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Student Interfaith Groups: Finding the Right Structure

This resource will help you determine the right structure for student interfaith leadership on your campus. No two university or college campuses are identical, so there is no “one size fits all” recommendation for the structure of your interfaith group. Determining the right structure for your group will ultimately be up to you; this resource will walk you through four examples of interfaith leadership groups to help get you started.

You may be asking yourself why it is important to devise a structure for you group at all. You like to get together for interfaith dialogue and service as friends, why make it official? The benefits to a formalized structure for your group are immense – you will have access to university recognition, funding, resources like meeting spaces and printing, and a better chance of keeping interfaith activities going after you graduate. In addition, a formalized structure often requires you to set clear goals and accountability for your group. A recognizable name and purpose strengthens your impact on campus and intensifies interest in interfaith cooperation overall.

Four Types of Student Interfaith Groups

1. Interfaith Council
An interfaith council is a representative body of student leaders from various organizations with a specific purpose and set of goals. The presidents or representative officers of other faith-based or intentionally secular student groups often sit on interfaith councils to discuss ongoing collaborative projects around dialogue and community service. In addition, these councils sometimes oversee specific initiatives.

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Interfaith student leaders at U of M, along with their staff ally, decided to shift the structure of their group from a small student organization made of interested students to an Interfaith Council made primarily of student representatives from different religious and secular student organizations. They researched what other universities were doing and developed a vision of what the council might look like. The council held Leadership Brunches in March 2013 to discuss the vision for the Multifaith Student Council with 10 religious and secular student groups in attendance. Attendees drafted a vision and goals for the council, to ensure that the goals of the council reflect the goals of the various religious and secular student organizations on campus.

Strengths: Student councils establish credibility and structure. An interfaith council is an indication of both student interest and administrative support for interfaith cooperation on your campus. As highlevel administrators often approve the formation of university councils, your group will also put interfaith cooperation ‘on the radar’ of decision makers on campus.

Limitations: This structure may create difficulties in scheduling, as the representatives of many groups will have to align their calendars well in advance. In addition, this structure is less ‘on-the-ground activism’ and more ‘communication and alignment’. It may take longer for councils to organize, and councils that are more formal sometimes have more structured hierarchy.

This structure may be best for your campus if:

  • There is a high demand for a unifying voice for interfaith cooperation on campus, and a centralized group that comes together to build relationships between the many religious and intentionally secular groups already established.
  • Your campus is large and/or decentralized, with pockets of interfaith activity happening in many different places.

2. Student Organization
A group of students that forms around a common interest in interfaith dialogue and service, applies for and receives recognition from their student government association or student activities board is an effective structure for consistent interfaith activism on campus. Student organizations often run ongoing interfaith dialogue and service projects are an active and visible presence on campus. The leaders of these groups are often outspoken and charismatic leaders who draw their peers to service and cooperation. Student organizations also provide space for peer learning and supportive environments for the exploration of shared values between traditions.

Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
Student leaders at Concordia College created their student organization with the purpose “to cultivate interfaith relationships within Concordia and the broader community in order to create a more just and humane world through service and dialogue.” Student leaders oversee event planning around dialogue and service. In addition to its activities, the group also advocated for the approval of a secular students group. Official recognition for the group was challenged on Concordia’s Lutheran campus, but one of the strongest contributing factors to the approval of the group in 2013 was support from Christian faculty and students.

Strengths: Student organizations are a staple of campus life. In addition to providing a place for people with similar interests to come together, they represent the value that students place upon interfaith work. Student organizations provide opportunities for leadership and for students to advance interfaith efforts on their campuses.

Limitations: Student organizations are usually numerous, and organizations can get lost in the sea of opportunities on a campus. Ambitious recruitment strategies - in particular around new first-year students - are essential to continuing your organization into the future. Challenges often arise when old leaders graduate and news ones take over, so members must be diligent and strategic about maintaining the group over the long term.

This structure may be best for your campus if:

  • You have a driven group of student leaders eager to build interfaith cooperation.
  • There is a need for more support for religious minority groups and the non-religious on campus.
  • Your institution has a strong and respected student government, which is selective about the organizations it approves (this will help build your group’s reputation).

3. Interfaith Advisory Committee
An Interfaith Advisory Committee is a body of people from across the university, including faculty, staff, administrators, and students. Committees like these often oversee initiatives to integrate interfaith cooperation into every area of the institution – student life, religious and spiritual life, academics, community service, and campus policies. Student members are usually those heavily involved in interfaith activities and leadership programs, and sit on these committees to provide the student perspective.

California Lutheran University (CLU), Thousand Oaks, CA
California Lutheran is a heavily programmed campus, so student interfaith leaders decided against forming an official student group. Instead, they chose to bring more people from other areas of campus to impact and implement interfaith programing all over the university. Interfaith Allies – CLU’s interfaith committee – currently works to establish structures that provide leadership opportunities at every level of the university. For example, they received funding to hire two student interns, continue to expand their number of staff and faculty allies in various departments, and regularly meet with students looking for opportunities to serve as they grow their interfaith leadership skills. Interfaith Allies also influenced recent changes to CLU’s student government constitution, making it more inclusive to non-Lutheran religious identities.

