During the summer after my sophomore year in college, I interviewed for the position of Assistant Resident Advisor (ARA) with the goal of working in the residence halls. Near the end of the interview, one member of the search committee said to me, “We need you to know that you’re not allowed to use this position to try to convert others to Christianity.”
I was flabbergasted – not because of the directive itself, but rather, because of the assumption underlying it.
I hadn’t mentioned my Christian faith during the interview, I hadn’t worn any clothing or jewelry that reflected or symbolized my faith, and I hadn’t taken my Bible to the interview. To my knowledge, the only indication of my Christian faith was a short line on my resume that would have looked something like this:
“Executive Team Member, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship”
The truth is that I had applied for the ARA position because I needed a way to help finance my college education. There were no other underlying motives for doing so.
In response to the search committee member’s statement, I simply shook my head to indicate that I understood. Not long after that, I excitedly accepted the position as an ARA for the upcoming fall semester.
At the time, I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to want to serve well in the role of a university employee while also wanting to share with others about how Jesus can radically change someone’s life for the better. And, clearly, some Christian students who had worked in the residence halls before me had not set a great example of how to manage both of those desires. In their zeal to share about their Christian faith, it was likely that there had been instances when they had inappropriately used their status as employees of the university to do so.
I didn’t think about this occurrence again until early in my faculty career when several housing professionals asked me questions about how some of the Christian resident advisors and desk assistants in the residence halls were expressing their faith. It was then that I started to explore whether or not those of us who are employees at public universities can talk to students about our Christian faith while at work.
In a previous post, I shared some basic information about the First Amendment provisions related to religious expression. That information forms the foundation for this post, and I encourage readers to review it first.
Even if they have a basic knowledge of the First Amendment, though, many Christians who work in public higher education still have questions about when they may talk to students about their Christian faith.
There are a couple of overarching questions that we should always ask ourselves before engaging in discussions about our Christian faith with students:
- Do students really want to hear about my Christian faith?
First, do they truly want to hear about it? How do you know? If you are positive that a student wants to hear about it (e.g., that student explicitly asked you about it), you are free to share as much or as little as you want – even if you are actively engaged in your university work (e.g., teaching a class, leading a staff meeting, or performing another job duty).
More often than not, though, we encounter situations in which we need to discern whether or not the student truly wants to hear about our Christian faith. If the student has said or done anything that suggests that s/he might want to hear more, we can simply and directly ask them if they do.
As employees of state-funded colleges or universities, we must be certain that we are not allowing our positional power (i.e., the authority we have due to our employee status) to lead students to feel obligated to hear us speak about our faith. In other words, are they acting interested in hearing about our Christian faith because they think they need to listen to us due to the fact that we are their supervisors and/or professors? If so, we should probably choose not to talk about it at that time.
- Do students have the freedom to end the discussion (or to choose not to listen) about my Christian faith without suffering adverse consequences for doing so?
In higher education law, the phrase “captive audience” is frequently used to refer to situations in which students are not free to leave a situation without suffering adverse consequences for doing so.
For instance, formal instructional time in classrooms is typically viewed as a setting in which students would be viewed as a captive audience, because their grades would likely suffer to some extent if they were not in class. Other meetings or activities that we plan that are mandatory for students (e.g., mandatory staff meetings and trainings) would be viewed similarly; students would likely not be free to abstain from attending such events without suffering some form of adverse consequence.
We should be cautious about initiating discussions about our Christian faith with students in situations wherein they could be viewed as a captive audience unless that discussion directly relates to the content and/or purpose of the class, meeting, or other activity.
For instance, students, faculty, and staff regularly talk about various social identities (e.g., race, gender) in discussions of diversity and inclusion on campus. Religion is also a dimension of social identity. When we find ourselves having conversations with students about diversity and inclusion, then, the setting is very appropriate for us to contribute by talking about our own religious beliefs if it seems natural to do so.
So, may we talk to students about our Christian faith while at work? It depends on the answer to the aforementioned questions.
If in a given situation the answer to either of the above two questions is “no,” we should probably not engage in a discussion at that time.
If, however, the answer to both of the above two questions is “yes,” we have the right to move forward with such a discussion. It is important to remember, though, that we should do so with sensitivity – always paying attention to how the student is experiencing the conversation.
When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples, He told them to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16b).
Wise and harmless.
Let’s follow that guidance as we make decisions about when to talk to students about our Christian faith while at work.