A Common Sense Dress Code for College Students

As a college instructor, parent, and campus minister for over 20 years, I’ve seen it all when it comes to the clothes students wear, or the lack thereof. I’m not particularly conservative or legalistic when it comes to dress, but I do think that some common sense is needed for the best interest of students, and to respect the learning communities of which they are a part. I am not attempting to destroy individuality; I firmly believe that one can dress both appropriately and creatively. I’m no fashionista, so my suggestions aren’t intended to make you the most stylish person around.  I’m not a shopping diva, so I can’t point you to the best sales, but I can tell you that it doesn’t take an enormous budget to dress reasonably.  And reasonability is my goal here, to avoid unnecessary and attention-seeking extremes.

Of course, this isn’t the most theological post I’ll ever write. I do intend this somewhat tongue-and-cheek. But still, there are some serious faith implications for how we think and feel about clothing. Jesus taught, “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the lilies of the field. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” In other words, you can surely spend too much and worry too much about these matters. In that light, here are a few common-sense suggestions for dressing in a sensible, simple, and considerate manner.

  1. Get dressed. Seriously. Wear actual clothes intended for public viewing. I get it that you were up late studying, but nobody wants to see what you slept in. Respect the people around you enough to look at least somewhat presentable in class.
  2. Dress according to the season. When in doubt, check the weather app on your phone. If it’s 30 degrees, avoid shorts and flip-flops. You look silly trying to look tough through your hypothermia.
  3. Wear clothes that fit. A blinding flash of the obvious I know. But you’d be surprised … actually, no, you aren’t surprised at how poor a judge people tend to be about what fits and what doesn’t. Here’s a hint – if it takes more than about 2 seconds to slip it on, it’s probably too tight. If you could fit another human being into it with you, it’s probably too big. The extremes look ridiculous to at least half of the population. You aren’t looking for that kind of attention, are you?
  4. Wear clothes that appropriately cover everything that ought to be covered. Remember that cameras are now ubiquitous, so think about that when you head out the door. Your clothes say something about you.  What are you saying with your short shorts, low cut tops, muscle shirts, skin tights skirts, or leggings?
  5. Don’t wear clothes intended for a specific activity unless you’re engaged in that activity, or on your way to or from that activity. Let me be more specific. Yoga pants are for yoga. Gym shorts are for the gym. Hiking pants are for hiking. That makes sense, yes?
  6. Wear clothes that go together. Please, I beg of you, no shorts with snow boots. No jeans with a tuxedo. No running shoes with a dress. No dark calf socks with athletic attire. These may seem trendy to you at the moment, but trust me, you’ll be embarrassed one day.
  7. Avoid clothes obviously intended to draw attention to you. Whether you realize it or not, vulgar tee shirts, extreme colors, and stripes with plaids are all screaming to those around you, “Hey, look at me!!” Is that really what you want to scream?
  8. Ladies, always wear pants. Always. Tights are not pants. Leggings are not pants. Yoga pants only count as pants if you’re at yoga (see #5). If you aren’t sure whether you have on pants, go put on some pants.
  9. Gentlemen, no tanks. Nobody wants to see your deodorant coated armpit hair, no matter how large your biceps are. If you are a weight-lifting athlete, I grant you a once per day exemption to this rule, if and only if you are in the gym. After that, put on a tee shirt.
  10. When you stop growing, buy fewer items of higher quality. This is just a practical tip. When you’re growing a couple of inches a year, you do what you have to do to get by. When you stop growing, start building a reasonably better wardrobe. Most people wear about 20% of what’s in their closet. Only buy items you like better than the 20% of stuff you currently wear. Buy less but get higher quality. You’ll like it better, it’ll last longer, and you’ll save money in the long run.
  11. Clean out your closet every year and give away what you haven’t worn. The principle here is simplicity. There is no sense owning what you don’t need. It takes up limited closet space, makes your other clothes wrinkled, and makes it more difficult to find the clothes you want to wear.
  12. A summary principle – your clothes say something about you. What do you want to say? What are you actually saying? Do these two questions have the same answer?
Campus Ministry College

Meeting with Students: Four Kinds of Conversations

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.

