Having His Say by Robert Thomason

FORTY YEARS OF MINISTRY IN HIGHER EDUCATION

            I was 31-years-old before I discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I had known since my late teens that I wanted to be in full-time Christian service.  For ten years, I thought that God’s calling for me was a career in law.  But after following that path to a coveted position with a large Atlanta law firm, with a new baby and a new house, I began to have doubts about whether I was fulfilling my calling.  When I finally discerned that my passion all along had been for the ministry of the church (as some of my elders had already tried to tell me), I took the plunge into those murky waters of theological study and ordination.  During my seminary days, I worked as a youth director, first in a local church and then for an annual conference, but, upon graduation, I followed the normative path of pastoral ministry, first as an associate in a large church and then as the pastor of a small congregation.  Still, I sensed I was in the wrong place of service.

Sometimes (certainly not always) the Methodist appointment system actually works.  In 1966, when I was sinking in the quicksand of the Oakwood church, for which I was not the appropriate pastor, my district superintendent called and asked, “What would you think about going to be Director of the Wesley Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia?”  Without much enthusiasm but desperate to get out of that quicksand in Oakwood, I agreed to give it a try.

            Exactly 40 years ago today, my wife Rose, our two pre-school sons Mark and Bryan (as well as our pre-school nephew Allen who was spending the summer with us), and I moved into the tiny four-room apartment inside the Wesley Foundation House.  I soon learned that God really did have a place of service just right for me.  And throughout my forty years in five ministries in higher education, I have felt that I was truly in the place God had called me to be.

The Milledgeville Experience

The Milledgeville Wesley Foundation served three campuses.  The “premiere” institution was the Woman’s College of Georgia, one of the last remaining state female colleges.  (It became coed while I was there.)  A few blocks away was Georgia Military College, a prep school and junior college situated on the grounds of the old state capitol.  And just outside town was Milledgeville State Hospital, with an Affiliate Program in Psychiatric Nursing for student nurses from hospital-based training programs.  The State Hospital was the only state mental health facility and had three times as many patients as the town had people.

Milledgeville, in the summer of 1966, was still very much the old South and, of course, a racially separated community.  I could stand at the front of the Wesley Foundation House and see a college residence hall just behind me, a decaying mansion built by a former governor in 1836 next door, the former governor’s mansion (now the home of the college president) across the street, and, next to that, the Cline home, where Flannery O’Connor’s mother still lived and where Flannery had lived until her death two years earlier.  Rising above those, I could see the spires of the college and the First Methodist Church, where I had my office.  Looking in the other direction, only another block away, I could see where the African American community began and, not coincidentally, the curb and sidewalk ended, and some of the houses were without electricity and running water.

The first January I was there, we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ministry, and I wrote these words for the occasion:

A ministry for the future will require authentic listening to the college communities and to what they are saying to the church…  A ministry for the future will find The Methodist Church losing its identity as such on the campus so that it can more adequately be the Church of Christ—the One who freely gave up His life for all [people]….  A ministry for the future will require serious study of theology and related fields….  A ministry for the future will involve students and others in significant and responsible action to alleviate suffering, rectify injustice, and make life more abundant….  A ministry for the future must be radically open to the future and to the God who calls the church into being, not simply out of the past but out of the unknown that lies ahead.

And then, almost as if I could really see into the future, I concluded:

A ministry for the future demands obedience to that call, even when it requires bold new steps that may prove to be unpopular and even unsuccessful.  A ministry for the future requires faith, for, like Abraham [and Sarah], we cannot know where we are to go, what things are going to be like when we get there, nor even why we must go, until we take our first, fumbling steps.

Emerging Themes of My Ministry

As I read those words in preparing for My Say, I realized, perhaps for the first time, how much certain beliefs about ministry have shaped all that I have been and done.  I want to highlight those beliefs throughout this reflection in the hope that they might be of some value to you or, at least, a basis for dialogue about what the church’s ministry is all about.  I’ll start with a few from my Milledgeville experience.

First, ministry is mutual.  We do not bring God to the campus.  God is already there in so many amazing ways.  Our initial task is to discern God’s activity.  Higher education is not “the enemy,” but, rather, one of God’s means for disclosing Godself.  I didn’t get much further with that theme in Milledgeville than listening, but it shaped my attitude from then on.

