After ten years of Christian college ministry, I operate in semesters. My year starts in August, breaks for Christmas, relaunches in January, and finishes in May with caps and gowns. There’s a lot that happens in between each segment, but the rhythm is palpable.
One unique element of college ministry is the breaks. For faculty and staff, breaks can mean many things: power-packed winter courses, time for projects, quiet sidewalks and hallways, next-semester planning. For students and student leaders, breaks hold similar opportunities and challenges: revisiting families (healthy and broken), seasonal jobs, financial wonderings, old temptations, new opportunities, unstructured schedules, brief mission trips, rest and relaxation.
A few weeks back, our staff talked about how to love and care for our students through the break. I’ll share some of those principles and dynamics for the remainder of this week. I trust they’ll bear some degree of relevance for anyone who longs to love well and wisely.
Consider the phrase “seasonal love.” It could have two very different meanings. “Seasonal love” could mean “love expressed at one time but not others.” Or it could mean “love expressed according to the season.” The first meaning implies inconsistency — “I love you at some times but not others.” But the second meaning implies awareness, sensitivity, love with contours and nuances — “I love you all the time but with different expressions based on different times, needs, and circumstances.”
This second meaning of “seasonal love” is essential for full-orbed interpersonal ministry. Consider a long-term friendship. How have you loved each other? You’ve supported each other through physical injuries or medical uncertainty or chronic pain. You’ve corrected each other, and asked and received forgiveness. You’ve given and received counsel. You’ve offered tangible help and you’ve been given tangible help. You’ve laughed and rejoiced together, and you’ve wept and endured burdens together. You’ve seen different seasons come and go, and you’ve expressed love and support in unique ways through each of them.
One of the challenges of college life is the inconsistency and diversity of the seasons. Your year starts in August or September. You have 3½ months of intense academic work, a part-time job, a local church, a quilted-together schedule, lots of scriptural input, all in a community where you’re surrounded by believers of the same age (and same gender in the dorms). There are different mini-seasons within these 3½ months, but they come and go quickly, and the semester closes with a grueling march toward Finals Week. Then you have these lengthy intermissions — winter break and summer break. Your life can change drastically. Your academic responsibilities are jammed into voluntary week-long sessions. You have to find a new job or go back to an old job. You visit home and deal with the blessings and challenges of long-standing family relationships — happy memories, refreshing traditions, trusted relationships; along with old patterns, scarred relationships, brewing conflicts, and needed conversations.
What does all of this mean for the professor, staff member, college pastor, old youth worker, or local church family wanting to minister to college students? We want to match the diverse seasons of college life with equally diverse expressions of love that suit each season, and we want to meet the inconsistency of college life with a contrastingly consistent love that holds true through each season.
In the days to come, as winter break arrives for myriads of college students around the country, I’ll share ten reflections on how to care for college students through the breaks.