Campus Ministry

Visiting Campus: Some Advice for Parents of Freshmen

After move-in day, you head home and hopefully get 2-3 weeks of separation from your student before he or she comes home or you go back to visit. These weeks are crucial for students to make connections and establish habits that will sustain them in the months that follow. A premature visit can disrupt that process, but a well-timed visit to campus a few weeks into the semester can help both parents and students reconnect as a family, catch up on each other’s lives, and evaluate how the college experience is affecting all involved. So if you haven’t seen your student for a few weeks and you’re planning a visit for Parents Weekend, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Talk to your student briefly before the visit to discuss in advance what time you’ll spend together, what functions you’ll attend together or separately, where you’ll sit for the football game, where you might go to church on Sunday, and other such plans. Communication in advance will help you all manage your expectations for the weekend. Except in dire circumstances, never pop in for a visit unannounced.
  2. Don’t expect to spend every waking hour with your student when you visit campus. Your son or daughter now has a life that doesn’t often include you. Friends, studies, rituals, habits, organizations, and responsibilities now occupy his or her time. Those things don’t cease just because you’re visiting. On our first visit to campus to see my son, he dropped by our tailgate for a few minutes, crammed his stomach full of food, and then returned to game-day festivities with his friends after about 30 minutes. We saw him later in the day, and some the next, but he went right on with his life, which showed me that he’d adjusted well to college.
  3. Avoid the temptation to read too much into your student’s response to seeing you. Some students may be tearful and others rather placid. Their emotional reaction to your visit may be more a factor of how much sleep they’ve gotten than their excitement or aversion to seeing you. And here’s a hint: your student is probably ALWAYS sleep deprived, so take their reactions with a grain of salt.
  4. Look around at your student’s life. Take a mental snap-shot of what you see. What are your student’s friends like? Is the car running well and in decent shape? Is his/her room functionally organized? Of course it is reasonable to begin to form some preliminary evaluations, but keep your observations to yourself for now. Parent’s Weekend should probably be a time for celebration more than correction.
  5. Pick your battles. As you see your student’s life on campus, you will inevitably find some things you are pleased with and some things that bother you. Don’t micromanage, but you should express concern where it is warranted. When my wife first visited our son’s dorm room, she was appalled by the smell. I was more concerned with my son’s sleep habits. Although different things felt important to each of us, we had to be careful that we didn’t nit-pick. As you talk with your student about college life, try to focus on the things that really matter.
  6. Ask the right questions. We parents tend to ask our students general questions like, “How’s the semester going?” or “Are you doing well in your math class?” Such questions tend to elicit monosyllabic responses. Instead, ask specific questions that are easier to answer and yield more information, such as “What is your favorite thing about campus?” or “Who is your favorite professor and why?” or “What is the most difficult part of being a college student?” I have a talkative child and two quiet children and these questions have tended to work better for them all at any age.
  7. Relax and have fun. Go into the weekend with a light-hearted attitude expecting to have fun. You may be worried or anxious about how your student is adjusting and that is normal. Express confidence in how they are doing, be encouraging, take them to eat at their favorite restaurant, and maybe give them a little extra spending money. This is a weekend for things that lighten the mood and lift the spirits. A bit of preparation and forethought can help it be so.
Campus Ministry

The F Word in Campus Ministry

Fun. Campus Ministry ought to be fun. Maybe not every moment of every day, but often, perhaps more often than not, especially this time of year. Sure, we are doing work that has eternal significance and that is sobering. Yes, we are dealing with students, and often families, suffering crisis and tragedy and that is humbling. Souls are at stake, absolutely, and that is motivating. But I am increasingly convinced that our work should be enjoyable through the ups and downs. The tasks and people that comprise our job should never destroy our joy.

