Scratching the Surface: The Necessity of Truly Knowing Our Students
In a recent episode of the podcast “This American Life,” reporter Emanuele Berry tells the story of her ongoing work to bring depth to her once splintered relationship with her father. For much of Berry’s life, that relationship lacked true depth. Their conversations, although regular, consisted of nothing more than “basketball pleasantries.”
“Did you watch that game?”
“How does the team look this year?”
“Lebron, Lebron, Lebron.”
Basketball, she says, gave them the “illusion” that they knew each other. But, in all reality, they didn’t.
There is a tragic familiarity in this anecdote found in countless relationships between children and parents, co-workers, and friends. And that familiarity can present a very real danger and hindrance in the effectiveness of our ministry with students.
This false familiarity is rarely planned, but easy to repeat each time we meet a new student. In that moment we do what most people would do. We ask the student’s name, we find that one unique fact that helps his or her name stick, and some of us come up with a nickname that feels personal-ish. Don’t get me wrong: this practice can initially be valuable when meeting a new student. I, for one, have always struggled remembering those new names. But how often does that one unique fact, that one personal interest, or that quickly created nickname become the one lasting reference that characterizes all future interactions? How quickly can all of our conversations with certain students be reduced to that comfortable cadence of:
“Did you watch the game last night?”
“How’s your team doing this year?”
These brief interactions may help pass what would otherwise be an awkward moment of silence, and they can easily fool an onlooker into believing they are observing a true relationship. But both you and this student know the truth. The reality is that there is very little trust or intimacy in this relationship. We may attempt to fill that void with references to vague teen interests, or even with church-related events, but ultimately the void still stands. And in order to fulfill the calling of a minister this reality simply cannot work. Just consider the example of the Apostle Paul.
If any pastor could have used the excuse of having too many people to keep track of, it would have been Paul. He did, after all, minister to various churches throughout the Roman world and he did so under an ever-increasing pressure from his enemies. After ministering to so many people in so many places, it would seem reasonable to find in the New Testament a spiritual sounding yet ultimately detached cadence to Paul’s letters.
There are, of course, certain patterns that evolve throughout many of his letters. Yet even within those patterns Paul avoids a shallow and detached manner. Rather, in his letters, I see the words of a man who cared deeply and personally for those under his watch. I see a man who’s ministry could be accurately compared to the care offered by a nursing mother and an exhorting Father (I Thess. 2:1-7). I see a man who daily offered prayers full of love and affection for those he called his friends and co-laborers in Christ (Philippians 1).
This was true not only for those he was able to mention by name, but also for people he had not yet met. For those who fell in the latter category, we see Paul reference their shared love of Christ. But even in those references, it is clear that Paul does not speak of Christ in the way we might speak with an unfamiliar student about a team we root for. He speaks of a shared best friend who has given both parties the reason to live. Even when writing from prison following periods of long separation, Paul writes his letters as one would speak to their closest friends. And he does so not as a gimmick, but because the people of his flock were truly his friends.
Paul related to those under his care using Christ’s love for his children as the model. A question I must continue to ask myself is whether or not I am striving to do the same. This is not always easy or comfortable. Getting past those initial “who’s your favorite team” conversations feels risky – it leaves both we and our students vulnerable as it forces us to talk about those things that truly define us. But with Jesus as a model, we can love our students freely without fearing risk.
Like Emanuele Berry on “This American Life,” we must be aware of those relationships marked by an unceasing unfamiliarity. Yes, those “who’s your team?” (or band, or author, etc.) questions are necessary and genuinely helpful in getting to know our students. But in order to experience the type of relationship Emanuele sought with her father or those relationships of which Paul so frequently wrote, we must press further and also seek out real conversations.
The conversations between Berry and her father have mercifully, over time, been taken to deeper waters. They have since discussed issues like health, family history, and mistakes made. That success ought to be an encouragement to all of us who seek deeper relationships we those we serve. As student pastors, we cannot expect every brief conversation with a student to address their deepest longings and spiritual struggles. But if we truly desire to speak to those issues, we must do the necessary work of getting to know them at a level where those longings and struggles can naturally be expressed and comfortably discussed. We must replace false familiarity with a much-needed Christ-like love.