Doing Construction Poorly (A Memoir of Campus Ministry)

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photo by Erik Lucatero via Unsplash

It’s Spring Break time for a lot of college students in the next few weeks and around this time of year my thoughts turn to doing construction work poorly.  That’s how I spent my Spring Breaks for seven years as a campus minister—taking my willing hands and severely limited construction know-how to diverse places in the company of bright and energetic young people.  Sometimes we got more into my skill set as when we sorted food in a Philadelphia food bank or when I sang “I Will Survive” at a karaoke night with people served by a St. Louis program for mental illness.

But a lot of times it was construction—on roofs in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, at a Native American church in Yuma, Arizona and on a trailer in eastern Kentucky.  I learned a lot, but it was the cultural stretching that mattered—for the students and for me.  We met God on those trips.

Not only do those times stick with me, but they also lead me to believe that campus ministry is one of the most under-appreciated areas of the church’s life.  It’s not too much to say that those trips and the many other seemingly more mundane interactions of campus ministry changed lives.  I still remember driving down a South Texas road and looking over at a student who had been very affected by the realities of life on the border that week.  She looked out the open window of the van and mumbled, almost to herself, “I could see myself working here.”  It was a moment of calling and it led her to ordained ministry and eventually back to the border.

In a recent podcast of Crackers and Grape Juice, the Rev. Christy Thomas, a long-time commentator on the United Methodist Church, said something to the effect that if the church really cared about its future it would invest heavily in campus ministry since that is where it is most likely to touch and be transformed by young people.  Back in the early 60s, the church made such an investment and many of our Wesley Foundations on college campuses have their roots in that period.  Generations of new church leaders came from those Wesley Foundations.

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The Wesley Foundation at UVA

Things happened in the relationship between our campus ministries and the denomination.  As campus ministries addressed the social movements of the day and welcomed vibrant discussions on issues like race, sexuality, and peace with justice, it unsettled older generations.  Over time, the buildings, that were innovative and useful in the 60s, got old and tired.  Financial support from the connection waned and campus ministers began to spend more and more time in fundraising.  In the face of tight budgets, campus ministry didn’t fare well on a cost-benefit analysis if the benefit was seen strictly in numbers.

And yet, some of the most vital things that are happening in our church are still happening on the campuses of colleges and universities.  New worship communities are being formed.  New clergy are finding their call.  Strong lay leaders are emerging.  The potential is there to re-form a church that worries it is too old to survive.  And yes, a lot of inexperienced carpenters are still heading out to learn a little bit more about construction as they encounter God in the people they meet.

What can churches do to support campus ministry?  Connect young people with their campus ministries when they head off to college.  Support the apportionment giving that helps fund these ministries and the United Methodist Student Day offering.  Invite campus ministers, chaplains, and college students to share the stories of what’s happening in their lives and ministries.  And get on to the campus yourself, even if your local campus is a community college.

There is an unsubtle bias that I sometimes heard as a campus minister—a belief that what happens in campus ministry is somehow less engaging or important than what happens in more traditional forms of church.  I sometimes heard it starkly put, as when a colleague would say, “When are you coming back to real ministry?”  I knew then and I know now that it was the most real ministry I was ever a part of.  Even if I never did learn how to fix a roof.

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