‘Faith in Transition’ Strengthens Religious Affiliation
By DANIEL KIDDER-McQUOWN
I have always served as an institutional chaplain (primarily in health care). In the past, I served for many years as chaplain of a small, private liberal arts college. Part of my responsibility was maintenance of the college’s church relationship. At the beginning of my time there, this responsibility entailed representing the college at denominational meetings and occasional alumni functions. There was no direct tie to campus life, nothing that involved current students, faculty, and staff in the church relationship. Even the local church adjacent to the college was excluded from campus daily activities.
After building relationships, I realized that below the surface, there was interest in change. Faith-affiliated students wanted a more tangible church relationship. They had come to the college in part because of its historic denominational ties. They wanted to see something in campus life that was tangible. In an effort to listen and respond to these students, the Office of the Chaplain started hosting conversations about tangible goals.
As the conversations progressed, student leadership was built, and faculty and staff began to take interest. We capitalized on this growth and were able to make significant small steps that served as building blocks. Perhaps the most notable step for the purposes of this reflection was the creation of paid student minister interns in the Office of the Chaplain, focused on the college-church relationship. Under my supervision, these interns helped us host ongoing dialogues with students, as well as leaders from the affiliated tradition.
These conversations led us to further insights. My student interns and I realized the affiliated tradition was lacking the same thing as our college—tangible ways to be related. We realized that we needed to look both ways. We needed to look inward at campus life, while at the same time doing something that positively impacted the affiliated religion.
At this point, the conversations could have ended in any number of outcomes. We discussed many possibilities, including service projects, mutual visits, conferences and retreats, the list was quite long. We tested some of these ideas, like taking our worship team out into churches in the region.
Eventually, though, we settled on nurturing youth as a focus. This seemed to make the most sense, as it was a core shared value of both the college and the church.
We decided to create a faith-enrichment opportunity on campus, designed for youth from our affiliated tradition. This would benefit the college overall by giving visiting youth and youth leaders a positive experience, and thus create a potential recruitment pipeline. This would benefit campus spiritual life, as students would become mentors for a weekend, and work together to fashion the overall experience. The hopes were also that interest would grow among faculty and staff. And the program would benefit affiliated churches. Youth would have an enriching experience designed for them, by college student mentors under my office’s supervision.
We decided the name of the program would be “Faith in Transition” (or FIT for short). I had talked with our student team about framing the program in developmental psychology theory. As studies continue to show, adolescence is often a crucial period of spiritual development.
Invitations were sent out by letter to affiliated churches in the region. Student leaders were asked to contact their home churches. I made phone calls to key youth group leaders and denominational representatives.
Each time we held the program, we used a fairly consistent format. Participating high school students arrived on Saturday and were welcomed by our college student leaders. We gathered participants together for an icebreaker, split them into mixed groups, and had them do fun activities with college student mentors around campus. They ate in the cafeteria, then returned to their mixed small groups for dialogue, followed by a combined campus worship service. After that, participants had a menu of options: Gaming, a live music café in the campus coffee house (with alumni performers), dialogue and activities with college student leaders, and other options. Participants left with their assigned college student host to sleep. Adult chaperones were lodged in college guest housing. Sunday morning was left flexible. All were invited to attend worship service at the adjacent affiliated church, eat breakfast in the cafeteria, and/or leave when their chaperones were ready.
In our debrief and evaluation, the student ministry interns and I pointed to a number of positive results. We had been successful in providing a safe, fun, and nurturing space for visiting high school students to consider what it might look like for them to stay active in their religion. We had provided a transformative ecumenical experience for our campus, most especially for the dozens of college students who helped lead the program. We had provided the affiliated religion with a substantial program that served their mission. From the feedback we received, FIT had been a great success, accomplishing all the goals we had set forth.
As I’ve reflected on FIT as a program model, there were areas for growth. While we involved a handful of faculty, staff, and alumni/a in the program, we did not integrate the program into faculty and administrative culture. While we involved a handful of leaders from the affiliated religion, we did not integrate the program into the religion’s culture. We made progress in both areas. But sustaining this program model would take a much wider effort.
For colleges and universities that might consider FIT for themselves, I would raise a key area of discernment. As you have read, I chose to base this program on students, especially my student leaders. This had the desired effects of empowerment, ownership, and creativity. However, this choice came with consequences. The rest of campus culture was not integrated, though seeds were planted within faculty and administration. I have often wondered if there were more ways to integrate these other parts of campus into FIT, whether in the planning, implementation, or evaluation phases.
I have also wondered if FIT could be a model for colleges and universities that are not affiliated with a religion. I think the answer is yes, and already happens to some degree with religious organizations that have existent, integrated ties with the college or university. FIT could easily be adapted for interfaith and intercultural purposes.
The Rev. Daniel Kidder-McQuown serves as Board Certified Chaplain (APC) with Trinity Health Ann Arbor, Michigan. He can be reached at [email protected].