Every job has some stuff you’d rather not do, some people you’d rather not deal with, some situations you’d rather not face. I call all of that stuff the “crud factor” of a job. Generally speaking, your job’s crud factor should be proportionally low on average, or at least it should feel low to you. If the crud factor in your work feels like it is increasing with no end in sight, you are not in a sustainable working environment. Nobody can continue to minister effectively in that context. Sometimes the crud factor can get so high that a ministry context becomes toxic for you and those around you, and a change is needed. If you don’t make the change to a new job, chances are somebody will make it for you. If you find that the crud factor of most every job you have ever had is too high for you, the problem is probably you and not your boss. Maybe you’ve developed work habits that increase your stress, like procrastination or crud avoidance behaviors. Maybe you are over-functioning to compensate for the weakness of someone on your team. Maybe you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, as if the salvation of the world (or your campus) is entirely up to you. Maybe you aren’t resting, exercising, sleeping, eating well, or practicing the spiritual disciplines with consistency. The point is that if there isn’t a critical mass of fun in your job, then you probably aren’t experiencing the joy that is essential for you to function effectively in ministry long-term.

Years ago a colleague told me that most young ministers have a “messiah complex,” a sense that they can solve every problem, please every person, and meet every challenge without fault or failure. He was talking about someone else, but he was speaking to me more than he realized. I’ve been there. I’m tempted to go there every semester. And I know that the closer I get to the messiah complex, the less joy and fun I find in my work, and the less effective I become as a campus minister. I’m in this for the long-haul and I am learning that it’s a marathon not a sprint. Pace is important. And fun helps you keep the pace, particularly as you get older, as the higher education becomes increasingly complex, as money becomes more difficult to find, as salaries stagnate, as state conventions falter, as the crud factor rises.

As I write this, it’s the beginning of the fall. Things are new. Football is around the corner. Cooler temperatures are coming. New students are on campus.  And if you aren’t having fun as a campus minister, it’s time to consider a new job!

Campus Ministry

Myths Christians Believe (Part 2)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject, here’s the latest installment. For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2) and the appropriate footnotes and credits, go here.

Myth 3: It is wrong to doubt.

In support of this myth, I have heard some quote James 1:5-7: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

This passage does not constitute a blanket condemnation of doubt. In this context, James is speaking to the instability of one who has confidence enough to ask God for wisdom (believing that God is able), but simultaneously doubts that God will give it. This double-mindedness is not a fault of the intellect, but rather a fault of the will, an unwillingness to hold fast to what the intellect has already accepted in the face of changing circumstances. I know that airline travel is relatively safe. I have good evidence to support this belief. So if I get nervous when I fly, I am double-minded in the way James condemns. If, however, I have doubts about the safety of a particular mode of travel based on evidence, that doubt is not only justified, it is wise.

Nowhere does the Bible condemn honest, intellectually curious doubt. The Old Testament book of Job expresses that kind of doubt. Thomas expressed that kind of doubt about the resurrection. Jesus expresses that kind of doubt when he prayed before his execution, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” If Jesus had doubts about the necessity of his primary mission, then surely our intellectual doubts are equally legitimate, and sometimes necessary. Of course, Jesus also added, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done,” proving that sometimes faith and doubt necessarily coexist. As the theologian Paul Tillich argues, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an unavoidable element of faith (Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 1, section 5).

There is no shame or guilt in honest intellectual doubt. There is, however, guilt associated with the kind of laziness that holds fast to a belief with no evidence to support it. Faith is NOT belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is the conviction to hold on to a belief that logic has convinced you is true, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so.

Myth 4: The more exotic the more spiritual.

