Lessons Learned: Implications for Christian Higher Education

Our experience at Lee University holds a number of lessons for others seeking to implement service-learning programs in Christian higher education. One of the reasons faculty resisted community-engaged learning in the early years of such programs is that venturing outside the confines of the classroom allows for high degrees of unpredictability. Professors can never control all of the variables within a community-learning context. This potential for the unexpected is amplified with campus-wide programs that require all students, regardless of their emotional or academic preparation, to venture into the unknown and the uncontrollable. Service-learning does, in fact, require a significant amount of planning, preparation, and follow-up. In a Christian college context, this responsibility is usually placed on top of heavy teaching loads and limited time for research. Therefore, faculty workloads are a significant concern when establishing community-engagement on a Christian campus. Community engagement also requires practitioners to maintain a balance between specific expectations and creative mid-course correction because some of the most profound learning takes place through experiences that were unplanned or failed to go according to plan. While students are amid the grit and chaos of community-engaged learning, the mentoring community must remain alert and caring in regard to offering academic, programmatic, and interpersonal support. These are areas of particular strength on faith-based campuses.

Another caution for implementing community engagement on a faithbased campus is the shift in authority that takes place as students’ faith develops. While attempting to move students to a place of confidence in their own faith positions, faculty and administrators must be careful not to replace the authoritative voice of parents and church with their own authoritative voices. Engaged teaching should lead to reliance on the inner authority of a mature faith. Because of the social and theological context of many students in Christian higher education, the tensions discussed in this paper are iterative. They are not tensions to be resolved once and for all; although they can be eased through assessment, understanding, and adaptation, these tensions are an ever-present element of the service-learning program. Just as the service itself is continually unpredictable, new generations of students arrive with ever-changing, complex contextual structures that inform their faith journeys and service-learning experiences, as well as the ways the program continues to self-correct.

Ultimately, the experience of community-engaged learning is imperfect, and it is sometimes from this imperfection that high-quality learning emerges. Streamlined, hand-held service experiences arc not what transform student commitments from “probing” to “tested,” nor can chaos-free service-learning help students move from “fragile inner dependence” to a place of personal confidence. Faith-based institutions have the responsibility of equipping students with the kind of knowledge that will address the de-facto complications of the service-learning experience, and in many ways, faith-based institutions are specifically prepared to do so. The mentoring community is essential in providing healthy development, and Christian higher education is uniquely prepared to provide this deep engagement. In this way, institutions of Christian higher education can successfully mentor students through their developmental journeys even as they model faithful service to the world.

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