If you are a campus minister you are probably in a weird place right now. You are experiencing the great detoxification of moving from a pace that was filled with 16-18 weeks of chaos, challenging if not impossible planning scenarios, trying to alleviate the feelings of exasperation and frustration in your students, and more! In my years of college ministry I can definitely say I have never experienced a semester such as this past fall!
Your spirit has probably experienced more stress than even usual! The added impact of keeping safe, attempting to create relational community in an environment that constantly screams “stop!”, the attempts to balance the “mask-up” factor against everyone’s opinions, the anxiety of worrying every time your students got together, trying to figure out how to utilize social media and live-streaming without overloading the Zoom Fatigue factor - all of these put some massive wear and tear on you.
And then. Everyone goes home for the holiday break (or most everyone!). It can be quite a transition to make. I know I have experienced it. Every. Single. Semester.
So here are a few lessons I have learned that I want to share with each of you. Maybe you can share some things that will help me as well.
Going from 4th to 1st Gear is NOT bad, it’s just hard on the transmission. That’s how I describe the mental shift that happens in the course of probably 3-4 days during Final Exams. I go from “go, go, go, go” to almost nothing. It can be very disorienting! I experience a feeling of not doing the things I am supposed to. It’s like I am not doing the things my ministry calling and job description say I should be accomplishing. I walk around the University Center trying to figure out what to do and where to be. I start visiting with students and realize they are probably just waiting for me to stop talking and leave so they can get back to studying for finals or finishing a project.
The college students will literally go from an all-in ministry participation level to a singular-minded existence of getting through exams and going home. It’s like going through a severe unilateral breakup with someone who has dropped you cold.
And you feel guilty but also relieved and maybe excited! Part of me can’t wait to see them go - and part of me feels cast aside as they turn their eyes and life away from our ministry and into a holiday break (that is much deserved and looked forward to by all). I’ve learned that this is NORMAL in a campus ministry routine. It is the seasonal part of the journey. But it can be nerve-wracking!
Be Careful to Stay Out of Neutral. It’s okay to be idle during the break. It’s okay to be in first gear. Your body, your spirit, and your family need it and deserve it. The temptation, however, is to allow yourself to kick into a neutral state and become absent of the momentum of leadership that you need. Feelings of “i deserve this” or “I am going to self-indulge at an extreme level” can be very intoxicating.
One of the visuals that helps me is asking myself “how far has the pendulum swung?” in my gear level upwards? I have to watch out to make sure I don’t allow the pendulum to swing all the way to the other side. It is better, for me, to keep the pendulum closer to the middle ground during a holiday break. I try to stay out of neutral - but let myself idle.
Something that has become very helpful to me in staying out of neutral is to set some smaller ministry goals in our campus ministry that help me engage our students while also respecting the lower level of intensity.
A simple approach that I try to use during the holiday break is something I mentally call “1-2-3”. Each day of the week (our holiday break is typically 4-5 weeks long - COVID has altered that this year. I give myself to a focus in which:
I check on ONE student in Stillwater (still in town during the holiday break). Arrange to eat lunch, go to their workplace (many are working in town), Jenny and I might take a dessert to their place (apartment ,etc), or try to read through a short Biblical letter together.
TWO members of our congregation / alumni / someone who supports the UC. This is a good chance to say thank you to our families and supporters and let them know how much I appreciate the ways we share together in this ministry. It also helps me remember that I am part of a greater vision in which I am only a part of God’s Body! I try to write a letter or an email that is personal and an exercise in expressing thankfulness to my Christian family. I write to my elders and my deacons to let them know how much I value them. These are not short expressions. Sometimes they can fill a page. It is a great way to show value and shared vision to those we work with each day.
THREE students who are home / away / not in Stilly. I try to check in on our students who are home. I will share youtube videos or reading links and invite them to engage in discussion with me. I ask how they are doing? What can I pray for? What is family life like? I will try to spend ½ an hour on the phone with them just hearing how the break is going.
A second area that I focus on is study and preparation. I have learned that if I utilize this quieter down-time to prepare now for classes, small groups and lessons, it gives me the ability to re engage building relationships when students return in January. I try to keep a discipline of two days each week just reading, studying and mapping out lessons and theological focuses. Sometimes I never use them in the coming Spring because they don’t fit well. But I have learned that time spent in God’s Word during the break is a huge blessing to rebuilding and refilling my tank. Which leads me to...
Maintenancing the Vehicle. Whether it is a cliche or not, New Year’s resolutions are a good thing. The holiday break is a good time to do some self ministry. Now is the time to renew and reset. My body and spirit need it.
Reconnect with my spouse and family. Setting intentional time to reconnect with my wife and children has become more and more important as we have grown older. We have a “12 days of Christmas Board Games” thing where we turn off the TV and social media and play good old-fashioned board and card games. It is kind of hard on all of us. We are used to getting by and we realize how much time we have been “together but separate” because of our cell phones and habits. Lots of healthy talks and connections happen because my wife is smart and calls us to this time together.
Reconnect with Rest. It is tempting to stay up late, catch up on my NetFlix stuff and become very sleep deprived. Campus Ministry does not always allow you to go to bed early. Take full advantage of this window and go to bed early. Put your phone and tablet in the other room. Grab a book on Plato or something that puts you to sleep (ha!) quickly.
Reconnect with God’s creation and God’s Spirit. To me, these go hand in hand. Taking a drive to a state park during the holiday break can be wonderful. Although I like to hunt and fish, just being in creation alone with God can be a time when I can get my thoughts cleared and devote real time in prayer with God. I try to spend time listening to Him. Being aware of the vastness of the cosmos. Being outside on a cold December starry night can be awesome and refreshing!
Well, that got a little bit longer than I initially intended it to be. Probably like many of my lessons and sermons (but still not as long as a Ben Brinkerhoff lesson). I hope it blesses you over the holiday season. Please share anything that you find helpful as well! I would greatly appreciate comparing and hearing your experiences and thoughts as well.