I work at a Christian college where, in a few days, students will return to campus and begin to compare their summers. Among those who served the poor in India or started a non-profit in Africa, there will inevitably a student or two who shamefully admits that his/her job was to babysit for a family in Atlanta or to work at McDonalds, as if somehow these job choices represent lesser ways to live out the Christian life. I read books advocating for believers to live a radical life. I hear sermons advocating international adoption, life in the inner city, and international missions among unreached people groups, worthy and needed objectives all of them. Yet I fear that these constant refrains run the risk of marginalizing those who live in the suburbs, own a small business, and work hard every day to raise their kids. Normal people can be people of faith too, yes? In fact, if I’m called to campus ministry among the world’s educated elite, and I choose instead to dig wells in the African dessert, haven’t I forsaken my gifts and my calling in a way that dishonors God?

We sometimes forget that Paul, the radical apostle and missionary of the New Testament, also suggested to believers in Thessalonica that they “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  It took skilled workers, craftsmen, and artists to design the ancient Jewish tabernacle and its accompanying furnishings, yet of these very normal, hard-working people, the book of Exodus (chapter 31) says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship….” God ordained these workers to the very ordinary task of building things. This was their purpose and calling, and to denigrate the ordinary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is to denigrate the wisdom of God. Obedience, whether in the exotic or the ordinary, is the appropriate faith response to God.

Biblical Interpretation Campus Ministry Theology

10 Myths That Christians Believe (Part 1)

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” – 1 Timothy 4:7

Sometimes Christian culture helps popularize some ideas about faith and spirituality that are simply false. These myths are false because either they plainly contradict the testimony of scripture or they run counter to the experiences of wise believers through the centuries. After over 24 years of work in ministry and higher education, I have seen these myths in many forms and know the disillusionment that they can cause. I am sure there are other myths that I still hold, and I can only hope that people wiser than me will eventually help disavow me of those myths, as others have pointed these out to me.

Along those lines, I owe a special thanks to Andy Byers who gave a talk on this subject at Samford University and later wrote a book that includes some of this material. Students have frequently told me that Andy’s talk on this subject was among the most memorable of their college experience, so the idea obviously struck a nerve. I have used the idea (with Andy’s blessing) for talks at Mississippi State University and Southeastern Bible College. I have both borrowed from Andy and inserted my own ideas in the posts that follow. If there’s anything true here, then thank Andy. If there’s anything false, blame me. Because of the length of this particular topic, I will post these myths as a series, with links to each of the earlier posts in the later ones.

Myth #1: The Bible answers all your questions.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this common remark, it is simply false, primarily because we so often ask the wrong questions. The Bible was written in a culture very different from our own, and so people tend to seek answers to questions that the Bible’s authors never intended to answer. Most biblical authors were Hebrew in ethnicity, culture and thought, but the education system in the U.S. is a by-product of the Western intellectual tradition. If you ask Western questions of an ancient Near Eastern text, you aren’t likely to get coherent answers. Students often look to the Bible for advice on dating. They want guidance for choosing a university, or academic major, or career, or spouse, or political party. They want help solving their problems and sorting out the mess of their everyday lives. But if you use the Bible primarily in these ways, you are likely to find it difficult, boring, confusing, or disappointing.

Teachers know that when students ask, “Will this be on the exam?” that they are missing the point. Similarly, students of the Bible often miss the main point of the Bible. The Bible isn’t really about you and your life and your decisions, as much as it is about God, and God’s plan, and God’s love for his people, and by extension his love for all people, and the extent to which God demonstrates that love in Christ. So the next time you open up the Bible hoping that it will help you decide for whom you should vote in the next election, don’t be angry if your neighbor does the same thing and comes up with a different answer.

Myth #2: God will never give me more than I can handle.