Strengths: Committees like these exist to establish interfaith cooperation as an integrated part of campus life. A meeting of an Interfaith Advisory Committee is an environment where you can truly learn the ins and outs of making something a norm on campus.

Limitations: Interfaith Advisory Committees do not typically take on dialogue or direct service activities. The student voice is one part of a much larger whole and – let’s be honest – it can be intimidating to sit on a committee with faculty and administrators. Students will have other interfaith leadership responsibilities, as they are chosen for the committee for a certain expertise.

This structure may be best for your campus if:

  • There is high-level commitment to interfaith cooperation. The best way to determine this is if the college’s president or other high-level stakeholders have indicated in a public arena (e.g. in a speech or publication) that interfaith cooperation is a priority of the institution.
  • Plenty of resources exist to drive interfaith efforts on campus. This structure is a viable option if your institution has the funding, facilities, and staff time necessary for long-term investment and needs a group of people to hold it all together.

4. Interfaith Leadership Program
Some institutions have interfaith leadership programs such as internships or fellowships funded by the university and run by dedicated staff. These programs often sit within the Office of Religious Life and have an application, selection, and hiring process for students interested. Cohorts of leaders tend to be smaller, and have specific expectations for participation in the programs. These leaders learn skills for dialogue facilitation, building religious literacy, event planning, and community building. Leaders are sometimes paid (bonus!) for their work, and programs usually involve some formal recognition for services to the school (i.e. a special certification or recognition ceremony at graduation).

DePaul University, Chicago IL
The DePaul Interfaith Scholars program operates under the Office of the Chaplain, with seven scholars participating during the 2012-2013 school year. DePaul Interfaith Scholars are “leaders grounded in their own traditions who create a strong community of DePaul interfaith-engaged students who work together on mutual understanding and shared social action.” Scholars are responsible for participating in weekly meetings and trainings and planning quarterly Interreligious Celebrations that are open to all students and draw hundreds of participants. Interfaith scholars also serve as liaisons to two religious and/or secular student groups each and represent DePaul at various annual retreats and conferences.

Strengths: Leadership programs are focused, ‘deep dives’ into interfaith leadership and provide participants a skill set that will be valuable in any career. A staff person whose professional area of expertise is building this type of leadership in students often advises the program. Cohorts of interfaith leaders often form tight bonds through their shared experiences, which is an added benefit for many reasons.

Limitations: Since the university funds and oversees this type of program, it takes significant institutional investment to design and create. In addition, some students of minority faiths or non-religious philosophies may feel uncomfortable participating if a Christian Campus Ministry runs the program.

This structure may be best for your campus if:

  • There is currently a small, but committed group of students interested in interfaith leadership.
  • Your campus is visible in the world of collegiate interfaith work and would benefit from a consistent cohort of student leaders.
  • Significant resources are committed – such as staff and budget – to student leadership or interfaith programming.

Next Steps

Hopefully you have a better idea of what your group could look like at this point. You’re also probably wondering where to start, and much of that will depend on the assets and relationships you already have to call upon. Here are some tips for steps to take to get the ball rolling, and remember – it’s okay to start small.

1. Reach Out
If you’re a student, check with your friends, roommates, classmates, and other people you know already to gauge interest in participating in interfaith activities. Be sure to explain exactly what’s involved – dialogue, engagement, community service – so people know what they’re signing up for. Also, don’t forget to listen to others’ vision and ideas; your group will only be as strong as the bond between its members. Build a strong team from the start.

2. Find an Ally
Staff and faculty advisors are often the best resources you can have. They can point you to funding opportunities, connect you to people they know inside and outside of campus, and can help you think strategically about your group. Start by talking to a staff or faculty member you trust. Ask them for suggestions if they’re unable to commit – they may have colleagues who can help.

3. Make a Timeline 
Depending on how you envision your group taking shape, you will probably need to hold preliminary interest meetings and allocate time to write your group’s constitution. This is a tricky balance because you don’t want to lose momentum or excitement about your group, but a solid start will be important to its success.

4. Do the Paperwork
Download the documents your institution requires to form a group on campus and schedule plenty of time to complete them – wait until the night before the deadline and mistakes are bound to happen. Ask your ally or someone with a good eye for language to review the forms and offer feedback before you turn them in.

Once You’re Established

You will probably be excited to jump into interfaith activities (as you should be) but one of the most important things you can do to create a strong interfaith group is to solidify its sense of community. You will be a team, working for a better and more inclusive world. Kick off your semester with a mini-retreat somewhere on or around campus to set your goals for the year and to get to know one another more deeply. Establish safe space guidelines and tell stories, go through an interfaith dialogue, do fun (and interfaith friendly!) team-building activities, and set your schedule of meetings. If you’re unable to pull off a retreat, plan a longer first meeting to do similar activities.