Chaplaincy in a Residential College

June 01, 2016

Chaplaincy in a Residential College

Emma and I (and our two kids) live our lives in quite a small compass. Our home is ‘D-Flat’, a horse-shoe arrangement of student bedrooms knocked together that makes up the ground floor of one of the wings of Robert Menzies College. When my foot touches down beside the bed in the morning, I’m already surrounded by work, and I’ll most likely not need to travel more than a few hundred metres from that spot throughout the day. Our work is to share our lives with university students. We are public Christians seeking to give a compelling testimony to the gospel in our diverse and close-knit community. It’s a weird and beautiful thing.

Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne, reflecting on the ministry at the University of NSW write,

The ministry with residential students is vastly more effective than the commuter work. What we would not give for a campus environment like that of many American colleges, in which the majority of the students are residential! A residential student is fully committed to university life. You can get them at breakfast, at supper, on weekends, even at 2:00 a.m.! [1]

I’m not sure I’m around at 2am, but it’s not unusual for me, when mentoring a young Christian who shows ministry and leadership potential, to be reading the Bible and praying with him one-to-one during the week, then letting him see our family function as we eat together with the students in the College dining room or play soccer with the kids in the quad, then be leading Bible study together, then preaching to him at church. I’m able to observe him in relationship with others and all this is interspersed with casual conversations as we run into each other around the College. This produces students who are growing rapidly in Christian maturity, who are committed to university life, and are well equipped to lead in broader campus Christian ministry and ultimately in church.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the lounge room of a house in Leura with twelve uni students and the Dean of the College. We were on a pre-uni leadership training retreat for the student leaders of the College (we call them Resident Tutors or RTs). Four of these RTs are committed Christians who work with me in the ministry to the College. The other eight hold a diverse mixture of non-Christian beliefs, questions, and experiences. My role over the course of the three days away together was to present the gospel and its implications for our lives together in community. We talked about God’s creation of us as people who are designed for community—how humans are made to get entangled in each others’ lives. We shared our experiences of the times that our community has been marked by failures to care or worse, deep abuse of each other and ourselves—living together means we see each others’ dark places. We talked about the value of education in a world of intricate beauty and interdependence. We agreed on the need we share for leadership and discipline. And out of this I was able to speak of the common vision for a flourishing community that we all share, and of the Christian conviction that we are unable to achieve this through education or leadership or discipline alone. We need conversion: people whose basic desires and goals in life have been transformed by Jesus’ sacrifice for us so that following Jesus has become the centre of life.

University residential colleges in Australia can be a whole range of things—terrifying anarchistic lord-of-the-flies drunken mayhem; soulless dormitories; elite old-boys’ clubs—but at their best colleges can be microcosms and models of the kinds of conversations that Christians want to have with the broader University community and our world. In our fragmented societies, where increasingly we stick to our ethnic and economic tribes, Christians often find themselves only really ever in deep conversations with each other. It’s perfectly understandable that we are clumpish. It’s often hard, uncomfortable work, to live check by jowl with people whose life-choices you find foolish or tragic, and who regard you as somewhere on a spectrum from benignly idiotic through to malignantly oppressive. But give it time, and living in community produces opportunities for the gospel to shine in deeply integrated words and actions. It provides young Christians with unique opportunities to know and love the people around them for whom Christ died, and to grow in their ability to serve God’s mission. This year roughly three-hundred students will live together in Robert Menzies College from more than thirty different nations. We have Muslim students, Buddhists, Hindus, apathetic Aussies—all sharing tables, bathrooms, corridors. But all gathered in a place that is explicitly Christian, run by a Christian residential staff who are joined by Christian students who regularly pray together, study the Bible together, go to church together, and all see this College as an extension of Christian hospitality and an opportunity to invite people into God's eternal family. You can see why it's an exhilarating place to live.

[1] Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. ‘Church/Campus Connections’. Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns (Zondervan, 2000), pp196f.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.