The problem with this notion is that it actually contradicts the Bible outright. One of the Bible’s main characters, a missionary named Paul, had a pretty difficult life during his final years. He did not suffer due to his mistakes, but because of his faithfulness to God’s mission. By his own account, he experienced trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Romans 8:35). He survived stoning (an ancient form of execution), several beatings, shackles, chains, stocks, and multiple imprisonments. Writing to his friends in Corinth, Paul admits, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

If we take these words seriously, then we cannot accept the idea that God never gives us more than we can handle. Apparently God does, for at least one specific purpose – that we might renounce the myth of self-reliance. We often harbor the notion that we can make it alone, that we don’t need others, that we don’t need God. Unless you take it by faith that something comes from nothing, then at the very least, the world we inhabit and the life we live originates from his creative design. Sometimes it takes pain to remind us of that. It takes situations that we cannot handle to remind us of God, by whose strength we can handle anything. And that really is the point of faith isn’t it, to release our obsession with self and rely on someone else?

[Myths 3-5 will follow in the next post.]

Bible Biblical Interpretation Campus Ministry

7 Ways to Do Campus Ministry Better Through Peer Review

I took my first campus ministry job in 1990, so this year marks my 24th year working with college students. Through the years I’ve completed a few degrees, attended dozens of conferences, read countless books, and learned through trial and error. These are all valuable and necessary parts of the learning process, but there’s one way to get better at your job that is available to anyone and costs almost nothing – peer review. Identify the people who do what you do well and learn from them. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Do an website audit. Find 2-3 schools or organizations that you want to learn about, and spend 20 minutes on their website. Take notes. Learn the nuts and bolts of how their organizations work as well as the unusual or creative things they do. You can even assign an assistant or intern to do this for you and compile the information into a brief report.

2. Conduct a phone interview. I occasionally teach a campus ministry class at Beeson Divinity School and I assign students a final project that requires them to choose an organization and learn everything they can about it. They search the web and then make phone calls to leaders, volunteers, and participants in the organization. The interviews usually add something important to what they learn online.

3. Visit other organization’s meetings. Identify the 2-3 most successful campus ministries on your campus or in your city and visit them. If you’re older (like me) you may stand out in a crowd so it’s probably better to get a few insightful students to make the visits and then debrief with them over lunch (that you provide). Ask them what they liked and disliked about the meeting, the people, the leaders, the culture, the content, etc.

4. Visit other campuses. Several times in my career I’ve visited campuses far away from my own to learn all that I could about ministry organizations as well as the campuses themselves. I’ve tried to time the visits so that I could visit a weekly meeting, have lunch with student leaders, meet with the folks in charge, both campus ministry leaders and university administrators. I compile a list of questions in advance. I try to meet with as many organizations/schools as possible in a region to make the most of my time. I take copious notes. I review the notes periodically to solidify the learning.

2014-01-13 16.26.36

The view of the Pacific from Pepperdine University, where my staff and I visited this past January for a peer review.

5. Attend or plan information gatherings of leaders. Several gatherings of this sort already exist across the country, campus ministry leaders who get together in a city for 2-3 days to learn from one another. The cost is free to attend so all you have to pay for is travel, food, and lodging. If there isn’t one near you, plan one. Each fall and spring the campus ministers and college ministers in my city meet together to eat, exchange ideas and pray for one another.

6. Network via social media. Compared to other areas of ministry and service, there is precious little published about campus ministry or college ministry. I suspect that there is now more information about these areas of ministry available through online blogs than in all the books on the subject combined. I follow as many college ministries on Twitter as I can find. I “favorite” and “share” and “repost” the content that I find helpful and relevant for my context.

7. Be a mentor. I’ve been on the receiving end of so much good experience and information that I now take even greater joy in passing along what I’ve learned, for whatever it’s worth to whomever wants to learn. I’m getting old, so people often ask me how we do things where I work. I’m on the receiving end of phone interviews and have grown to enjoy blogging about things I wish I’d known 10 or 20 years ago. If you keep track of what you’re learning, you’re better able to give it away when the time comes.

