In 1975, a new university was born on the east coast of Canada that sought to embody a uniquely Christian alternative to typical Canadian higher education. After a challenging 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 shared, travel-based learning experiences.

The particular characteristics that make up the heart of the community at St. Stephen’s University have been formed through all of its years of existence and continue to develop. 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 have shaped the community in unexpected ways. Many of us see our story as a subtle, yet still powerful, account of divine guidance that has led to an outcome better than what was 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, so the faith and life-long commitments of our faculty and staff are vital and unique resources that we treasure, keeping vision flowing organically from intentionally lived life into the SSU community (and back again!) We know we are embodying this fire at the centre in the best way when all who are a part of the community experience being “loved and known,” even in the midst of the messiness and imperfections that are always a part of relationships.

Since it is so important to us that students and others experience being “loved and known” at SSU, we want people to serve at SSU who will contribute to this. So as well as having the necessary skills and competencies for their role, we will be looking for those who have demonstrated, in their lives and their social contexts, a deep respect for everyone (in spite of differences) and a commitment to being humble and honest team players. All staff, faculty and volunteers at SSU are expected to contribute to the community’s ongoing growth and transformation while gratefully and openly being transformed themselves by their experience in this community.

In keeping with these hopes and goals, we will not discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, or race/ethnicity. We are interested in the heart, in the demonstrated character and maturity of the individuals seeking to work at SSU. It is very challenging to capture the essence of this kind of character and maturity, but three classic examples in the Christian tradition (that also resonate with most spiritual and wisdom traditions) are:

  • People who are committed to aiming for the Golden Rule (treating others as they would like to be treated) – Luke 6.31
  • People who show evidence of the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) – Galatians 5.22
  • People who seek to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God – Micah 6.8

It is also important to us that those coming to serve at SSU are attracted to and committed to the evolving Christian vocation that has helped shape SSU through the years. This vocation has been understood and experienced differently by many people over many years, but a common thread for most of us would be our desire to form a community providing a quality university education that has been deeply shaped by our encounter with Jesus and the kind of costly, but renewing, personal and social transformations that are possible as a result. It is our hope that this Christian vocation is understood broadly enough that it welcomes and affirms those who belong to any Christian denomination as well as those who prefer alternative forms of Christian community.

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 do not need to think alike, even about the cultural controversies of our times. 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 seeks to express the kind of community that those who are and have been a part of St. Stephen’s University are committed to building together.

LIFE TOGETHER

We have a different calling than mainstream universities, and the way in which we base our education on our shared life together is a key part of this.  In order to facilitate this we have determined some guidelines (especially for those living together in residence) and an atmosphere of accountability based on relationship and mutual respect. These guidelines for our shared life are intended to clarify expectations rather than to externally impose a strict set or rules on students. While we would like to exemplify a life that is thoroughly based on the dual command to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves, we have generally thought that a rule-based community was not the best way to achieve this end.

All of our faculty and staff work in pastoral roles with each other and with the students. This means that in various ways we are all intending to care for personal and spiritual needs even as we are addressing educational or administrative goals. 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 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 firm boundaries. 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, 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 community.

HOLISTIC EDUCATION

Many people in our society have come to believe that Christianity and informed, critical thinking do not go together. How unfortunate! We would like to address that perception. When appropriate, integrating various Christian perspectives into the classroom can broaden rather than narrow the discussions that take place there. This should not exclude anyone’s voice, but should invite 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. This kind of integration 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. Maintaining a Christian perspective that is integrated with both the content and the method of education at SSU is our only reason for existence and we want to embody this in a way which is engaged with our world and open to all.

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, and the same can be said about those who go more directly into other career choices. We believe that this is a result of what happens both in and out of 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.

JOURNEYING TOGETHER

Whether on the road or at home, we have increasingly resonated with the image of pilgrimage. 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 one of our roots has been this simple and traditional 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. 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. When they graduate, students become part of the dispersed community that is our Alumni Community – an important and ongoing source of connection to each other and to those who continue on the ground in St. Stephen. Some  alumni find themselves building community elsewhere, drawing on their time at SSU as inspiration; we consider them informal and evolving satellites of SSU (just as we are of them – inter-learning as we go).

The Senior Community includes people who have felt called 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 standard of academic achievement. 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 that any kind of violence, abuse or harassment, including abusive speech, is unacceptable and we will seek an intentional process of redress when it is reported. 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. Traditionally, marriage has been seen as the key way to shape such relationships. We acknowledge that we live in a culture in which practices are changing rapidly, yet we seek to affirm our need for commitments that invite community support and accountability for these most sensitive of relationships.

We are embodied beings, and this means that treating our bodies well is a crucial part of a healthy life in many different ways. The table is an important centre of shared life; food and drink are key to many celebrations, large and small. We also know that people often develop habits in which food, alcohol and other good gifts are misused, and this may especially be a temptation for young adults. Both the individuals and the community then 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 can be a good opportunity to develop better patterns.

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 have a hard time doing our best when those around us seem not to care. So, for example, 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.

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.2017)