A PERSONAL RETROSPECTIVE ON MY CAMPUS MINISTRY YEARS
The Reverend Paul C. Walley
“36 years as a campus minister in one place? You’ve got to be kidding!”
No, I’m not kidding. It’s true ~ and I loved the whole ride. I guess you could say longevity has its value, especially if you are comfortable with the niche you are in. I was. One of my board members said that it was a natural fit: this ecumenical campus ministry and me. I agree. It was at State University of New York in New Paltz, New York. I also am continuing on with the small church I pastor part-time in West Camp, New York (www.stpaulswestcamp.com).
What I’d not like to do here is bore you with an endless history of “I did this – then I developed that – and then …” and on and on and on. I’d rather hit the high notes, lift up the things I most remember or that stand out for me as I reflect back on my many years in campus ministry.
Let me kick it right into high gear with this: I decided early on that I would try some things that I enjoyed or got me excited. My hope was that students and faculty/staff might join in because they liked them too. For the most part, this thesis worked well. Occasionally something would flop. So then we would let it go and attempt something else. I tended to keep the programs or ventures that worked well (as they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”) over the years.
So, you newbies out there in campusland, do an inscape search. If it turns you on, try it. [Now I am assuming that you have some moral scruples and are not doing anything illegal or foolhardy]. But there has to be room to experiment. I once had a communion worship using hot rolls with butter on them, leading one student to term this unorthodox service “hot buttered God.” If you are going to explore, develop a somewhat tough skin to ward off your critics. But keep your warm heart and creative mind. They are invaluable gifts of God in this unpredictable ministry.
My first love were our retreats. It is my contention that these weekends / weeks are the most lasting experiences you can give to your students and colleagues. So we had a rafting retreat to start the fall semesters discussing our river challenges (five in each rubber raft) as a paradigm of the Christian life. The Presbyterian ministry team of the church we stayed in overnight (sleeping bags on the floor) were a talented musical team and fired us up with new songs. We also had a theatre retreat in the NYC church of an Episcopal priest I knew, seeing “The Elephant Man” and discussing it with the actors. A fall retreat at Weston Priory was a favorite of mine, rousing the students for a 5 a.m. Vigil in candlelight and sharing with these Benedictine Brothers. My wife and I took our canoe and let students use it on a nearby lake. Our Fall Retreat in Vermont was the most traditional: three worship services (each different) closing with joyful communion.
In addition, I got the Habitat for Humanity bug and initiated a campus chapter with our student activities director and a student in a fraternity (he became our first president). Each spring we went on HFH’s Collegiate Challenge, 15-20 students building houses in snowy West Virginia to the sunny beaches of South Carolina. In 2008 after I retired the chapter went to New Orleans and asked me to go with them. Habitat attracted students who didn’t go to church but just wanted “to help people.” We tried many other things along the way but these were my staples.
An on-campus activity we ran each year was called Skip-A-Dinner. It netted over 1,000 sign-ups with students giving up the cost of a meal (the College took it off their meal card). The success was when I invited the sororities and fraternities to sit at our sign-up tables on campus. With such a cross-cut of campus, they got their friends into it and put us over the top most years. I also ran around taking photos and offering prizes for top volunteers. Money raised was given to the United Nations World Food Program, CROP, and Trinity Church Soup Kitchen in NYC.
Oh, yes, we did the traditional stuff like weekly Bible studies, Word and Worship on campus in our office, and monthly visits to our supporting churches. The trick in all this was our talented Peer Ministry Team (3-6 students each semester) who got student stipends (small) and worked their tails off for our ministry. One semester they did a liturgical dance to a conga drum they had learned at an ecumenical student retreat. Another semester they performed “Puppets Go to Church” for the children’s sermon (while lightly roasting the local pastors!) in churches.
Faculty & staff showed up for an early morning monthly discussion series with video segments on authors writing short stories with Christian connections. We moved it to the lunch hour for better attendance and it became a brown bag byo thing. The Food Service supplied homemade cookies and beverage. We had Christian guests mostly, but some other faiths too.
Speaking of other faiths, I am pleased to learn my successor is continuing the interfaith Thanksgiving dinner on campus. I went to one my first year after retiring. It was great to see the huge circle of prayer by various student reps from our spiritual multifaith mix on campus. (yes, Wiccan and the Pagan Student Society were welcomed as well).
We did tons of other interesting things over the years. Not all were initiated by me or the SCC. I did occasional guest lectures. Students invited West Point cadets for joint activities for a time. For a while I showed short movies in the residence halls at 10 p.m. We had a covenant house student community the first four years until family came along and we re-shaped our ministry more as an outreach mission. Carole, my devoted wife and partner, led and taught sewing at a detention facility nearby with students assisting her. We ventured into a state prison for worship and discussion with adult inmates (ours was the first co-ed group to be granted regular entrance), enjoying the correctional facility gospel choir each Sunday. I heard attendance increased when we came ~ partly because of our lively and attractive students, I am sure! (as well as the Spirit of Christ in our midst). This ministry was enabled by the Episcopal prison chaplain and colleague.
Sure, I had some down times. One pastor talked his governing body into de-funding us. But a lay member of this church brought it to the congregation and they reversed their own council! I wondered if I should seek another calling and did take a gifts assessment test, very intense ~ but it only confirmed that I was in just the right position for/with my gifts and personal style. I had my disagreements with students at times (one slammed down her keys and stormed out, vowing never to return to our campus office!). Another student over-extended his SCC time to the neglect of his studies; I had to throw him out of the office “until you get your grades up!”
(he has since become a pastor of a Lutheran church in the Midwest and is still a close friend).
My dear wife had serious mental issues and cancer which caused much stress our last ten years.
But through it all, God kept us together as we struggled and served. My swing dancing gives energy and new life to me socially. Our children encourage me as they forge their own lives and careers in their social work, teaching and administrative worlds. My first grandchild arrives in August! My wife is looking down on all of this with pride and gratitude, like me. What a wild and wonderful ride this amazing thing called campus ministry has been for me. Alleluia!
Paul C Walley *SCC = Student Christian Center
July 22, 2013 Ecumenical Campus Ministry
at SUNY New Paltz