Second, ministry seeks to realize the unity Christ intended for the church.  Yes, I confess that I’m a hopelessly incurable ecumaniac.  I view ecumenism not as a pragmatic strategy for some situations but as a theological imperative for the whole church.  In Milledgeville that imperative led us to be more than just a denominational student club, and to reach out to a larger constituency through our weekend coffee house.  It led us to join our efforts with four other religious groups to reach out to the whole campus with such programs as a feature film series and dialogue held in a campus auditorium.

Third, ministry is more about asking questions than about supplying answers.  When I was in college, I attended the quadrennial National Convocation of Methodist Youth at Purdue University.  I will always remember the huge backdrop across the stage of the auditorium where our plenary sessions were held.  It was a panorama of all sorts of questions—mostly the “why” questions.  The convocation theme was “Living the Questions.”  That’s what the Bible encourages us to do, isn’t it?  In Milledgeville, we provided many opportunities and settings for struggling with questions—weekly programs for student nurses, a Sunday school class at the local church, a Sunday night supper discussion, the Saturday night coffee house.

Fourth, ministry is inescapably about social justice.  I can’t imagine how anyone can read about Jesus’ understanding of his call to ministry and not hear the summons to actively seek social justice.  In Milledgeville in the late sixties, that imperative clearly demanded action to address racial injustice.  The Woman’s College had, just the year before, admitted its first two African American students (two local young women living at home).  The town was still rigidly segregated; the local movie theater had a separate balcony for African Americans, for example.  The public schools began a slow integration process while I was there; my son Mark was in the first integrated class.  And, of course, the churches were racially divided.

One of Wesley’s first steps to address racial injustice was to respond to a white teacher’s request to provide a tutoring program for 20 African American children in her first grade class needing special help.  They came to the Wesley House every week, where tutoring was often followed by a meal and other activities led by Wesley students.  At the same time Wesley became the monthly meeting place for a local community action organization I helped to form called Concern.  Composed of 100 members, equally divided between black and white, Concern provided an outlet for concerned citizens within and outside the college to address community needs and issues.

Because Wesley had become known as a place where blacks and whites met as equals, it was natural that, as the numbers of African American students on campus increased, Wesley became their gathering place—on Saturday night at the coffee house as well as throughout the week.

After three years in Milledgeville, I was offered the Methodist Campus Ministry position at my alma mater, Emory University in Atlanta.  I was reluctant to leave.  I had never before felt more alive.  My continued ministry in Milledgeville, as you might imagine, was always precarious.  However, the Board each year voted to ask for my reappointment, albeit by a small majority.  I survived, I think, because I had learned two important survival skills.  (1) My Board always knew what I was doing, even when I knew they would not all support it.  (2) Our ministry was always interpreted in a theological framework.  It was not just me “doing my thing.”  It was us doing what God had called us to do.

Finally, though, I decided to leave, largely because maintaining family life while living in a student center had become too difficult, especially for my wife.  (I would probably not have been married to the remarkable woman who was my partner and soul mate for 42 years if I had not.)

The Emory Experience

Emory University in 1969 enrolled many of the brightest and best students the Southeast produced.  Still church-related but by no means church-dominated, it educated many of the leading professionals in the South—lawyers, doctors, preachers, business leaders, educators.  Just before I began my ministry there, the African American students had confronted the University with its racism and had been rebuffed by the administration.  A remarkable young man, Charles Haynes, just a sophomore and newly-elected President of the Student Government Association, had responded by organizing seven-week-long Seminars on White Racism for the entire University community.  I began my ministry at Emory by becoming part of his team.

The Methodist ministry at Emory was part of a loosely-bound United Campus Ministry, led by the University Chaplain Dick Devor.  Insofar as possible, each denominational ministry did its work through cooperative planning and on behalf of all.  Housed in University facilities, our focus was the total life of the University, including its many graduate schools.

It was a “season of discontent” at the University.  Not only were there tensions over racial discrimination, but the anti-war movement was reaching its peak as well.  The women’s movement was raising consciousness about the status and role of women in the University, and the mission of the University itself was being examined.

