In 1975, a new Christian university was born on the east coast of Canada. With big dreams, this new school sought to fill a hole in Canadian higher education. After a difficult first decade, a clearer vision emerged in which the university developed an emphasis on providing a quality educational experience by creating a rich community life and travel-based, shared learning experiences.

The unique characteristics that make up the heart of the community at St. Stephen’s University have been formed and developed through all of its years of existence. From the beginning, the hopes and intentions of faculty, staff and board members have joined together with the gifts and experiences of the students who have become a part of SSU. The result has been the creation of a distinctive flavour of life together. All the hardships, challenges and joys of this shared life, by the grace of God, have shaped the community in ways that have sometimes been different from and in many ways richer than those that might have been foreseen.

A key example of this grace has been the gift of being small. At any given time, we have never had more than a hundred students studying at SSU. While there are certainly challenges with being Canada’s smallest university, our small size has enabled us to develop a learning environment in which authentic and caring relationships are central. Whether travelling together, working together in the kitchen, or discussing ideas in the classroom, students push past the natural differences of personalities and viewpoints and experience a taste of “unity in diversity.” Similarly, students have opportunities to develop relationships with staff and faculty not only in the classroom, but at mealtimes, community events and during shared travel experiences.

A phrase which has become very important to us in recent years is our desire to nurture a “fire at the centre” of our community. Just as a hearth is used to represent the centre of the family home, SSU wants the passionate and intentional faith of its faculty and staff to serve as the warm and inviting heart of our community. The presence of God’s Spirit at the core of our life together enables us to become the kind of place that encourages caring, respect and mutual support in spite of the messiness and imperfections that are always a part of relationships.

A Christian vision has always been at the heart of SSU; our vision is for a learning community that embraces ancient traditions as well as the living dynamic of the Holy Spirit in our times. We are not associated with any particular denomination and our staff, faculty and board members have always included people from a wide variety of faith traditions.. We understand that everyone’s journey is unique, and we welcome students to journey with us wherever they currently find themselves. Honest and thoughtful struggle with our doubts and beliefs is a part of any healthy intellectual or spiritual growth, and we want this to characterize the transformation that is a part of this academic experience.

And so, as a Christian university:

The Mission of SSU is to prepare people, through academic and personal development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.

This handbook serves as an introduction to those near and far who want to know what kind of community SSU strives to be. It represents a history and a vision, ideals and realities, agreements and compromises on differences. It represents the kind of community that those who are and have been a part of St. Stephen’s University are committed to work and sacrifice for and through which we hope to receive a taste of God’s blessing that we increasingly learn to share

LIFE TOGETHER

 

Throughout our history, SSU has been relatively unique among Christian institutions of higher learning because of its intentional avoidance of externally imposing a strict set of rules on its students. While we would like to exemplify a standard of living thoroughly based on the dual command to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves, we have never felt that a rule-based community was the best way to achieve this end. Instead we determined some guidelines (especially for those living together in residence) and an atmosphere of accountability based on relationship and mutual respect.

In recent years, we have seen it become increasingly important that the core members of our community open our arms (and doors) wider to welcome those from near and far who are drawn to our community regardless of their beliefs and values, provided they accept and respect the Christian identity of the university. It is our understanding that Christians are invited to engage and serve the world rather than being separated and focused on their own needs.

At the same time, we don’t want to follow the pathway that many universities with a Christian heritage have taken, blending so thoroughly with secular society that they lost all of their ability to be guided by a Christian vision. We have a different calling than mainstream universities, and maintaining a Christian faith perspective that is integrated with both the content and the method of education at SSU is our only reason for existence. In this way, SSU is committed to being a Christ-centered university which is engaged with our world and open to all.

In order for this to be the case, we believe that it is vital that all of our staff and faculty are passionately committed to serving the Christian vision and identity of SSU. All of our faculty and staff work in pastoral roles with each other and with the students – this means that first and foremost in all of our job descriptions is the call to serve each other as the hands and feet of Jesus, caring for personal, academic, administrative and spiritual needs. Our hope is that each and every staff and faculty member would be a unique example of what following Jesus in today’s world looks like. We hope that all students, regardless of their personal beliefs, will come to join in the call to be servant leaders – people who use their education, gifts and energy to work for the common good rather than their own self-interest.

We are also very aware that we are all imperfect people. At times we slip into more self-protection than love. We often fall short of the ideals that we are trying to live out together. There may be times when institutional requirements or academic standards mean that we have to set boundaries that may seem less gracious than students expect. There will be times when individuals feel forgotten or unfairly treated. Our commitment is to work through all such messy moments by striving for honest and healthy communication, sprinkled richly with forgiveness and grace for each other.

