Nothing is in place yet, so just make sure you have some fun. This was the message with which Anniek Lenselink was sent into the Rotterdam student community by the united Rotterdam churches last May. Alright, maybe she received slightly more extensive instructions during the last interview preceding her appointment, but they added up to that message. Lenselink: “It’s all widely open. All the work that was done in the past has pretty much dried up”, says Lenselink. “There will be some pioneering involved.”
The ‘some’ seems to be an understatement. After all, it has been a whopping six years since a Protestant students’ chaplain last set foot on campus. This complete absence of colleagues is not the only reason why Lenselink will feel like a bit of an explorer in the next few months. She is also the first chaplain who is not directly affiliated with any of the city’s churches. “In that respect my position will be different from my predecessors. I represent multiple churches. However, I will not be selling faith; my job is to make the church a visible component of students’ lives again.”
Support and solace
The main question is how to go about this. At any rate she will not be doing it in the traditional manner, because she will not be holding services herself, even though she was a pastor in the Remonstrant church for over sixteen years. “That’s another reason why I’m not a traditional chaplain. What I want is to find the interface between church and non-church matters. Being in touch with people, entering into a conversation with students… Those are the things I like.”
As far as Lenselink is concerned, those conversations do not always have to be about faith in the narrow sense of the word. “Not many students will answer the question as to whether they believe in God with ‘yes’. But once you enter into a discussion with them, you will often find that they do pray. That they place things happening in their lives before something outside themselves. Only that thing outside themselves may no longer be the traditional God who is an old man in heaven. However, the underlying thought is the same – to find support and solace. I want to include that in my job description – to accommodate such conversations as well.”
But are today’s students, who are busy drinking beer, flirting and opening a textbook every once in a while, at all interested in good conversations about spiritual feelings? Students are more likely to be interested than anyone else, Lenselink insists. “I think there’s no other time in our lives when our lives are as disorganised as they are during our student days. A new environment, new impressions, always having to prove yourself… It will make you feel like you need a place where you can straighten things out, or where someone else will straighten them out for you.”
Meet and greet
The question remains if the students’ chaplain is the person with whom students would like to have such a conversation. “It’s true that they will have plenty of other people to talk to, because they will obviously get to know a lot of people – for instance other society members, fellow students or flatmates”, admits Lenselink.
“But these are not the kind of people with whom they’ll easily discuss their doubts or insecurities. When they first arrive, students tend to have a bit of an image to uphold. It often takes them a long time to get to the point where they will discuss deeper feelings with each other. With me, they can skip the introductory ‘bullshit’ and get straight to the point.”
Even so, Lenselink understands that she will have to provide more than a table and a few chairs to get the students interested. For this reason, she has a Facebook page where people can actually win things, holds meet-and-greet sessions, manned a stand at the information market that was part of Eurekaweek (‘a challenge, particularly trying not to be too loud’) and keeps a blog, all to get in touch with her target group.
“In addition, I’m trying to get a foot in the door at the university itself – for instance through the deans and students’ psychologists. At the moment I don’t have that kind of access; there is no contact whatsoever between the churches and the university. This will have to change. Of course it’s a bummer that all these connections have disappeared, but in a way, I like it. I’m free to make the exact arrangements I want. That’s why I was so keen on getting this job.”
This positive attitude is characteristic of Lenselink. Whereas many people would deplore the lack of certainty, she regards the lack of fixed arrangements as an opportunity. “I hope I’m not too far removed from the age group. Maybe I’ll have to look a little bit more into the way they talk. But other than that, I just hope to get the ball rolling soon.” “When will I be satisfied? Once I’ve gained a solid foothold in the Rotterdam student community, consisting of a group of regulars who will have those discussions with me and with each other. It will take a while, but that’s what I hope to achieve. And I trust it will happen. Erasmus University has 25,000 students. There must be a few hundred among them for whom this is meaningful.”
Anniek Lenselink (44) studied Theology and Philosophy at Leiden University. She started her career as a lecturer of Religion and Philosophy at the teacher training programme at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Rotterdam. She spent sixteen years as a preacher in Remonstrant congregations. She then moved on to funeral support. This academic year, she is the student chaplain in Rotterdam. Twelve congregations have now joined the ‘studentenpastoraat’, which you can follow at www.studentenpastoraat010.nl and on the Facebook page Studentenpastoraat010.