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?

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Teamwork: Campus Ministry in a Multi-Staff Context

Many campus ministers work solo, without a staff, without an on-site boss, without a building, without an office, without much of a budget, and with little more in resources than a laptop and a cell phone. My early years in campus ministry were like this (sans cell phone), and while challenging, these were exhilarating years. With age and new contexts come additional responsibilities, with all of the associated advantages and challenges. So here are a few thoughts about working in a multi-staff context for those who may be new to that reality, or like me, still learning.

1. Be slow to hire. Most organizations hire quickly and fire slowly. Arguably, the reverse is preferable. Add team members only when necessary and remember that employees represent long-term fixed costs. Take time to hire correctly. Get proper training to do this well. Hire attitude and teach skills. Businesses often know more about hiring than most ministries and non-profits. Learn from the business world, but apply it to a ministry context appropriately.

2. Adding staff increases complexity. With each new staff member, the number of relationships to manage grows exponentially. A team of two people have only 2 working relationships to manage (mine with him + his with me). When a team of two adds a third, the relationships involved increase from 2 to 6 (3 people x 2 relationships each). The increase in relational complexity means that, for example, adding a part-time staff person who works 20 hours per week will not increase productivity by 20 hours.

3. Adding staff increases supervisory demands. As a supervisor, it is tempting to think that adding a staff member will save you time. It does, but not as much as you might initially think. If you do them well, training, oversight, and evaluation take time. With each new staff member, a supervisor will spend less time doing campus ministry and more time supervising campus ministers.

4. Teamwork takes time. A cohesive vision and unified mission take time to build, time to maintain, time to tweak, and time to change. Regular meetings, retreats, and informal conversations are needed for a team to thrive. Some teams require more time than others, so leaders must manage their expectations about the time they must devote to nurturing an effective team. Teamwork at its best is a beautiful thing, and like all beautiful things, it doesn’t happen by accident.

5. Disagreement is good. Consensus is ideal. Disunity is destructive. The more experienced and talented your team, the more you will have disagreements. Some view disagreement as a negative. I do not. Disagreement can yield the kind of dynamic tension that results in better decisions. I encourage disagreement. I expect it. I am comfortable with it. I see it as a positive sign that my team is thinking deeply and engaging passionately in our work together. Ideally, disagreement eventually yields compromise and consensus. Occasionally, a leader must make a decision in the absence of unanimity, but this should be rare and should involve minor issues. Once the decision is made, each member should be able to stand behind it in unity with a clear conscience. Otherwise the decision should be delayed or, as a last resort, the team restructured.

5. You don’t always choose your team. In most situations, you inherit a team that you did not hand-pick. Sometimes they pick you. Ministry is not like college football where the head coach brings his entire team with him wherever he goes. Usually teamwork in a ministry context is a patch-quilt project, and for this reason it can be both more difficult and better. Teamwork that you build typically outlasts and outperforms teamwork that you attempt to buy. Shall I cite the most recent NBA finals as an example? I think that I work with the San Antonio Spurs of the campus ministry world. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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Campus Ministers are Not Counselors.

Those who work on a college campus know that the 4-6 years it takes to get a university degree can be incredibly stressful. Students now seem to enter school with more pressure than ever. Escalating tuition and inadequate financial resources mean increasing levels of debt. Students take extra jobs to earn money for expenses, leaving less time for co-curricular activities, leisure, and rest. Dysfunctional families mean increasing emotional turmoil at home. High unemployment for 20-24 year olds means fierce workforce competition and the heightened importance of academic performance. High drop-out rates for religious involvement mean fewer social and spiritual resources available to help. In short, the reality for most college students is increasing stress and decreasing resources to deal it. The result is physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and spiritual depletion.

When students seek help, they often reach out to whomever they know and trust – a friend, a teacher, a counselor, a campus minister. If the word gets out that you are a trusted and available source of assistance for those in need, your calendar will fill quickly. As a Campus Minister, I think that I could spend nearly 100% of my time counseling students if I were to choose to structure my work this way. But I am not a counselor. Most Campus Ministers are not counselors. Only a few have the training, credentials, and job description that makes counseling their primary function. If you are not one of them, here are a few general guideline that you should probably follow, and communicate to other Campus Ministers that you may supervise:

  1. Understand the difference between counseling and spiritual formation. Counselors seek to provide assistance to people with personal, social, psychological, or spiritual difficulties. Typically counselors operate with a license, a code of ethics, a clear understanding of the extent of services rendered, and full knowledge of the compensation required for such services. I am not a counselor. Spiritual formation (a.k.a discipleship) is my area of expertise, along with the biblical and theological training that is associated with it.
  2. Know your limits. Campus Ministers (and for that matter, pastors, youth ministers, etc.) are the shade-tree mechanics of the counseling world. If you need someone to change the oil or make minor repairs, then take your car there. But for a complicated cross-country road trip, the dealer has better training and diagnostic tools. Such is the case with counseling. A Campus Minister’s training in counseling is limited, so know your limits and when to refer to an expert.
  3. Avoid entering into long-term counseling situations with students. I typically meet with a student for counseling 1-2 times, then refer out for longer term needs. My purpose in these situations is to help set the theological context in which Christian counseling can be successful, and then to be another layer of support for a student who needs long-term care from someone else. And remember that if you are not a counselor, then you may incur certain legal risks if you attempt to deliver long-term counseling services.
  4. Avoid spending more than 25% of your work week counseling students. This is a rough gauge and will obviously vary from week to week, season to season, and context to context. October and April are usually more difficult months for students. June and January are easier. In urban settings, other resources will be readily available. In a rural setting, you may be the best option for most students. That said, if on average you spend more than 25% of your week counseling students, your are likely neglecting other important functions of your work. If you struggle to keep that rule of thumb, you probably need additional staff members or referral resources at your disposal.
  5. Develop a referral network. Know which counselors in your area specialize in the issues with which your students tend to struggle. Know which counselors work from a distinctively Christian perspective. Know both male and female counselors because students often prefer one or the other. Know which counselors work on a sliding scale. Know which counselors take insurance and file the claim themselves. Have an assistant or intern gather this information, along with phone numbers, and have it available to students.
  6. Help students overcome the stigma associate with counseling. Just as there is a stigma associated with mental illness, there is a stigma associated with counseling. I readily admit to students (and everyone else apparently) that I have a counselor – Trey Hill at Covenant Counseling – and I firmly believe that anyone in a caregiving profession should. My counselor is licensed (Notre Dame), highly trained in research based interventions, highly skilled, and highly experienced. My insurance pays 80% of the cost. The 20% that I pay is worth every penny. I talk about this openly to help reduce the awkwardness and to help students see that counseling is a legitimate and professional service.
  7. Identify financial resources for students who cannot afford counseling. Sometimes students simply do not have the money or they cannot file the insurance claim because they don’t want their parents to know they are getting counseling. Sometimes parents will not help because parents are the problem! In these situations, I try to identify some resources in my budget to help pay a portion of a student’s first visit or two to a counselor. I always ask the student to pay something so that he/she is invested in the process. I’ve occasionally asked counselors that I know to see a student for free in exchange for referrals later, and rarely have I been declined. Most counselors do what they do because they want to help.
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