It was also the year that the results of the monumental Danforth Study of Campus Ministries were released with the publication of  Director Kenneth Underwood’s volume The Church, The University and Social Policy.  Our ministry throughout my five years at Emory was shaped by those findings.  We were especially led to affirm our role in helping the University to reflect on its calling and to examine its values and practices.  We wrote and circulated papers, such as the one on “Discrimination Against Women in the University.”  We organized forums, such as the six-months-long weekly luncheon discussion of “The Role of Emory in the Seventies.”  We served on University-wide committees, helping to address the issues we were raising, such as my service on SGA’s Racism Commission.  Former colleague J Springer of the NE Pennsylvania Higher Education Ministry captured graphically what we were trying to do, and it’s my next statement of belief about ministry.

Fifth, ministry is about “seasoning the center rather than hustling on the sidelines.”

In 1970 the University Chaplain, our team leader, went off to do a sabbatical, and I was named Acting University Chaplain in addition to my role as Methodist Campus Minister.  One of the new duties I assumed was responsibility for the Sunday morning service of worship for the University community.  That service took many forms, but there was one continuing expectation.  It must be original, creative, and authentic.  Many preachers filled the pulpit during my two years in this leadership role.  Numerous liturgies were composed, worship settings designed, forms of music and dance employed, themes explored, and media tried to enable the gospel to come alive for the diverse congregation of worshippers.

Sixth, ministry is proclaiming the gospel in language and other symbols that can be heard by the contemporary culture.

The anti-war movement at Emory, as on many campuses across the country, reached new heights with the killing of students at Kent State University and Jackson State College in the spring of 1970.  The most difficult “sermon” I have ever preached was the one I was called on to offer at a rally on the quadrangle organized by student leaders following those tragedies.  Two of the most meaningful ritual acts I have ever participated in were the sharing of cups of water during a peace fast in front of the campus food service center and the making of paper cranes during a peace rally.

Seventh, ministry is the response of Christian faith in non-traditional settings with ritual acts in response to current events.

Two urgent pastoral issues for students in the 70s were the draft and problem pregnancies.  Most college counseling services were ill equipped to respond to these issues.  At Emory, the United Campus Ministry secured needed training and provided such specialized counseling, eventually assisting the College Council to establish a Draft Counseling Center and coordinating a network called the Clergy Consultation Service to assist young women with problem pregnancies.  Recognizing that student advisers in the residence halls are the “front-line” counselors for most undergraduates, our team of campus ministers negotiated chaplaincy roles in each residence hall and focused primarily on assisting the student advisers in dealing with the problems they encountered.

Eighth, ministry is providing pastoral care for a community by identifying, enlisting,  equipping, and supporting a team of caregivers.

In 1972, when we learned that the University Chaplain would not return and that the future of the position was in jeopardy, our “united” ministry began to fall apart.  The Presbyterian Campus Minister Emmett Herndon and I, though, continued to be a team, sharing almost all our programming and creating new ministries together.

One of those new ministries that emerged came to be known as the Emory Committee on Biomedical Ethics.  It came about from a casual conversation with an anatomy professor one morning in a campus parking lot.  He talked about the ethical questions with which he was struggling in the basic brain research he was doing.  We asked if he might be interested in sharing that struggle with others from a variety of disciplines who might help to clarify the issues and options.  We assembled a team of dreamers and planners and eventually more than 200 persons from across the University and community joined us—folks from theology and law, administrators from the Center for Disease Control and the State Department of Health, liberal arts professors and nursing instructors, graduate students and full professors, faculty from Emory and from other local institutions, local pastors and social workers.  We met about six times a year to hear a presentation, like the initial one presented by the anatomy professor, and to engage in dialogue about the ethical issues raised.  That program is still alive and well today.

Ninth, ministry is opportunistic, connecting folks with similar concerns and enabling them to minister to one another.

MAHEM

Partly growing out of this experience transcending campus boundaries, we decided to do a survey of campus ministry in the whole metropolitan Atlanta area.  The pattern was clear.  The churches had concentrated almost all their ministry resources on two campuses—Georgia Tech and Emory.  The institution with the largest enrollment in the state, all commuters, was Georgia State University.  It had almost no ministry presence. The Atlanta University System, a consortium of traditionally African American schools, was likewise neglected.  Needless to say, the recently-established community colleges encircling the city had not even appeared on the radar screen of most churches’ concern.

Shocked by this basic unfairness in the allocation of ministry resources, Herndon and I developed a proposal for addressing the inequities and expanding the scope of the churches’ ministry.  The proposal was to create a Metropolitan Atlanta Higher Education Ministry.  Its acronym was MAHEM.  That alone may have been enough to seal its fate from the beginning.

