Applying to Christian Colleges Without Pastor Reference

Question: I have already spent the entirety of my junior year narrowing down my list of colleges that I would like to go to. My top two colleges that I have a great chance of getting into require a “character/spiritual” letter of recommendation from a pastor since these are private, Christian universities. I rarely go to church so I am unable to get a letter of recommendation but I really want to go to one of these schools to expand my faith. What should I do?

“The Dean” has not seen this question before, and it’s an interesting one. Obviously, the officials at the private Christian universities on your list believe that students who actively practice their faith are best suited to their school. By requesting a letter from a pastor, they can gauge which applicants seem most involved at church, and they may be wary of those candidates who can’t find a pastor to write on their behalf.

But, on the other hand, I think that such schools might be willing to also welcome an applicant who is seeking a stronger religious connection. So here’s what I suggest you do:

1. Contact the Christian colleges on your list and ask for the name & contact information for the staff member who oversees applications from your high school.

2. Write to him or her (email is fine) and explain what you have just told me … i.e., that you have researched colleges carefully and have identified this one as a place you’d like to enroll, despite your current lack of church involvement. Then briefly explain why this school is a good match for you. Point out that you’re hoping to expand your faith but currently have no pastor who can advocate for you in a recommendation … and ask what your next steps should be. (If you have a compelling reason for why you have not been attending church, you might want to include that, too.)

My best guess is that you will be asked to provide a reference from another individual who can discuss your character and ethics, even if not your spirituality. This could be a community-service advisor, scout leader, employer, coach, etc. or maybe even a neighbor or family friend, especially if he or she is a practicing Christian.

It’s also possible that the admission official will suggest that you start going to church now, so that you will have established some relationship with a pastor by the time your applications are due.

Alternatively, if you attend church “rarely” but do go sometimes, you might even be able to explain your dilemma to the pastor of the church that you occasionally attend. He or she may be willing to set up a couple meetings with you to get to know you better and then would write on your behalf. But, if you feel like this won’t be a comfortable situation … or a viable option … it’s certainly not an imperative.

I don’t think that the lack of a pastor’s reference will be an automatic deal-breaker, but it makes sense to take some measures now—rather than waiting until the fall—to see how you should proceed.

I also suggest posting your dilemma on the College Confidential Christian Colleges forum, if you have not already done so, to see if other students have been in your shoes and how they handled it. I’ll post this in “Ask the Dean” as well to see if we can get some additional advice.