There will also be times when the behaviour of certain individuals will strain the expectations of the community for living together well. This is especially true of behaviour that seems to have a negative impact on others in the community. Whether such individuals are students, staff or faculty, they should expect to be engaged in respectful conversation about what they are doing. Usually, agreement can be reached about ongoing patterns of behaviour and how to bring about positive change. If not, the conversation might need to be broadened, drawing more students and/or staff into the discussion. Whenever possible this relational style will strive to be guided by consideration of the concerns of those involved, the concerns of the community as a whole, and the stated vision and purpose of the university. If no agreement can still be reached there may need to be a parting of ways. While it is extremely rare, the university must reserve the legal right to ask students (or staff/faculty) to leave should their behaviour continue to be consistently disruptive of residential or academic policies or the maintenance of a healthy academic community.

HOLISTIC EDUCATION

 

We have become convinced over the years that the education our students receive is of the highest quality in a variety of ways. The success of many of our students who have gone on to graduate education across Canada and around the world testifies to this. We believe that this is a result of what happens both in and out of the classroom.

Besides the classroom, students at SSU learn in the kitchen, in the local community and while travelling around the world. We expect that the result of what happens in all of these situations will impact the discussion in class and the content of written papers. We expect that relationships formed “on the road” will affect the quality of professor’s lectures and student interest in what is being discussed. We expect that the listening ear of a supportive staff person will transform a student’s ability to balance their personal and academic concerns.

Many people in our society have come to believe that Christianity and informed, critical thinking do not go together. This is a tragic, though sometimes accurate, perception which we feel called to address. Integrating a Christian perspective into the classroom broadens rather than narrows the discussion that can take place there. A Christian perspective does not exclude anyone’s voice, but invites the point of view of the weak and downtrodden as well as the rich and varied traditions of those who have tried to discern God’s voice. It questions the dominance of systems of nationalism, materialism, consumerism, and militarism and pays more attention to matters of humanity and spirit.

Jesus rarely gave direct answers to questions. Usually, he answered with parables, metaphors, dramatic actions (healings and signs) and questions of his own. He challenged the systems of political and religious dominance that kept people enslaved and distracted. He inspired listeners in entirely new ways of living out love for God and neighbour. This sounds like the example of someone familiar with the very best in critical thinking, and we are inspired by that example.

JOURNEYING TOGETHER

 

Whether on the road or at home, we have increasingly looked to the metaphor of pilgrimage to describe ourselves. Pilgrims are those on a journey of transformation. They travel routes, new and old, seeking deeper meaning in their lives. Very often this meaning has to do with connection. Some seek to experientially remember what happened at a particular place and time. Some want to encounter the Spirit made visible in the lives of others. Some are transformed by the relationships with those they journey with, and others may seek the simple peace of placing one foot in front of the other along well-worn or less trodden paths.

We have found this metaphor very relevant to the educational journey undertaken in a small community. At times the metaphor becomes very literal, such as when hiking around a thousand year old monastery or visiting the site of the vision that inspired St. Francis of Assisi. At other times, pilgrimage might refer to a walk with a mentor along the St. Croix River discussing challenging ideas that came up in class or a late night chat between two students grappling with the relevance of their classes to a rapidly shifting world.

With such an emphasis on pilgrimage and journey, it is also important to remember our need for rootedness. Tradition should not bind us or prevent us from freely following a living God, but we are embodied beings and we will quickly become disempowered if we cut ourselves off from the richness of the stories, practices and beliefs that have grounded the followers of Jesus for thousands of years.

So as a community we have rooted ourselves with this affirmation, our statement of faith:

We rejoice to affirm the historic creeds of the Church,
proclaiming our faith in the one living and true God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We uphold the authority of the Scriptures as the
Word of God.

We confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and endeavour
to follow and serve Him by the empowering
and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

A NETWORK OF COMMUNITIES

 

Though we may often refer to a singular “SSU Community,” we also see this one community as being a network of distinct but overlapping communities. For example, SSU is composed of two groups that live and work together in St. Stephen. The Student Community consists of students who have come here for the express purpose of acquiring those things that the university has to offer them. The Senior Community includes people whom God has brought together to provide the various services that are necessary in order to be able to offer our programs. Whether part-time, full-time, volunteer or board member, whether they live near or far, the members of the senior community are dedicated to serving God, the students and each other. Acknowledging that we fail at times, we seek to model living and working together in a way that is characterized by mutual care and respect.

It is also worthwhile to draw a distinction between the spiritual or relational community and the institution of SSU. Like any academic institution, SSU must steward its financial resources well and must maintain a high level of academic standards. These concerns are sometimes in tension with more relational priorities. Sometimes individuals who get used to being treated like family or friends in one respect are surprised when they meet a firm policy such as a deadline for a payment or a late paper. Likewise, a certain set of values and flavours may develop among the student and alumni community which are in tension with the institutional values and standards of SSU. It is our hope that good relationships and respectful communication can make this a healthy tension.

