Monday, July 22, 2013

The Value Added of Campus Ministry

Some months ago, a campus ministry colleague began a fascinating conversation when he asked me what the “value added” of campus ministry was. In other words, what does participation in campus ministry add to the value of a student’s university experience that might justify the cost of commitment? 

A good question. Walking together down a sidewalk dappled with sunlight and shade, we began attempts at an answer:

Community, certainly. Friendships, good friends, and everything that comes with them, all a part of the gift of campus ministry - though not exclusive to campus ministry. A free, home-cooked meal each week is a nice bonus. Perhaps campus ministry participation will look good on one’s resume, especially if there are volunteer components involved. I would love to think that campus ministry offers an opportunity for Christian leadership development of a kind that one would not find elsewhere. Networking has the potential be a piece, especially for a storied program with vast numbers of alumni. As the conversation rattled on, I found myself both energized by the question and feeling like a bit of the mark had been missed.

“What if the truth is our value added?” I asked, surprised to hear myself asking the question. 

“What if,” I explained, “the thing about campus ministry that gives value to one’s collegiate experience is we promise to be people who speak the truth with one another? What if I told you as your campus minister that, as you share your life with this community, I promise to always tell you the truth?”

That question asked, a couple of subsequent caveats put flesh on the bones of the commitment to be truthful:

First, to assert truth telling as value added names the obvious, namely that such a commitment is rare. At a school as large as UW, students are fortunate to land regular access to counselors, much less counselors who know them personally, and so who are capable of speaking as truly as they otherwise might. And that's before we name the deeper reality that the social, commercial, and other circles that constitute so much of life thrive on deceptions that are the opposite of truthful speech.

Second, the promise to always speak the truth is either absurd or insincere unless it includes a commitment to the true words "I don't know" and "I need your help." My promise to tell the truth is not the same as the promise to always have an answer. But I promise to risk the words "I don't know" and "Will you help me?" and also to share whatever resources I do have, alongside the vast resources of the Christian tradition throughout the centuries. I commit to listening alongside those in the Church for the voice of God and the wisdom of the community of faith. 

Third, most importantly, and at the risk of going all theological: for Christians, truth, is not an abstract concept but a concrete person: Jesus, the Son of God born to Mary, who was crucified and is risen. As Stanley Hauerwas once wrote: "Only in the person of Christ are we encountered by the one who can unmask our illusions without utterly destroying us.  In Christ we are made intimate with God, making possible a nearness from which we do not flee." In Jesus, the truth of God and friendship with God intersect, making it possible for us to be truthful friends to one another.

A community centered on the one who said, "I am the way and the truth and the life," cannot help but pray to be made truthful. Another way to say this is the first step toward becoming truthful is worship.

Months after this conversation with my friend, I learned that one of my heroes, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski - Coach K -, tells his players as a part of the recruitment process he will make them two promises: to 1) always look them in the eye, and 2) always tell them the truth.

Coach K's players sign on because they see the value added of such a commitment. They realize that it can be life-giving and empowering to walk with someone who listens to the goals of your heart and honors them - honors you - with feedback that is true. This is truth with the power to make you more truly yourself - the best version of your self. To be sure, truth of this kind - by its nature - is challenging, but also never separable from the love that would remind you of this truth, also: that you are God's child, God's beloved.

“What if the truth is our value added?” I asked, surprised to hear myself asking the question. 

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