Knowing that additional funds would be difficult to obtain, Herndon and I proposed that our ministries re-deploy us part of the time to develop this new ministry and funding for it.  We envisioned a four-fold thrust: (1) Development of new ministries; (2) Training volunteers within institutions for the task of ministry; (3) Conducting research to discover the most effective ways of doing ministry; and (4) Hands-on ministries, particularly ones that seemed appropriate for an area-wide approach.

While our local ministry boards at Emory and the Presbyterian judicatory were willing to provide our services to launch this new work, the Methodist judicatory was not.  By this time, I had become so strongly committed to the project and was so “psyched up” for trying something new, that I could not simply file our proposal away.  Providentially, I believe, at about the same time, I read a notice in the Chronicle of Higher Education seeking a campus minister to launch a metropolitan ministry in Jacksonville, Florida.  It sounded strikingly similar to what Herndon and I had proposed for Atlanta.  So I applied, was called, and appointed.

The Jacksonville Experience

For eighteen months, a group of church and college leaders in Jacksonville had been meeting to explore the establishment of a ministry with the higher education institutions in the city.  Schools initially represented were Jacksonville University (private, independent, largely residential) and the University of North Florida (an upper-class and graduate state university, wholly commuter, only 10 years old).  The vision, though, was larger, and included the several campuses of Florida Junior College at Jacksonville and Edward Waters College (a traditionally African American four-year college related to the A.M.E. Church).  Participating local churches and judicatories represented six denominations (you could guess which ones, except for one surprise—a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation).  Official representatives of both churches and colleges had created a structure and secured funding for a creative, new approach to ministry designed to address the new realities of higher education—commuters, many of whom were non-traditional students, inadequate church resources to provide ministers for each campus, etc.

When I arrived in Jacksonville the doors immediately began to open for me, and I began to reap the benefits of the careful developmental work, led by Ed Albright, which had prepared the way.  Two campus offices had already been arranged; twelve participating local churches already viewed me as their minister on campus; and a committed group of representative Board members were ready to provide their services for the work of “our” ministry.

Tenth, ministry is best when done as a partnership between church and college.

During my ten years in Jacksonville, I learned to think in a whole new way about ministry in higher education.  I managed to shed the “lone ranger” model and found the joy that comes from being the enabler of a host of “ministers” from church and campus.  A few examples will illustrate.  A local pastor and members from his congregation provided Divorce Rap on campus for those struggling with the pain of that experience.  A team of students, college administrators, and church youth leaders provided a city-wide Going to College Seminar for senior high school students.  Several local clergy team-taught a college religion course.  Families from local churches “adopted” local international students, and hundreds of church volunteers hosted 50 students from across the country at Christmas International House.  A student and faculty team organized Student/Faculty Dialogue Groups, meeting in faculty homes.

Eleventh, ministry is multiplied when volunteers are enabled to carry out a variety of ministries.

            While we never managed to provide ministries on every campus in the city, we were able to add Edward Waters College and one of the FJC campuses to our partnership, as well as churches of two additional denominations.

The Northern Virginia Experience

            By 1984, I was ready for a new challenge in a new place.  United College Ministries in Northern Virginia, committed to serving George Mason University and the five campuses of Northern Virginia Community College, was seeking new leadership.  I was called to be their first full-time Minister Director.  Located in the Virginia suburbs of Metropolitan Washington, UCMNV had an 18-year history of struggle and endurance.  Their vision was much like that of the Jacksonville ministry.  One of the unique challenges they faced was the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-national, multi-everything character of the student bodies.  Early on, we determined that faithful ministry for us required that we find ways to connect to that reality.

Metro Washington has unique resources for ministry.  It’s home for several theological schools and scores of underemployed clergy.  We devised a plan to link those resources to that multi-everything reality by employing part-time chaplains to serve particular campuses and/or particular racial ethnic populations.  Our chaplains were sometimes seminary interns earning field education credit; other times, they were underemployed local clergy, doing our ministry along with another.  During my thirteen years at UCMNV, we employed 37 different campus chaplains.  We were convinced that the best way to demonstrate that we were serious about ministry with a variety of racial ethnic groups was to reflect diversity in our staff.  Half of our chaplains during those years were persons of color–from four different racial ethnic groups.  In the latter years, we often had four chaplains, each from a different racial ethnic background.

