August 17, 2023 : By Christian Shields - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
As Liberty University gears up for another successful school year, the Office of Spiritual Development (OSD) and Office of Residence Life (ResLife) are ensuring that their student leadership teams are prepared with hands and hearts to serve those under their care.
For the last two weeks, Liberty’s Resident Shepherds (leaders assigned to each residential hall to provide spiritual mentoring and guidance to students) have attended all-day training sessions in preparation for students’ arrival on campus (new students began moving in on Wednesday and returning students move in on Friday). Topics have ranged from campus rules and emergency protocols to building relationships with fellow student leaders. Speakers have included Executive Director of LU Shepherds Dr. Wes Franklin and John W. Rawlings School of Divinity professors Dr. Rusty Small and Dr. Adam McClendon focusing on topics such as spiritual warfare, working as a team, and servant leadership. The student leaders have also taken part in breakout sessions and workshops about being emotionally healthy, being present, focusing on the end goal, combating mental health issues, navigating tough conversations, and fighting co-dependency.
Liberty’s 268 Resident Shepherds are just one level of support in the residence halls, part of an extensive student support structure unique to Liberty. Each Liberty student is provided with as many as five student leaders to assist them on campus: two Resident Assistants (RA), two Resident Shepherds (RS), and one community group leader (CGL) . Resident Shepherds are supervised by 13 full-time Shepherds who offer pastoral care under OSD’s LU Shepherd Office. The CGLs lead small groups on their halls and are a major source of encouragement for students to grow in their personal faith. The groups meet every Wednesday night after Campus Community where CGLs emphasize the practical application of the message. CGLs are also available throughout the week for any needs students may have. CGLs began their training on Aug. 14.
A large focus of all the training is ensuring that the student leaders are grounded in their own faith so they can effectively guide others in theirs.
“We can’t have any expectation to serve well and to pour into people well and to lead them well if we’re not committed to being led by the Lord first and foremost,” said senior Resident Shepherd Jenna DiGirolamo, who serves on Commons II. “If we’re not investing our own time with Him, then it doesn’t make sense that we’ll be able to lead others in their time with Him.”
With a focus on personal spiritual growth, the LU Shepherd team has stressed the importance of faithfulness over fruitfulness. Instead of worrying about their “success” in changing lives, Resident Shepherds are trained to trust God and follow His leading.
Another important part of the support structure are the Resident Assistants (RAs). Liberty has 278 RAs (one or two on each hall) who work to ensure that students feel safe and at home in their halls while providing oversight and cultivating a healthy spiritual atmosphere that promotes growth. They are trained to resolve campus conflicts, conduct weekly hall meetings, perform nightly room checks, and plan hall events, among a host of other duties. Their training took place in a variety of workshops, large group sessions, and role playing scenarios, providing an overview of what resources Liberty provides to students and how to connect students with the help they may need. Emphasis is placed on encouraging RAs to create intentional interactions with students where they can share their needs and struggles and RAs can help them navigate college life. Training ended with a multi-hour workshop on identifying and engaging students who may express suicidal ideation while on campus.
RAs are instructed to “embrace the unknown,” meaning that they remain prepared for whatever the semester may bring. Senior Titus Campbell, a second-year RA serving on the Circle residence halls, said he learned this principle firsthand last year after temporarily losing his RA partner and dealing with some student emergencies at the beginning of the spring semester.
“You will step into some scenarios where nothing the office has done can or could prepare you for it, and you will have to lean into not everything you know about you or the student, but everything you know to be true about Christ. That has to be what you’re basing everything off of,” he said.
Senior RA Jada Taylor, who serves on the Hill residence halls, agreed.
“I think that (the biggest thing I’ve learned) is that you cannot do a single thing without the Lord,” she said. “A lot of what they do is very practical to help us prepare for the next school year, but they also emphasize the fact that apart from Jesus and apart from leaning on His Holy Spirit to guide you through different situations, you will not flourish in this role.”
While Resident Shepherds and RAs may have distinct roles, they also work closely with one another to ensure a stable, supportive environment. The training includes overlap between the departments so that they can develop those bonds. On Aug. 9, the OSD and Residence Life teams converged for a time of fellowship and preaching from LU Shepherd Director and The Hope Company Pastor P.J. Preston on the importance of maintaining their own personal spiritual walk.
On Tuesday, RAs, Resident Shepherds, and CGLs, gathered across campus for a Prayer Walk. They were also joined by Commuter Shepherds (assigned to serve Liberty’s commuter students) and Athletic Shepherds (team chaplains). Prior to the Prayer Walk, student leadership heard from President Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Dondi E. Costin, Chancellor Jonathan Falwell, and other university leadership during a student leadership session.
“Here at Liberty, we’re one team and there’s a lot of overlap between what LU Shepherd does and what ResLife does. They’re very distinct lanes but they run side-by-side,” said Dr. Dustin DeBose, executive director of Student Life. “And it really creates a lot of unity among the team as we prepare for students and freshmen, particularly, to show them love when they arrive.”
“Sometimes, it can feel like we are serving in different worlds, but we’re serving the same students,” said graduate Resident Shepherd Taylor Teague, who serves on Commons III. “We’re all trying to reach their hearts and minds; we’re just doing it in a different way.”
“The beauty of it is it’s two different roles with the exact same goal,” Campbell said. “We want to make sure at the end of the day that our students are safe spiritually, physically, mentally, and academically, but ultimately we want them to see Jesus in everything that we do.”