Oct 03, 2016
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Healthy Relationships with the Student Affairs Office
Caleb Craft is a college ministry leader who also works in student development at his university. He shares helpful advice for being neighbors to your university’s student development office.
I’d like to take a moment to share with you about the fine folks working within Student Affairs at your collegiate campus. You may know them as Residence Directors, Student Activities Coordinators, Campus Event Schedulers, Involvement Specialists, or one of the other thousand job titles they hold. However you may name them, or whatever level you may interact with them – student affairs professionals have more in common with collegiate ministry leaders than you may realize.
Think about it. We’ve both chosen to invest a great deal of our time, and at least some part of our careers, in the lives of college students. We both recognize the significance of the traditional college life stage, and we share some common aspirations for the outcomes of our students’ journeys. More than likely, these staff members are our closest cousins on the “secular side” of the campus environment. We have much common ground that could be shared.
Unfortunately, there are many collegiate ministry leaders who primarily view their institution’s department of Student Life (or Student Affairs, Development, etc.) as a system to cunningly navigate in order to reap the most resources – whether that be free space, free food, or free money. Now I’m all about using available resources for the Kingdom, but I would like to shine some light on the nature of our relationships with these departments.
Imagine with me for a minute that one of the students you disciple is in a friendship where they expect the other person to completely revolve around their needs. This student expects their friend to work around their calendar, to come running when they need something, and then to back off when they want personal space. Would you call this a healthy relationship for a Christian? Of course not! You would probably even give this student a loving rebuke, and rightfully so!
We know that as Christians, our relationships shouldn’t revolve around our own needs and interests, rather we should seek to put the interests of others above our own. You wouldn’t encourage a student to keep living in a completely self-interested relationship, yet that is exactly the kind of relationship many college ministries have with the institutions where they set up shop.
So what do you suggest we do?
I’m no expert in this area, and the college ministry I help lead certainly has plenty of room to grow here as well. But as someone with a foot in both metaphorical camps (I also work in Student Life), I’d like to offer three thoughts I have on being a good neighbor to your student development office. Consider these less of a roadmap for success and more of a good place to start a journey; a journey to seek understanding, seek common ground, and seek the benefit of those we work alongside.
SEEK TO UNDERSTAND
I’d say the first step to building a healthy relationship with your college’s student development staff is to take an interest in who they are and what they do. Similar to college ministry, people don’t really get into the student development world for the money or the awesome work-life balance. These professionals care about students and want to see them develop and succeed.
Student affairs staff do much more than approve student organizations and manage space requests. They are often the voice and advocates for students on campus. They are educators, and in many ways, they are shepherds. They are driven by creating a more inclusive, thoughtful, and compassionate campus, and thus a more inclusive, thoughtful, and compassionate world.
Now you might be thinking, “That may be true for people on your campus, but you haven’t met Janice, who seems to have adopted our ministry’s demise as her professional and personal purpose in life.” It’s true – some in the student development world have a great deal of skepticism, and sometimes hostility, toward Christian groups. I would humbly reply that those hostilities, though seemingly unwarranted, are likely rooted in some personal experiences with “Christian” groups. And that where negative expectations exist, there also exists great opportunity to tell a different narrative about Christ and those who call themselves by His name.
But before we go about trying to be understood, let’s submit ourselves to first seeking to understand those in our paths. Why not grab coffee with one of the professionals you interact with and try to learn more about their story, their profession, and why they do they work they do?
SEEK COMMON GROUND
Many of our goals are different, and some are even conflicting. College ministry leaders are ultimately seeking for students on campus to know Christ and to make Him known. We see Jesus as the ultimate meaning in life and humanity’s greatest pursuit. For the most part, student affairs folks don’t care quite as much about what students end up believing or doing, as long as they are believing and doing things from a self-directed search, seeking to be authors of their own lives.
Even though these paths are leading in two different directions, there are many stops along the way where they cross and even run alongside one another. We both are interested in genuine student development. We both want students to be using their education and talents to benefit the world around them. We both want students to experience community and a sense of belonging on campus. We are both interested in a student’s search for meaning and purpose. We both want students to be safe, healthy, and loved.
How can we recognize these common goals and work together on the things that matter deeply to both of us? Where can we partner in the interest of students?
SEEK THEIR BENEFIT
When the Israelites were held in captivity, existing in a land they did not control, God spoke through Jeremiah that they should “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV)
Many smarter than I have applied this concept of “seek their welfare” to a church-city context, and I cannot see why a church-campus context would be any different. Do we pray for those who work in the colleges and universities we inhabit? Do we look for opportunities to serve those working from inside the institution, and specifically within the Student Life departments who often provide our access to the campus?
What are ways you can volunteer for large events, help connect students to existing on-campus resources when appropriate, co-sponsor activities around your common goals? I’m convinced there is a multitude of creative ways to do this well; we just have to be willing to put in the work of building relationships in the first place.
So let’s commit to more mutual relationships with our campus partners and be the good neighbor that Christ has asked each of us to be. Let’s seek to understand our friends in student development, to find common ground with them, and to work for their benefit.
May it be said that the campus is a better place because you were there.