The years that I served as the Associate Director of Campus Ministries at our university were volatile in our country. The media was consumed with stories about Black Lives Matter protests, the legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court, school shooting after shooting, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, bans on immigration, and the dawn of the MeToo movement. Just to name a few.
What is a Christian campus pastor to do when outrage against Donald Trump’s campaign rally being hosted on campus spreads like wildfire across your students’ social media accounts? Do you address the allegations of sexual abuse that were spraypainted on the university sign at the entrance to the campus with the hashtag #METOO? How do you respond to your African American student who is threatening to organize a protest on campus after several black staff and professors are fired?
In times of political and social unrest, the temptation for campus ministry pastors can be to compulsively cave to the brand of the university and its denominational biases in order to maintain a facade of unity and to appease the administration they serve. But, who do we really serve as campus pastors, and for what purpose? I would suggest campus pastors are called to resist the compulsive grab for control, and choose to lead like Christ by creating a culture on campus where students can learn to make conscious choices in the face of fear and injustice. I can tell you, however, this was not always my response.
I will never forget the meeting I had with Jessi, a government student and leader on campus. She came into my office that morning wearing a tee-shirt reading the name of the presidential candidate she was campaigning for in bold white lettering. She didn’t make eye contact, and she only smiled momentarily out of obligation when I invited her to sit down. “Thanks,” she said, before sitting as close to the arm of the couch as possible. It was almost as if she was trying to shield herself behind it, or perhaps, to blunt the impact of the feelings she felt towards me.
“How can I help you, Jessi?,” I asked. “I wanted to talk to you about what some of the students on campus are saying, and how I’ve been feeling as a leader here lately,” she replied. She went on to explain, “I don’t totally know how to put it into words, but I just feel a general sense of fear here. Like, if we speak up or go against the norm here we will be punished. I feel like there is a culture of silence on our campus, and I think it’s holding us all back from really learning and growing.”
The longer she spoke the faster my heart began to race. If only Jessi knew what I heard behind closed doors, and what I was instructed to do to ensure our campus remained true to the Christian tradition it was founded upon. But, I couldn’t tell Jessi any of that. I couldn’t tell her that after I sent in my list of chosen leaders to the administration for their approval, I was directed to question a student on the list about her sexual orientation, or that I was criticized for choosing a student that wore her BLM sweatshirt to chapel.
The truth was Jessi was right, and I felt silenced too. I also felt entirely impotent. Stuck somewhere between my empathy for her, my desire to protect her from the truth, and my fear of losing my job, I did my best to validate how Jessi was feeling, but left her without any defined recourse of action. If I have learned anything in the last five years, it’s that validation without a defined recourse of action is just veiled silencing, and as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I am deeply sorry that I betrayed myself and I betrayed Jessi as her leader that day.
Ministers are called to imitate Christ, but campus ministers are in the tricky position of imitating Christ within the context of a money making system. They can feel pressured to say and do all sorts of things to get more and retain more students. In the process, the campus minister can be left wondering if they represent Christ at all, or if they are merely a puppet of the denominational biases of the institution at best, or slaves to narcissistic leaders who, in the pursuit of power, popularity, and wealth, drive their subjects with fear at worst.
We have to do better than fear. I believe that was the motivation of Jesus as a minister as well; to overcome fear with love. Jesus does not motivate growth or change with fear. Satan does that. Christian communities do not exclude or ostracize their members for speaking their minds, needs, and wants. Cults do that. Christ modeled how to minister in volatile times with love. Not a kind of love that was submissive to some kind of narcissistic theology of the cross, or a compulsive kind of love that incessantly tried to earn his father’s approval with “good” behavior, but a kind of love that was born out of conscious choice.
A conscious choice is one that I have thought about and chosen for myself. Conscious choices consider all parts of my humanity; my thoughts, emotions, desires, values, and needs. Conscious choices also employ my God-given rights as an adult human being; to decide for myself, ask questions, make mistakes, change my mind, be treated with respect, or to say no. Compulsive choices, on the other hand, are often made at the expense of my humanity. They are choices that are made automatically or with extreme reactivity to fear or shame.
An example of Christ leading out of conscious choice versus compulsive reactivity can be found at the table of the Last Supper. John 13:3-4 reads, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” Jesus explains that he was fully aware that he was going to be denied, betrayed, and crucified. Yet, he was able to consciously choose to love his disciples “to the end” because he truly understood his identity and purpose and believed God would be faithful. That wisdom and inner knowing gave Jesus the courage, strength, and freedom to respond to the volatility in the world while spiritually forming his disciples in the way our students need us to today.
Students start university at the crucial time in their developmental process called individuation. They are learning who they are apart from their parents, church, and even the God-image that was prescribed to them. Campus ministers have the privilege and responsibility of creating a safe environment where students can solidify their sense of self and make conscious choices that will impact the rest of their lives. The campus minister’s job, which may look different than a church pastor, is to come alongside his or her students, help them arrest this compulsivity, and then ask the questions, “But, what do you really want? And, why?”
It has been five years since I left my job at the university on the east coast, and I have since moved out west where, even though I am not Catholic, I live and work at a Benedictine monastery while running a non-profit for Christian leaders on the side. I have spent a lot of time contemplating how I might have responded differently to Jessi’s concerns, the demands of the administration that were imposed upon me, and the wider cultural issues that were at hand at the time. For me, I understand now the administration I was under was so psychologically and spiritually oppressive there was very little room for genuine Christ-like leadership. Sometimes that is the sad reality of the situation. If you are questioning if you are in that place, I can recommend the book Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud to help you make your own conscious choices.
I have also experienced many other ministry environments, Christian universities, denominations, support groups, and therapists in the last five years. I have witnessed first-hand that spiritual formation happens quite beautifully when we let God be God, and stop trying to control others by telling them how they should think, feel, and behave. I’m not sure God even does that. At least not in the way I am referring to in this article. Instead, he says, this is who I Am. Here is my son, Jesus (Heb. 1:3). Follow him. Experience him. Behold him, and you will become like him. Thus, when our desired outcome of ministry shifts to simply helping our students establish this connection with God their lives naturally become ordered and formed by Christ.
Here are five ways you can begin to create an environment of safety, connection, and conscious choice within your own ministry:
- Consider a transition from preaching styles that encourage black and white thinking to a storytelling preaching style, and illustrate the full expression of your own humanity.
- Ask questions during one-on-one appointments with students that invite them to explore how they really think and feel without judgment, and offer them a safe space to consider various options and outcomes without proselytizing before they make decisions.
- Facilitate passive spiritual disciplines that focus on receiving, listening, and becoming aware of the body and emotions to aid students in identifying their true feelings, desires, and needs.
- Equip students with an introduction to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s practice of the “Discernment of Spirits” to help them identify the movements of good and evil and the difference between times of consolation and desolation.
- Coordinate small groups with boundaries of no-cross talk and confidentiality to help students discover their own voice and how to use it with confidence.
Sara Carrara Di Fuccia is an ordained minister turned storyteller and President of Platform to Table, a 501(c)(3) trauma-informed ministry for Christian leaders. She holds an MA in Practical Theology, MA in Human Services Counseling, and a BS in Education. She is a credentialed Leadership Coach and is a certified 500HR Christian yoga instructor. Sara and her husband, Dr. Michael Di Fuccia, have been married for 17 years. Together, they live with their chihuahua, Max, in Big Sur, CA. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | www.platformtotable.com