The overall university community includes a Board of Governors that gives organizational leadership and support, and various friends and sponsors who have contributed greatly to the building of SSU, as well as a growing number of people who have settled in St. Stephen because the university is here.

LIFESTYLE

 

As mentioned above, we have intentionally chosen not to be the kind of community that is based on the external application of rules, though at times some communities have found strength in that model. We would, however, hope that our community life would represent an invitation to a way of living that is increasingly drawn toward the broadly Christian priorities of loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself, including the practical decisions that best help that love to thrive.

So, while those living in residence are asked to meet certain expectations in order to provide a safe and beneficial experience for all of those directly living together, we invite the entire community to reach for excellence and wholeness in the way we all, individually and corporately, live out our lives.

First and foremost, we encourage everyone to prioritize healthy relationships. Everyone should be treated with mutual respect and care. The emergence of this in residences, classrooms and study abroad is one of the greatest gifts the school can offer. Specifically, this means the complete avoidance of any kind of violence, abuse or harassment, including abusive speech. It means dealing with conflict well, without gossip or resentment and with persistence in seeking healthy reconciliation. It means that even in the natural formation of friendship clusters, everyone will strive to be as inclusive as possible, always trying to care for those who might otherwise be marginalized.

Healthy relationships require that the complexity and richness of our sexuality be treated well. People should never be exploited for each other’s gratification, and the best way to prevent this exploitation and hurt is to ensure that physical intimacy always develops in a way that matches the emotional intimacy and commitment in a relationship. We believe that this means that marriage is the appropriate context for full sexual expression (Matt. 19:1-12).

We are embodied beings, and this means that treating our bodies well is a crucial part of a healthy life in many different ways. In our society, people often develop habits in which food, alcohol and other good gifts are misused. When this is the case, the individual and the community always pay a price. Misuse of alcohol or use of illegal substances often creates patterns of dependence or fosters poor decision making and life in an accountable community is a good opportunity to develop better patterns. .

Positively, hard physical work and enjoyable exercise are important contributions to health, and it is partly for this reason that we invite everyone to take part in shared tasks and in recreational opportunities. Taking care of ourselves is much easier when it becomes a shared value in community, and modelling and mutual encouragement help us to do far better than we are able on our own. Conversely, we can get dragged down when those around us seem not to care.

Our embodied lives also require a healthy environment, and we want to be creative participants and caretakers of both the natural environment around us and the local neighbourhood in which we live. Sustainability is increasingly becoming a watchword for us both academically and in our practical lives. Everyone is encouraged to help us find ways in which our individual and shared decisions can have a more beneficial impact on the environment – so we try to turn the heat down, walk more, compost and not leave messes behind in the buildings or outside.

Relationships with our neighbourhood are just as important as our care for the environment. We have increasingly enjoyed a positive support from the town. Students, staff and faculty have participated in a wide variety of volunteering and recreational opportunities..

Finally, we are seeking to be more intentional about being sustainable in our economic lives. It is very challenging for students to leave school burdened by a huge debt. We would like to support intentional efforts to ensure that debt does not become a bondage pressuring students to drift away from the human and spiritual values they have formed in their studies. This may mean helping each other to live simpler lives – reducing the reliance on student loans and enabling staff and faculty to thrive on smaller salaries. It may mean creativity and flexibility for how an academic degree is completed. Again, what is very difficult for isolated individuals becomes easier when we support and encourage each other.

SPIRIT

 

While the fullest picture of worship includes an integrated life of service to others and to God, there is clearly value to those moments in our days and weeks when we intentionally give our attention to matters of the Spirit. One of the ways that we do that at SSU is to create a “daily rhythm” that builds in some shared attention. Most consistently this is exemplified by a brief reading and prayer that takes place in the Red Room just prior to lunch and supper. We hold hands and slow down for a moment, noticing each other and giving thanks.

There may be a wide variety of other opportunities. Someone may host morning, midday or evening prayers – simple liturgies that ground our days in ancient tradition. Someone may host worship or songwriting circles, providing a chance to sit back and bathe in the music or lift one’s voice in praise. At least once a week there is an opportunity to gather after lunch to hear someone share a life-story or a few thoughts on a topic they’re passionate about. We are always seeking creative ways to get the whole community together or to gather in small groups so that everyone feels “loved and known.”.

One of the greatest values in these shared worship moments is the aspect of gathering together to turn our focus to matters of excellence, to “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure…” (Phil. 4.8). Without such gathering times, a community will not hold together with rootedness and coherence. We strongly encourage everyone to take part in as much of this shared life as possible.

In fact, we encourage everyone who is a part of the community to informally make a covenant – to commit themselves to support this vision of community life that is the reason for SSU’s existence. You can get a degree nearly anywhere, but here we want you to have a taste of something richer.

wt-2013 (rev.2015)