And here’s the thing … all of these practices are free, or nearly free. All of these forms of peer review can be applied to work in any organization in ministry, higher education, non-profit management, or business. All of them require you to know the people who do what you do, which you should anyway. All of these ideas put you in touch with practical information about work in the trenches, on the front lines. All these ideas allow you to be both a teacher and a learner. Learn from the best. Learn from their successes and failures. Learn from people both older and younger than you. Keep learning and getting better at what you do and you won’t get burned-out or bored.

Campus Ministry Leadership

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

Christian Conversion: Event or Process?

I grew up as a Baptist in south Louisiana where most of my friends were Catholic.   I went to church weekly from preschool to 12th grade.  As I recall, every church service I attended included two things: an offering and an invitation.  For those who aren’t familiar, as my Catholic friends were not, the invitation is a time near the end of a worship service designated for people to respond publically to a call to Christian faith, or to make other public decisions of somewhat lesser importance.  The invitation represents a key feature of evangelicalism and is tied closely to what I call conversion theology.  Mark Noll describes this theology as a key feature in American evangelicalism with its emphasis on life-changing religious experiences.[1]  The invitation to conversion was such a prominent part of my formative church experiences, that I was converted twice, once at age 7 when I had no idea what I was doing, and again at age 13, precisely because at age 7 I had no idea what I was doing.  This two-step conversion process, I have learned during two decades of work among students in the Bible Belt, is an incredibly common phenomenon.  From time to time, I ask students if they have a conversion story similar to mine.  I estimate that approximately 75% of students say yes.  These admittedly unscientific observations illustrate, I think, that many Protestants obsess about identifying the specific point in time that they crossed the line into faith.  They want to know the moment of conversion, the exact date and time, and to keep it in their memory.  Many write it in their Bibles.  My intent here is not to debate the relative theological value of conversion theology, but rather to point out that a great many sincere believers, C. S. Lewis included, could not tell you exactly when they crossed the line.

Lewis describes his conversion to Christian faith in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy.  There he gives details about his commitment to atheism as a young adult and the slow process by which he came to believe in the existence of God.  He writes of his 1929 conversion to theism, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”[2]  His acceptance of Christian belief came nearly two years later, following a late night conversation with J.R.R. Tolkein and Hugo Dyson, and on a bus ride with his brother to the zoo.  He writes, “when we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought … It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is awake.”[3]

Rumor has it that years later, Lewis was asked by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to give testimony to his Christian conversion at a 1950’s crusade and Lewis refused, believing that his own story failed to conform to the stories typically told at such events.  For his own part, Lewis once met Billy Graham and liked him sincerely.  Lewis supported offering people a clear call to conversion.  But in an interview recorded in God in the Dock, Lewis was asked whether it was his personal aim to “foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ,” and his response was “You can’t lay down any pattern for God.  There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom.”[4]  D. E. Myers argues convincingly that much of Lewis’s writing reflects a style of Anglicanism that emphasizes gradual spiritual formation rather than sudden conversion.[5]  I suspect that Lewis would be deeply uncomfortable with the formulaic manner by which Christian commitment is promoted within southern evangelicalism.

As a teacher and campus minister, I have known literally hundreds of students whose experiences do not fit the formula.  For my own part, I cannot identify clearly the exact point in time that I crossed the line into faith.  I know that prior to age seven, I cannot rightly say that I had any genuine Christian commitment.  After age 13 I can.  In the interim, God only knows.  This used to trouble me, as it does many students with similar stories.  Lewis was the first of many to show me that there are other ways of thinking about Christian commitment than the conversion theology of my home church.  Be comforted if the story of your spiritual formation is much messier than the perceived norm.

[1] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 228-29.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: Macmillan, 1958), 262.

[5] D. E. Myers, “The Complete Anglican: Spiritual Style in the Chronicles of Narnia,” in Anglican Theological Review 66 (April 1984): 148-160.

[The featured image for this blog is a photo I took in June of 2010 of New Building at Magdalen College, Oxford, where C. S. Lewis lived and taught.]

Campus Ministry Theology

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