St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary use words.” A few generations later, John Lennon explained that “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” I believe that somewhere between these two famous men is the concept of academic ministry.
I’ve been defining and refining this concept in my own life and work for over five years now, since I started my working life as a Records Office Assistant. My daily tasks primarily included transcript evaluations, printing transcripts, recording grades, directing foot traffic, and processing add/drop paperwork. I met with almost every student, faculty, and staff member from campus, as well as prospective students and alumni who needed paperwork completed or had wandered into the wrong area of Egtvedt. I loved the variety of questions, tasks, and people to work with. What I didn’t love was that all of these interactions were often 5 minutes or less, and that my role was primary to make some predetermined goal take place, not to enter into conversation about the purpose and implications of that goal. And there were many times, especially during the quiet summer months, that I was quite bored. During the slow times, when all of the grad checks, transcript requests, and evaluations were completed, I would work on archive transcripts. Oh yes, my free time project was doing data entry for students who had attended the college more than 30 years prior. To keep myself relatively sane, I looked at these transcripts in the same way that I had once looked at a blank page in a coloring book: it was not truly “alive” until it was complete. As a child, I had to be careful with my color decisions because whatever character or creature I was coloring would be that shade of blue forever. And now I had a duty to Joe Student to enter his grades correctly because that made his history real and forever.
If you’ve read this far then you may be wondering what archive transcripts and data entry has to do with ministry. My proposal is that academic ministry is what happens thru the paperwork, through the data. For four years I’ve served as an Academic Counselor to a rich variety of students. Some have been open about their goals for their education, shared about their families, and been friendly during interactions no matter how significant or trivial. Others have mentioned tuition costs in every email, questioned the ethics of the staff, or coyly mentioned a friend in the legal field. They all worked with me because they wanted to graduate, and my role with paperwork was what got them there. These students contacted me for a task oriented purpose, but I believe we can offer them so much more.
For example, in one of my cohorts there were a husband and wife who came in for degree planning. They took turns with one in the car while the other came into my office (if I had realized the arrangement at the time I would have suggested a more air-conditioned option, but hindsight is 20/20). I met with the wife second, I believe, talked through her course needs, which were minimal, asked about her experience so far, and chatted a bit about her work. The conversation was not too memorable and we made plans for how she would be able to graduate on time. All was set, done, and happy to move forward.
Over a year later I learned from classmates and current instructor that this student’s mother had died while she was in class. I was invited to the funeral, as was the rest of the class, a week later. I had to go. There really was no question, because if there was I would have found a pathetic, but acceptable, excuse not to drive 40 minutes for a funeral on a Saturday afternoon while family was in town. But I had to go; I just didn’t know why yet.
The why became clear at the end of the service, as the attendees stood in a circle for the benediction. I had been listening to stories for over an hour about a good woman who was truly loved by family and will be missed. And now for the first time I was standing next to my student, who noticed me there for the first time. In her eyes was complete shock. I had not RSVP’d or anything for this event, and the invitation was general not just to me, so she stared at me for about 10 seconds with confusion slowly shifting to appreciation. In that moment, and for the rest of the benediction as she hugged me, I was not Meg, I was not her Academic Counselor; I was her school embracing her.
A few weeks later she sent me a card, “I remember when you mentioned to our cohort about some student thinks you a ‘stalker.’ Hahaha. I really don’t mind that now especially not that I know how passionate you are with the students you adviser. Thank you so much for being there for me and my family.”
I share this story for the same reason that I share about entering archive transcripts. I came to know this student through the paperwork, through the data that can get so boring and so tedious. But without that paperwork, this student would have never walked into my office; I would never have had the beginning of a connection to serve her later through. Once upon a time those transcripts gave me connections too; brief ones to history and to the potential future. And the classroom is the same balance of required attendance, reading, and assignments which leads to discussion, enlightenment, and hopefully transformation. We as humans have goals, such as to earn a degree and get a better paying job, and those wants help us to get to our true needs, like to connect with another human and find more meaning to life than just a paycheck.
Academic ministry is preaching the gospel through the planning of a life.