Housing and Residence Life programs at colleges and universities across the nation rely heavily on students to fill Resident Advisor and other peer leadership roles. At smaller institutions, this is especially important where multiple and (usually) smaller living units exist along with fewer professional housing staff. Like many small, private schools, Pfeiffer University is a faith-based institution associated with a denominational church. The institution has 11 residence halls that house just over 500 students. With that many living units and only 2 full-time, live-on residence life staff members, quality peer leadership is especially important.
Along with its 20 Resident Assistants and 11 Resident Directors, the institution has introduced a Peer Chaplain program that compliments its church-related mission emphasis and adds value to the living environment. Each residence hall is assigned a Peer Chaplain or ”PC” who is incorporated into the overall residential program through cooperative programming, mutual staff training, and building meetings. Not only is this program unique to Methodist-affiliated institutions, it is the only one of its kind in the nation.
In general, the Peer Chaplains are tasked with establishing personal relationships with all the residents of their assigned building, developing spiritual life opportunities such as fellowship events, small group Bible studies, etc. and interacting with students across the spectrum of belief systems, ethnicity, background. They are required to keep a weekly journal, attend regular group meetings, and be available and assessable to the students within their area of assignment. Additionally, they must complete all required training and are expected to commit an average of ten hours a week to their roles.
As stated, the Peer Chaplains participate in joint training opportunities with the Residence Life staff prior to the Fall Semester covering such topics as programming, leadership skills and ethics, and peer communication strategies. The Peer Chaplain and Residence Life staffs also spend time in full group team building in order to build cohesion between the two staffs. As the Fall training schedules progresses, they spend time together in their residential communities planning programs and establishing their organizational values specific to their residential community. In relation to their roles, the Peer Chaplains are also trained in peer counseling, supportive communication strategies, various forms of peer evangelism/outreach, and developing their own personal vision for their role.
Initial reports are that the Peer Chaplains find the experience incredibly rewarding. One student reported, “In thinking about these past months, as a peer chaplain, my mind has filled with innumerable joys and sorrows, failures and successes, but more than anything, I think I am amazed at how much I have learned and how I have grown”. Another peer chaplain revealed the powerful impact of their role when they wrote in a journal entry, “I have learned that faith gives way to joy, and I believe that joy could conquer the world”.
The Residence Life staff is appreciative of the work of their fellow peer leaders. One residence life staff member captured a common sentiment when describing what PC’s brought to their living environment. “The Peer Chaplains help us build community in the residence halls. They provide nice touches like make candy baskets for each resident in my hall. My PC made it a practice to open hall meetings with a prayer”.
The Minister to the University, Reverend Chris Hughes, coordinates the Peer Chaplain program. “Peer Chaplains work in complement with the peer residence life staff and with the full range of student-led ministries on campus. Their mission is to go where people are and love them there, not waiting for people to come to programs or conventionally religious gatherings. Perhaps their greatest contribution is the increasing openness to the Gospel by a population wary of institutional religion and hypocritical witnesses.”
Submitted by Dr. Bill Faulkner, Vice President and Dean of Student Development, Pfeiffer University