“The actual is more real than the ideal.” – [NOT Plato]
At Agape San Diego we strive for students to experience, flourish in, and spread beloved communities wherever they go. We are discovering faith as radical trust and openness, not only organizing to change the world, but embracing change as individuals and as an organization. We receive each student as a leader who, with communal listening and discernment, reshapes our life together and supports others to grow and discover vocation as a call to create vital community.
Situated in a crossroads of human growth and sociocultural conflicts, ministries serving contexts of higher education are typically small organizations, but our opportunities and challenges can be more complex and far-reaching than much larger organizations. Campus ministries are similar to a perpetual mission start, where evolution is a continual priority, for individuals, sub-communities, and the organization.
Young adult development requires spontaneous and time-intensive attention to complex personal and communal crises; continually changing funding patterns and economic conditions require ongoing adaptation; and cultural distance can generate conflict with affiliate/partner organizations. How does a leader or body of leaders navigate, balance and bridge these complex, competing demands to sustain vital, responsive and creative ministry? As is increasingly obvious in the wider church, if a community is not evolving, it is dying.
“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger
than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” – Kung Fu Tzu
To propagate the world-transforming viral DNA of Jesus Christ, we interpret Christ in the broadest possible sense, as an ecumenical and interfaith collective. For us, Christ is an icon for the whole evolving universe, not exclusive to Christians. The body-of-Christ-virus is a living, intentionally provocative, image that is as dynamic and complex as humans and cultures. This reality is challenging to map because it is continually adapting to new situations and evolving into new incarnations. So with this much complexity, how do we keep our wits and serve with intention, more than merely react to whatever happens in the moment?
In its most vibrant and vital moments, campus ministry may be less like managing an institution and more like riding a whirlwind; yet, it is possible to make a complex, changing ministry intelligible—for our own sanity as much as anything fruitful. Integral approach is a shift from the spiritual life as merely one aspect of a person’s life or of a community to an integrated, dynamic vision that holds the pieces of life into a living, evolving whole. So how do we see more holistically and more organically – a four-dimensional map of life in community?
2-D – Techniques: Many ministries work with a static, two-dimensional model, where programs are more manageable than the complexities and chaos of humans and communities. As institutions crumble, financial pressures move grantors to funding one-off projects, squandering staff time chasing small, non-renewing grants. Because it forms attachments to fixed activities, this approach only allows for first-order, technical change, which means one is forced by perpetually partial (or disappointing) results to constantly reinvent things as one repeatedly fails to guess and anticipate socio cultural shifts, endlessly asking, “What similar things could we do a little differently to stay ‘hip’?” In that mode, one rarely catches one’s breath and likely burns out.
“Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”
3-D – Holism: Some ministries are beginning to adopt a more holistic, three-dimensional model of care for the whole person—bringing the parts of life together and balancing polarities of the personal and the communal, along with the subjective (inner) and objective (outer). Here, the organization asks itself, “What parts have we been missing that are essential to the whole?”:
This holism takes more of the overlapping dimensions of life into account; such as how can a student focus on academic work if their housing, nutrition, mental health, religion and relationships are in crisis? What if personal vocation is out of touch with community? And yet, even this cannot keep up with the variety of crises, especially for developing young adults. Holism is an essential step, yet still limited by a static, three-dimensional, idealized model of persons and cultures, which are always in overlapping processes of change and conflict.
“Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it…Christian fellowship is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”
4-D – Evolution: A scarce few ministries expand on the holistic approach with a dynamic, evolutionary approach: becoming a learning organization—that is, a community cycling through action + reflection + iteration. In trinitarian terms, we might see this as the endless cycle of creation: affirming (birth) -> denying (death) -> reconciling (resurrection). Here human growth and sociocultural evolution of the organization within a wider context are taken into account as we bring together a wide variety of perspectives, asking, “What new questions might we need to ask relevant to each stage in a person’s, community’s, society’s and culture’s life?”
The integration of many developmental disciplines reveals some apparently universal patterns of psycho-spiritual and socio-cultural growth, not in a linear way, but through overlapping, subtler layers that build on top of the more primary ones—for example, the hierarchy of human needs that pose successive challenges as each one is stabilized: biological life, physical safety, belonging, esteem, understanding, self-actualization. Moving through these existential crises in terms of personal or collective mindset, faith, or consciousness these stages look like: impulsive, self-protective, conformist, conscientious, pluralist, integral.
Each successive stage is able to take more complexity, diversity and conflict into account with a more inclusive, integrated vision. On this path of conscious evolution, people and communities increasingly embrace that they are works in progress, on a path of intentional, ongoing development. This makes it possible to be more honest, inclusive, and creative with challenges as they arise with a shared sense that everyone has some of the truth, but no one has all of it, liberating maximum courage and creativity to be and do what clearly makes sense.
There are many resources available now to support the conscious evolution of yourself and your organization, with a growing community of writers and researchers developing integral approaches across various disciplines and social locations. Here are just a few to commend:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity, 2013.
James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, 1995.
Thomas Keating, On Divine Therapy, 2012 (also available as a series of YouTube videos).
Sarah Nicholson, The Evolutionary Journey of Woman: From the Goddess to Integral Feminism, 2013.
Paul Smith, Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, 2012.
Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions, 2018.
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for resources and practices that we are applying as we expand our intentional community with a new mixed-use facility for 50 residents.