Twelfth, ministry is most clearly identified as ministry for all people when there is racial ethnic diversity among the staff.

            As our chaplains began their work each year, they would initially identify those on campus who might be thought of as “outcasts.”  After all, Jesus, in his ministry, seemed to have a particular affinity for those members of society.  The outcasts might be the LGBT students or the Muslim community or particular racial ethnic populations.  They would establish a relationship with those groups, usually through their organizations.  Specific ministries would develop from that relationship.

Thirteenth, ministry is especially attentive to those who might be considered “outcasts” in the campus community.

Our chaplains would also identify key campus organizations, such as student government or the campus newspaper.  After establishing a relationship of trust with those organizations, opportunities for cooperative programming would often emerge.  An example was our region-wide sponsorship of lectures about peacemaking, featuring a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, held on each of our campuses and in a church setting, funded jointly by a variety of campus organizations.

Fourteenth, ministry is best offered, where possible, in coalition with other campus groups who share the vision.

            On commuter campuses, it is particularly challenging to find a way to connect with the lives of students.  Two ways that proved to be particularly effective for us were projects borrowed from other places: The Listening Post and the Praxis Project.  The Listening Post, staffed by volunteers, provided a table in a busy place on campus (usually near food) where a friendly listener offered peanuts and non-judgmental conversation.  Available several hours each week on multiple campuses, the Post attracted hundreds eager to be heard.

The Praxis Project enabled students enrolled in certain classes to perform community service for course credit.  The chaplains negotiated the service settings and led reflection groups processing the experience.

Fifteenth, ministry is most effective when it can find a way to “infiltrate” the busy lives of students.

Beyond the Campus

            When I decided to retire in 1997 I was not yet ready to sever my ties with campus ministry.  The National Campus Ministry Association had provided a vital network throughout my years of ministry.  I had been a member almost as long as the organization had existed.  I had served a three-year term as a Regional Representative of the Southeast in the early 70s.  I had initiated and planned Southeast Regional Conferences for ten years.  I had helped plan national conferences in Fort Worth, in Durham, and in Washington in the 80s and 90s.  I had been the Partnership Program Coordinator throughout the 90s.  Knowing that George and Sally Gunn were seeking to relinquish their responsibilities as Membership Secretary and Newsletter Editor, I offered my services.  (You don’t have to wait to be asked.  Just volunteer.)  My offer was accepted and here I have been, gladly, for the last nine years of my higher education ministry—minding the store, so to speak.  I’ve been paid a small salary to do it, but I would have happily done it for nothing.  Helping this organization fulfill its mission and maintaining the network of relationships among all of you have been the joy and delight of my retirement.

Fifteen years ago, when the Northern Virginia ministry celebrated its 25th anniversary, I wrote about the challenges facing us.  To my amazement, they seem to me to be the same challenges that face us today.  There are four of them:

(1)  A higher education community which is increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-faith.  I ask: Can we, ministries rooted in a Christian faith shaped largely by Western culture and the American experience, overcome our cultural chauvinism to allow the God of all creation and all peoples to be seen and experienced?

(2)  A mainline Protestant community which is increasingly anxious about its future and constantly tempted to care more about institutional survival than the needs of the world.  I ask:  Can we, ministries of service to the world, in particular, the world of higher education, totally dependent on the “missionary” vision and generosity of the church, continue to be a priority on the church’s agenda?

(3)  A higher education community, which continues to grow in enrollment, in diversity, in numbers of institutions, and in “campuses” (virtual and otherwise) where courses are taught.  I ask: Can we, ministries still struggling to be fully present on the campuses we already serve, find ways to extend our outreach beyond its present scope?

(4)  A society (including both church and campus) which is increasingly secular but which continues to hunger and thirst for meaning.  I ask: Can we, a ministry which values loving God with our minds, discover new ways to engage people in the church and on campus in the search for truth and meaning?

Now I want to do something to encourage you as you face these challenges.  I want to pledge an annual contribution of $2,000 to NCMA for as long as I am able to give it to be awarded each year to one or more ministries for new program initiatives that best address these challenges.

I’ll sign off now with the words that have concluded my ministry in at least three places.  This will make the fourth.  They’re words of Dag Hammarsjold, the late Secretary General of the United Nations:  “For all that has been, thanks.  To all that shall be, yes!”

 June 30, 2006

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