This has been much on my mind lately. My oldest child will soon be on her way to the hallowed halls of higher learning. A wealth of academic opportunities await. And as her father (and pastor) I want only the best for her. But how do I make sure that college will be a good thing, not a bad one.
The first consideration when choosing a college *MUST* be “Will my loved one be able to receive proper spiritual care.” “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul.” And the stark truth is that the amazing times your child had in youth group will not be able to sustain them in the faith if they are constantly attacked for their faith for four years and have no support from the church. The best case scenario is that they learn they don’t need the church to survive. Worst case (and oh the stories regretful parents could tell) is that they come out of college completely rejecting their baptism. All the great job offers in the world, all the sports glory you can imagine, will not make up for this. As a parent, a lifetime of regret awaits you is you forget your child’s spiritual well being when they go to college. You do not want to carry this burden.
So, please, please, please, contact your pastor before you begin the college search. He can help find schools that have proper pastoral care for college students in the area. And he can direct you to area parishes or campus ministries for specific details about the school itself. If he doesn’t know, the synod has an office just to support and aid Campus Ministry. He can find out what resources are available at a given school.
Now that you have a few names of active campus ministries you will want to find out which schools offer the program your child wants. Why wait to do this until you have the names of local pastors? Because if you contact the colleges first, they will inundate you with promotional materials about how amazing it is there, how much aid they can absolutely guaranteed to give you (hah-hah!), how they have exactly the program your child needs, etc. You will be very excited. And then if you find out that there is really no spiritual support, you will be tempted to consider it anyway. Don’t be fooled! The proper order is: Pastoral support, THEN educational opportunities. Another reason to find/contact a local campus ministry first is that you can find out any danger spots in the curriculum. For example, one of our local schools is well known as having a militant atheist as the head of the theatre program. Of course, we expect that a public college would not have an explicitly Christian theatre program. But in this case, students have struggled even when only minimally involved. Arriving bright eyed and bushy tailed to college, only to learn later that you are not welcome in the program because of your faith would be a tough learning experience. Your local campus ministry can help avoid problems like that.
So, what do you look for in a campus ministry? Most importantly – make sure the local pastor is faithful in his teaching and practice. Do they use the hymnal for their services? (This is a deal breaker. Not-a-Lutheran-Hymnal means Not-a-Lutheran-Parish.) Is the preaching and life of the parish actually Lutheran? (Does it teach the faith according to scripture, are Law and Gospel divided properly, etc.) If you aren’t certain, ask your pastor. Is it crazy to evaluate the teaching of the local pastor before picking a college? You will probably sit in on classes to evaluate the professors. And which is more important – “Ancient Sumerian Underwater Basketweaving” or “Not being led astray by False Doctrine”? One of best practical checks for faithfulness these days is “Do they faithfully practice Closed Communion?” Sadly, too many parishes don’t. You’ll want to make sure that pastors are faithful in all aspects of their teaching. And Closed communion is often one of the first things to go when faithfulness becomes optional. A pastor that does not practice closed communion either does not believe in the Real Presence, or he does not believe in sin. Those are both important. You don’t want years of faithful instruction undone when your child is away.
So, you’ve found a faithful parish. How do you know if it’s an active campus ministry with lots of programs, or if it’s mostly inactive? The truth is, not all campus ministries are full time endeavors. Smaller schools, or areas with smaller Lutheran populations, will likely have a joint parish-campus ministry (Called Town & Gown). There may be only one pastor who serves both. This means that he may not have all the latest up to date information on the school. But he should know a few students. There should be transportation available to church on Sunday mornings. A 24 hour campus center with lots of activities is not required, but there should be some opportunities for college students to come to church and participate in the life of the parish. And if the pastor says that they don’t have any of those things, but will arrange transport for your budding scholar? If he is faithful, take him at his word. And feel free to check in with him as you move through the process to see how those arrangements are going. (Trust, but remind. Even faithful pastors forget things.)
You might have hoped that I would have solutions for funding, travel, housing, etc. Those usually take care of themselves. But a faithful pastor does not just happen. It takes the conscious efforts of all involved. And a faithful campus ministry doesn’t just grow because you wish it did. It takes long term investment of time and money. And if it is not there, then you need to pass that school over for one that meets all your needs. Every school can feed your kid, provide a bed for housing, offer laundry facilities. Every school can teach him things he didn’t know before. But not every school has a local parish where the sheep of God will be tended and cared for. And no matter what you are doing, that is the number one thing to look for.
Make your child’s college experience one you will both look back on fondly, rather than one that they will treasure, but you will regret. Church is too important to leave to chance. And our children’s salvation is just too precious to risk.