Belongingness and Student Life

By: Jim Fox

“How do these kids find belonging and community in the somewhat chaotic environment that is high school?”

This is the question I found myself asking last June as I sat behind the lectern in room 103, interacting with the Juniors and Seniors in Mrs. Grafmiller’s Psychology course.

For the past 4 years I’ve been lucky enough to every now and again fill-in as a substitute teacher at Shoreline Christian. Last June my career in the substitutionary arts reached a new high when I became a long-term sub and was able to actually “teach” Psychology for a few weeks. Down in room 103 I started wondering how these very different kids from very different families and very different churches were able to find a sense of belonging as they navigated from classroom to classroom.     

This is actually a natural question for me; when I’m not a substitute teacher, I’m a church planter and a pastor. I spend a good deal of my time thinking about those on the margins and how we can make space for them in our communities to connect and to experience a sense of belonging. I lead a small community of faith in the Crown Hill area. Our motto, or raison d'être, is “Connecting the Disconnected.” And, I think if we are honest with ourselves, we are all disconnected in different ways and different times of our lives. We all see and experience brokenness; we all seek a place to belong and a place to be known.

And so, I found myself sitting in a classroom, getting to read the students’ writing, getting to hear their thinking, getting to know them as people: and the question was asked anew.

Over the summer months, this question -- of “belongingness” at SCS with its spiritual and social implications -- found room to grow in my heart and mind. In fact so much so that after  Mr. Visser completed his long drive home from his vacation in Michigan, I asked to meet and told him everything that I had been thinking. He then told me that somewhere around “the eastern border of Iowa” the same question had come to him; he said that for a good chunk of his tenure, a sense of belonging and community were assumed, but culture changes. These are things we really can no longer assume. When we talked, he had been contemplating the question for about a thousand miles. Maybe the Holy Spirit was up to something?       

The board thought enough of the question that I was asked to do a school study. I spent the next 2 months pursuing answers to this question: I walked the halls of SCS, researched the psychological, emotional, and intellectual effects of “belonging” and not belonging, and met with experts in the field of youth ministry. The research shows that a sense of belonging is essential for a healthy learner; it’s not just a nice idea, a sense of belonging has measurable effects on academic achievement and mental health.

While many of our students do find a place to belong at SCS, a surprising number of students don’t. Unfortunately, and somewhat  ironically, some of the very places students found community the most (through music and sports) are sources of isolation for others. And, because we are a professing Christian community, students who don’t currently identify as Christians experience a thwarted belongingness (instead of a love that invites them in).

A need identified, now what to do. At the conclusion of my research I recommended that the board consider an on-campus pastoral presence for the high school – someone who would build relationships with students, shape the liturgies and habits that promote a sense of belonging, and continue to support, reinforce, and build on to the spiritual and theological framework and practices we already have in place. Though we are a school, life together in community isn’t solely an academic exercise, it’s a way of engaging the world that we are called into by God. And in our ecosystem model, we don’t ignore community building because it’s “the church’s job” or because “that wasn’t a problem when I was in school”. We believe community is foundational to students faith formation and learning.

At their meeting on Tuesday, the school board officially accepted this recommendation and approved a job description for a Director of Student Life.

This is exciting and important news. Shoreline Christian is in the process of discovering and pioneering what a Christian school looks like in a post-church world. We are answering the question of belonging and building the answer.


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