Rachel Beveridge, in a helpful article articulating some of the reasons she’s seen young adults leave the church, notes that her generation (millennials) “know that we have to be vulnerable in order to have authentic connection.” Because of this, “when conversations at church or any other community are superficial, sometimes millennials choose to leave. But when someone—perhaps someone whom we disagree with, theologically or politically— asks questions that show real interest in us, or they themselves show vulnerability, we might stay.”
So what does this look like? At Campus Edge, it has meant that we don’t avoid the difficult topics. We regularly have conversations topics like sexuality, racism, justice, politics. In those conversations, people share opinions and I (as a CRC pastor) often share the CRC perspective on things. Everyone’s experience and perspectives are welcomed; yet, in order to practice both authenticity and intellectual honesty, everyone’s perspective (including mine, the pastor’s) is open to being challenged and critiqued. This can be hard, but we’re also learning to be vulnerable with each other about our lives and perspectives, recognizing our need for community and how much we can be encouraged and support by each other, especially in the middle of the challenges of grad school.
Christian Courier recently published an article by Meghan Kort on how to love the grad student in your life. She begins by explaining a bit about the mental health challenges of grad school and then provides wisdom about “how churches, families, and friends can show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives. The following are some helpful (and unhelpful) questions that she provides that can help you reach out to, encourage, and love the grad students that you encounter.
- Asking what they’re going to do when they graduate is unhelpful because “life rarely moves as planned.” They know that there’s probably not a huge niche for their expertise “but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.”
- Helpful: “Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” You probably have little connection to their specific topic but you might just have connections with the how and why they came to study that topic.
- and 4. Not so helpful: “How is your thesis going?” or “When will you be finished?” A variation of these questions are found in PhD comic’s second most popular comic on what accounts for bad manners in grad school.
- Better questions might be “How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing?”
We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.
We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.
Kerry Egan, in her book On living describes the big spiritual questions of human existence as relating primarily to community. She argues:
“We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.” – Kerry Egan, on living, 28.
While many graduate students do have intellectual questions about faith, the big questions often have to do with belonging. This is true even for graduate and professional students whose whole lives seem to be caught up in theories and thinking. And it is true even when the new academic “family” feels somewhat to have been chosen for them: for example, the labmates of the lab they join and spend all their time in, the other (vet) med students who are in all their classes and labs, the cohort that helps them through the challenges of comps and difficult classes.
When this family seems to understand them better than the church family, then it is hard for people to feel like they belong to the church. It is then that the intellectual questions become harder to answer – or even become less important to answer. We in the church sometimes see only the questions, as it is often easier to blame (intellectual) questioning than to recognize how the strength of another family (and perhaps the weakness of our own) might have drawn people away.
Last fall at CEF, we started the “Animate” group. After our weekly dinners on Saturday nights, we spent time discussing the idea of “community”. We began to ask questions about community: What is community? Why is it so elusive? How do we find, foster, and build community? As a group we began to consider these questions, how we envisioned community, and what we sought from community.
As these are questions that I have asked personally, I was excited to enter into this dialogue with others. As the group became more comfortable with each other and delved into these questions more deeply, we began to shift gears. Rather than just talk about community, we wanted to begin to experiment with these ideas. Opening up dialogue about community was an initial step, but we wanted it to be more than just a discussion.
So this spring we have retitled and become the Community (Enacted) Group. Our goal is to take the next step and explore what community in action would look like. This will include exploring our connection with God, growing together as a community with various activities and spending time together, and also extending these ideas to the broader community of Michigan State and East Lansing.
Overall, I see the biggest impact of our time together has been the gradual movement of a collection of people towards becoming a community. Simply by creating an environment conducive to community and being open to exploring this further, we have been able to move towards this goal. Often this has taken place in spontaneous ways through conversations over dinner or hanging out after discussions with coffee or board games. I’m sure the group will continue to evolve and I’m excited to see where it goes! And we are glad to welcome others that might be interested in joining us in this experiment!
Knitting anyone? Laura Hubbard in the act of teaching the group one of her hobbies.
Knitting Lessons 101 with any success?
When you go to a Big 10 school, it’s imperative that you attend some basketball games. When Kory told me there were some extra tickets for the game on January 31, I jumped at the opportunity to go with CEF. Not only did I enjoy the game, but it was great getting to know others from CEF.
We started off the evening with a tour of the Breslin Center. The Big 10 and NCAA Tournament trophies are legit and the rings are quite the bling. We saw “the den” where the coaches (yay Izzo) spend all their time deliberating and making game plans. We also saw the film room where athletes from all sports come to plot against their opponents.
We made our way to the concession area, after running into Travis Trice, and had a pizza party amidst plastic crates and concrete walls. I doubt that the basement of the Breslin has ever experienced such an influx of laughter and fun. The conversations were interesting too. I enjoyed getting to know about other’s areas of interest and study as well as debating how to make a spell-binding TV series featuring accountants. (Any ideas anyone?)
For someone who doesn’t watch college basketball until March Madness, the game was a chance for me to learn about our team and actually get to know who the team is. After a poorly played first half, the Spartans bounced back to win 80-75 against Illinois. Thanks enthusiatic sports fans for making the game interesting.
Overall, attending this game was a great way to spend a blustery winter evening. Spending time with CEF and fellow Spartan fans energized me and made me excited for March. Come March Madness, get ready for some great basketball and bracket challenges!
~ Anna Mooi