students, I serve in more of a mentor role, either because they ask or because the nature of their work with my office requires it. I generally try to keep the number of students I mentor to 2-3 at most. This takes more time, more insight, more regular meetings, and a long-term investment that will likely include all types of conversations, including crisis intervention, pastoral care, and theological counsel. These relationships also tends to yield the most student growth over time. And these are students who tend to stay in touch after graduation.
Of course, some conversations are hybrids and involve multiple strategies and hopeful outcomes. Some yield remarkable fruit and benefit students in transformative ways. But of course, some go nowhere and seem to accomplish nothing, and that can be frustrating. I try to remember that my job is to plant seeds. Seeds take a long time to grow and their growth may take place haltingly, beneath the surface, and only in season, imperceptible to superficial observation. Such is campus ministry. Such is the Kingdom of God.