My 7 minute Commencement Speech at Samford Graduation

In Defense of Normal*
Samford University Commencement, December 2014
Matthew Kerlin

Thank you Dr. Westmoreland and good morning to you all – trustees, friends, broke parents, proud grandparents, antsy siblings, picture-happy loved-ones, exhausted colleagues, and distinguished graduates. Let me begin by saying that I am honored to be your second choice commencement speaker.* Over 7.1 billion people in the world and I made the top two. Now, I’ve worked in higher education for over 2 decades, and I’ve attended enough graduation ceremonies to know two things: (1) you aren’t here to listen to me, and (2) I am standing in the way of you hearing your graduate’s name called and getting to lunch. So let’s get down to business. Today I want to speak in Defense of Normal.

First, let me cover the obligatory inspirational advice that all commencement speeches should contain. Ok, are you ready? Follow your dreams, change the world, overcome obstacles, be courageous, don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, be creative, be a life-long learner, be yourself, love others, stay true to your faith, stay true to your family, trust yourself, smile, have fun, be positive, work hard, don’t settle, don’t hold grudges, ignore your critics, listen to your critics, go make a difference in the world, give something back, Oh the Places You Will Go, and the world will be better for it. Does that sound familiar?

Actually, some that is good advice, but you already know most of it. The truth is that you can follow all of that advice and still not become anything like the people who typically give you that advice. Most graduation speeches are delivered by people who are famous, or wealthy or influential or highly successful by societal standards, politicians, entertainers, powerful business executives. They are usually the people to speak at graduation precisely because they are exceptional – exceptions to the rule. But I am the rule.

By contrast, I am rather ordinary. I am not rich or famous or powerful. I’m not as smart as most of my colleagues, not even as smart as many of my students, because after all, this is an exceptional place. I’ve been married for 23 years, but I am not a marriage expert. I have three kids and they’ll tell you that I’m not a perfect parent. I’ve taught courses in campus ministry but I work with people who are better ministers than me. I am an atypical graduation speaker because I am just a normal guy. But maybe that makes me the ideal person to speak today In Defense of Normal.

The truth is that most of you are going to be relatively normal. I mean that statistically, most of you are not going to become exceptionally wealthy or famous or powerful. Most of you won’t make a revolutionary discovery, or find a cure for a notorious disease, or write a best-selling novel, or become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s not just OK. It’s GOOD, because what the world needs is not a few more celebrities trying to fix what is broken while posing for photos. What the world needs is a few billion normal people committed to making the world a better place; a few billion normal people willing to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth”; a few billion normal people willing to live like Jesus; a few billion normal people willing to fight poverty and disease and racial inequality and violence in all its forms; a few billion normal people who love their families and their neighbors and do their jobs well, day after day after ordinary day. And the sum total of all that normal would indeed be exceptional.

In her poem “To be of use,” Marge Piercy writes this: “The work of the world is common as mud.” In his letter to the Corinthian and Thessalonian churches, Paul wrote this, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”; and “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” In an op-ed piece to the New York Times, Garrison Keillor wrote, “savor this peaceable street and its lawns and driveways, kids’ bikes leaning against the house, the listless cat on the porch, the sheer beauty of ordinariness.”

Today you should feel no pressure to achieve the outlandish, or to live up to the nearly impossible expectations that you may have for yourselves or perceive from those around you. The problem with idolizing greatness is that one day you wake up in your 40s and your life looks relatively ordinary and you think you’ve failed. There is no reason to make that mistake. As a theologian, I would argue that the meaning of life consists not in what you accomplish, but in what God through Christ has already accomplished. This frees you to live with simple gratitude, to be faithful in the small things, to be kind when no one is watching, to be honest when it profits you nothing, and to be hard working when nobody thanks you. Aristotle calls this the virtuous life, the means between the extremes, the normal. So make the virtuous life the normal way that you live.

No, you may not achieve remarkable success according to the standards of our society. But as Samford graduates, you have learned how to live by a higher standard. No, you may not become rich or famous, but as Samford graduates, you WILL change the world. You may not do great or historic or revolutionary or exceptional things. But as Samford graduates, you can do normal things with exceptional love, for the glory of God. And I know that you will.

God bless you and congratulations!

*[The video of this speech can be seen on YouTube here. Dr. Westmoreland’s introduction and my speech can be found between 16:21 to 28:04.]

* [The originally scheduled speaker for commencement had to leave town for a funeral.]


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

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.


Campus Ministry

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.
Campus Ministry

Preaching to College Students

Many campus ministers rely primarily on guests to preach to and teach their students. This was the strategy during my college years, and many still use that strategy. Not all campus ministers are great preachers, nor do they feel like they have the time or capacity to focus on that particular ministry task, and with good reason. Campus Ministers have to be good at many things, including counseling, administration, money management, personnel supervision, facilities operations, church relations, food preparation, travel arrangements, and the list goes on. I believe that is it a mistake, however, to outsource biblical teaching exclusively to those who do not know your students or their context as well as you do. Simply because you are not the world’s greatest preacher does not mean that you can’t be the world’s most effective preacher for your context. I work for a university where annually we have dozens of guest speakers, preachers, teachers, and lecturers visit campus each year. Dollar for dollar, I think that our faculty, staff, and campus ministers communicate more effectively to our students than even the most entertaining or impressive guests. In other words, if what you’re going for is entertainment, then a guest is best. If what you want is impact, guests often (usually?) fall short. In a world of limited resources, therefore, I say you get more bang for your buck by anchoring your teaching/preaching schedule with people on your campus or on your staff, people who know and love your students better than anyone.

With that in mind, here are a few brief ideas on preaching to college students in a campus ministry context:

  1. Preach as often as you can, or as often as it makes sense in your environment. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t great at it or don’t love it keep you from being effective at it.
  2. Pay attention in speech class and preaching class. The technical details about presentation style, stage presence, eye contact, diction, pace, pronunciation, visual aids, etc. – these details matter. This is especially true in a world where students spend more time fact-to-face with screens than with live people.
  3. Know your audience. Know their life stage, social tendencies, emotional burdens, and intellectual curiosities. Know their language, their intelligence level, their average GPA and ACT scores, their music, their culture.
  4. Don’t assume that students have any degree of biblical literacy. Most do not. At the same time, don’t “dumb down” your content. Explain concepts confusing to someone who didn’t grow up in church, but don’t be pedantic.
  5. Challenge students. They expect to and want to learn. They don’t necessarily need to or expect to “feel better” after a message. Hit them between the eyes; say it like it is; throw down when necessary. Do this with humor and grace, the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.
  6. Be personal and missional. Let them learn a little about you and your struggles, without emotionally streaking. But stay focused on the mission, the Gospel message and its proclamation, what theologians call “Christo-centric” preaching.
  7. The sermon should be part of a process, not an isolated event. Invite others into the planning process. Give clear next steps. Use the sermon to lead an organization, to expose its flaws and your own. Use the momentum created by a challenging message to accomplish things far more important than the sermon itself. At the end of the day, the sermon is a means, not an end.