Efforts to strengthen spiritual life underway after shrinking attendance for The Tent and SLP


Financial District, NEW YORK--Under the leadership of Vice President of Student Development Eric Bennett and Emily Collins ('14), 10 students, staff and faculty members have begun meeting to plan ways they will encourage students' spiritual life next year. An additional 10 students are expected to lead efforts within their Houses. The set of initiatives comes after a TKC survey revealed only about 50 percent of students said they regularly attend a church. Attendance at student-led Bible studies and other spiritual life activities have also seemed to decline this year. The Tent, a student organization that hosts weekly worship on campus, has shrunk from about 20 weekly attenders to a mere handful. The Spiritual Life Project, another student organization that has served as a forum for discussion of the spiritual life of the school, has also shrunk in members this year.

“There’s been a lot of talk about spiritual life and how it’s struggling this year,” Collins, president of the Spiritual Life Project, said.

Students gather in the Vogue to practice for The Tent

Bennett has set a goal to increase church attendance to 70 percent of students by May 2014. His role recently expanded to include spiritual life after a nearly year-long search for a spiritual life director to replace last year’s director, Ray East.

“If we didn’t make a decision now, we would have gone into another year searching,” Bennett said.

He believes spiritual life is important because “it’s a part of the college’s mission and it’s important to students.”

Two “task forces” of about 10 leaders each will tackle this goal. Collins will manage the first task force of 10 people. Each student, staff or faculty member will lead a different initiative. The initiatives are in the early planning stages and will develop throughout the summer in weekly meetings.

1. Mentorship for men and women

The goal is for every student who desires a mentor to be matched with one. Men will partner with the New Canaan Society, and women will, at least initially, be paired with female faculty members and wives of the male faculty.

2. Weekly Worship The Tent will likely change its name. The goal is to attract more than 100 students to worship on campus each month and for smaller groups to worship in student apartments several times a month.

3. Prayer The Spiritual Life Project has transformed into a weekly lunch prayer meeting, currently attended by about 10 students. The goal is to attract 50 people by the end of the fall semester. Last Friday, the group walked and prayed around the Financial District.

4. Bible The goal is to encourage students to think deeply about scripture and interpret it correctly. Theological discussions will be held on campus and in smaller groups, led by Dr. Dru Johnson.

5. Church Attendance

The goal (described above) is to increase attendance to at least 70 percent. A list of churches TKC students attend will be made available as well as contact information for a student representative of each church.

6. Spiritual Disciplines Disciplines such as fasting, Bible reading and prayer will be encouraged, led by Bennett.

7. Fall Retreat

A single Fall Retreat for the student body will be reintroduced and may integrate the Interregnum theme with faith. Fall Retreat was cancelled in 2012 due to budget constraints, and in 2011, was held in two locations simultaneously, splitting the student body.

8. Church Calendar Events such as advent, lent, Ash Wednesday and St. Patrick’s Day will be advertised with their histories.

9. Athletics The athletic department may hire a chaplain for the sports teams. The goal is to better integrate faith into the athletics program.

10. Community Service In line with City Engagement, the goal is to increase student participation in serving the needs of New Yorkers.

Students leading the above initiatives will meet regularly with Collins.

“I’ve realized this year that when you’re leading a spiritual life initiative, it’s really easy to feel burned out because you feel like you’re fighting this big thing alone,” Collins said. “So part of what I want to do is just give these point people support and recognition from the college.”

A member of each House will make up the second task force and meet with Bennett regularly for guidance on how to cultivate spiritual well-being in their Houses.

To hire former Spiritual Life Director Ray East, Bennett (then Dean of Students) eliminated an administrative position to pay East’s salary. Although East’s role was to encourage spiritual life, his official title did not include spiritual life but merely student development. The student development staff took on the administrative tasks, ordering their own office supplies, for example.

When East left King’s in May 2012, Dean of Students David Leedy had hoped to fill his position by the fall. “It was the first time we’ve said we care about this enough to create a salary for the position,” Bennett said.

But after reviewing more than 100 applications and offering the job to two “perfect” applicants, the position remained unfilled into the spring semester.

“Sometimes, when you’re working hard pushing in one direction, and clearly making no headway, you have to ask, ‘Am I missing what God intends for us?’” Interim President Andy Mills wrote in a letter to students in March.

Mills challenged Bennett this semester to focus on the “spiritual formation” of the college, calling Bennett the pastor of King’s.

“I am by God’s design a pastor… but I don’t declare that as who I am,” Bennett said.

Bennett initially resisted taking on spiritual life without an assistant, but sensing God’s direction, accepted the role. Other student development staff will take some of his administrative tasks. He thinks of his job next year as laying the skeleton for spiritual life down for others to fill.

“I’m an activator,” Bennett said. “The way I think of spiritual life is to activate and get people to move.”