Over the last week or so I’ve been sharing guest posts from a number of different people about their experiences of university Christian Unions. You can read the previous posts HERE. Today is H’s story.
Though from an evangelical background, I arrived at university with fairly harsh preconceptions of Christian Unions – my older brother had been a Christian Union college rep and ended up losing his faith at the same time. When he did he also lost pretty much all his Christian friends. So I was cross with them.
When I arrived, however, I met some nice people in the Christian Union, I really wanted to do well at the whole ‘being an evangelical Christian’ thing, and I decided that maybe it was better to join and help from the inside rather than complain about something that I had never been part of. So I threw myself into my C.U pretty enthusiastically. I attended a conservative evangelical church in my university city that was one of their recommended options, and I regularly attended all the meetings. I attended a collegiate university, and so I had a college C.U as well as the main university C.U. The college C.Us ran basically independently of the main one – there was very little control over how we did things, so long as we had a meeting once a week that involved Bible study and aimed to put on some kind of event once a term where people would hear the gospel. Fortunately for me, I was in a more ‘open’ college C.U that had good relationships with the chaplain of the college and worked hard to maintain interdenominational, ecumenical friendships with students in chapel – my college rep when I first arrived largely ignored any prescriptions from the executive committee about college group content, and also ignored the executive committee position that Christian Unions should keep their distance from the college chaplain’s work. The independence of individual college groups just so happened to work in my favour, but, in retrospect, I also appreciate that this meant different students in CU had wildly different experiences, depending on where they lived.
I was asked to be my college CU rep mid-way through my first year, and gladly accepted. For one thing, I wanted to make my college group much less of a ‘boys’ club’ (I was often the only female student who attended) and I was also excited to learn more about leading small groups, organising events, and understanding the barriers my fellow students had when it came to the gospel. I threw myself into it wholeheartedly, which was no small commitment – each week our Christian Union had 5 early morning prayer meetings, college group, bible study training for college group, the whole university CU meeting, and an evangelistic talk – this was before you added on any additional outreach you were doing in college. I went to pretty much everything, which left very little time for actually socialising with my non-Christian friends. I was particularly committed to attending the prayer meetings, and really valued the experience of praying with other Christians every day – though I didn’t like feeling as though I had to have some kind of evangelistic story to share every time, nor did I enjoy being questioned by my peers about my personal spiritual life.
The power held by my Christian Union’s executive committee made me uncomfortable: these were students who were only a year older than me, and very few of them had formally studied any theology, but they would sometimes behave as though they were in a position to hand out unsolicited spiritual/theological/life advice because they led the Christian Union. This was particularly the case with the male leaders.
Mid-way through my time as CU rep, I began to feel less and less comfortable with the way things were run in the CU. This was triggered by a few things:
- My male co-rep in my college was invited to be on the executive committee as Prayer Secretary, despite almost never having attended the Morning Prayer meetings. The reason given to me was that he was a theology student. His predecessor had studied maths. Despite my heavy commitment to the CU, I was not invited to take on any formal leadership role. I was told that they thought I would be of better service in ‘other ways’. I suspect this was partly sexism in not wanting a woman to head up prayer meetings, and partly a level of discomfort with my attitude of occasionally challenging the way things were done.
- The executive committee overruled my choice of successor for the position of college rep. I wanted us to have one male leader and one female leader, which is the norm for college groups. One of my female friends faithfully attended college group, regularly prayed with me and helped with our college events, and also attended the chapel as she was in the choir. I thought this last point was a bonus – it was a wonderful bridge building opportunity – but the fact she didn’t attend an ‘approved’ church meant her leadership was refused by the executive committee. There was no one else suitable to ask, and so we ended up having no female leader, leaving the burden of running college group up to one male student. They even suggested I ask another guy who was in college group but rarely attended, rather than allowing my chapel-going female friend to lead.
- I only ever remember there being one female speaker (at an evangelistic talk) during my entire time in the CU – and that was when the topic was ‘Is the church sexist?’ There were certainly never any female speakers at C.U meetings or during the main mission week.
- During my 3rd year at university (the year following my time as college rep) I became extremely unwell physically, and this triggered a depression relapse. I had to stop attending CU meetings because I was not well enough. This went on for months, and I was barely able to complete the year. Despite the many (!) hours I had previously spent in their company, not one of my fellow CU students outside my college reached out to see how I was doing.
This highlights a very real problem with the CU model: the level of time/emotion/energy commitment required of students often goes way beyond the kind of commitment even asked of church members, but CUs don’t have the pastoral training or capacity to back this up, since they’re led by students. I remember once talking to a CU friend about my depression and illness and how much I didn’t want to even be alive anymore, and his response was ‘at least you know God is being glorified in all this’.
We never had any gender segregated/stereotyped events at my university, but the ‘CU approved’ churches often did, and this fed back into the atmosphere of the CU. I felt remarkably out of place just for not being a flowery-skirt-wearing girl and showing up to events in trackies and a hoody.
I still have a few good friends I met while in my CU, and on the whole I believe that the students involved are well-meaning, caring, passionate, people – but they are also basically teenagers, who will inevitably make immature decisions. The ‘adults’ that UCCF pair up with Christian Unions are also often barely out of university themselves – several of my CU friends went straight from leading our CU to supporting a CU at another university after they graduated. This is, in my mind, a big part of the problem.