Out on a Limb by Hugh Nevin

Hugh Nevin

Out on a Limb:  33½ years (1963-1996) in campus ministry

            In retrospect it’s easy to say where I’ve been as a campus minister:  16 years on Long Island (in two positions); 3 years (in as many positions) traveling New York State; and 14½ years in New York’s Capital District (in two positions).  Fleshing that out a bit and providing some flavor takes a little more doing.  But to stay with the overview for a minute,  the Long Island and Capital District positions were all new when I came to them; the State level positions were all interim.  More, in the Capital District the positions were half-time; the other part of my time was as interim pastor in eight churches (plus a ninth in a three-year installed relationship).  At the time the changes simply unfolded.   In retrospect the question is there:  was I being called to a career of staffing startups and transitions.

It was a conversation I had in 1962 with George Pera, Presbyterian University Pastor at New York University, that probably sealed my decision to become a campus minister.  Though I didn’t know it at the time of the conversation, George was a representative of an about-to-vanish breed, APUPs, the Association of Presbyterian University Pastors.  With the founding of NCMA in 1964, APUPs went out of existence.

I was not at the initial gathering of NCMA in St. Louis in 1964; I was at Michigan State the following year.  Beginning life as a campus minister by starting up an area ministry on the eastern two-thirds of the Long Island land mass kept my interests and attention focused locally in those first years.  My family and I had arrived in Stony Brook in January, 1963.  An initial objective was to cultivate the Board of The Campus Christian Federation of Suffolk County (later the United Campus Ministries of Suffolk County) and develop its activities, while at the same time creating a network of key persons on and near the four non-parochial campuses of the County.  There was also an equally important project:  bring Protestant student groups into existence on all four campuses. One had been in process of formation at Stony Brook when I arrived; the other three were added by the spring of 1965. The worship-study-service-fellowship model guided the development of these groups. The four campuses included:  The State University of New York at Stony Brook (across the railroad tracks from our home in Stony Brook village), Suffolk County Community College in Selden (a 15-minute drive), Adelphi Suffolk (later renamed Dowling College) in Oakdale (a 30-minute drive) and Southampton College in Southampton (an hour’s drive).  By the late 1970s Southampton’s student group had ceased activity and was restarted as part of a sub-area ministry including Southampton and the Riverhead expansion campus of the Community College; part time local staffing was engaged for this Peconic Ministry. Altogether the campuses were young or brand new and growing institutions;  increasing enrollments, new faculty and staff, and building projects were the order of the day.

Regarding the pace and extent of ministry activity in the early years, a comment the Federation treasurer made to me is instructive:  “You’ll have to decide how much money you can use for program and how much you need to live on.”  Once we became a tax exempt organization, this pressure eased somewhat.  Other examples of campus ministry activity/concern in the early years included the following: in several situations, local churches were active in developing student fellowships; the community college president let it be known that he (a leader in his local church) didn’t want a campus minister living within ten miles of his campus.  (A separate story:  the Claritian priests conducting the Catholic campus ministries in the County waged the public and legal battle that opened the door for the establishment of religious ministries on campuses throughout the State University of New York system.)  Students were active tutoring migrant children, and faculty and staff on campuses both advised groups and took the initiative to mount programs such as “The Place of Religion in the Academic Enterprise.”  The Stony Brook student group hosted the pastor of the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, while the campus itself experienced a drug bust.

Three key events took place in the fall of 1965:

➧ 37 faculty and staff from 9 Long Island campuses gathered in Riverhead (where the eastern forks of the Island begin) for a Consultation requested by the Nassau and Suffolk County campus ministry boards with lead funding from the Church in Higher Education Projects Committee in New York State.  Colgate Rochester Divinity School theologian William Hamilton keynoted the event.  Case study papers describing Hillel, Newman, Denominational Protestant, and United Protestant approaches formed the basis for discussion.  The United Protestant paper was presented by Earl Lowell, Coordinator of the New York Commission for United Ministries in Higher Education in New York (UMHE).  In addition to myself, two other local campus ministers were present, Paul Kaylor, Campus Pastor at Adelphi University, and Charles Kinzie, Campus Pastor at Hofstra and C. W. Post College.

➧ Elsewhere that fall, campus ministers from six areas – Buffalo, Rochester, Canton-Potsdam, Troy, Nassau and Suffolk counties – gathered for a day-long consultation on the nature of area ministries.

➧ A small university-community group at Stony Brook began a series of meetings on the topic of “Otherness” led by David Roomy, Associate Director of the Episcopal Council for Foreign Students and Other Visitors, Inc.  The University was under a mandate to develop graduate programs at an unusually fast pace; it began recruiting graduate students from Taiwan (even a few from China through Hong Kong) and Japan.  The University had no staff or program for their orientation to an American community and campus life.  Out of the Roomy study group we developed an organization which we named Community Hospitality for International Students (CHIS).  For a number of years it hosted sixty or more incoming international students each fall; they stayed with community families (identified initially through local churches) as a vehicle for orientation before the semester began, many developing ongoing relationships.  One evening, when host families were meeting in a campus dorm, the lights went out for a period of time:  no one panicked.  Hearing about it, the University President pronounced it a noteworthy example of improving town-gown relations that community residents would feel comfortable under such circumstances.  The University finally added a foreign student advisor position and the program was then directed by that person. Eventually the Federation was no longer officially involved.

In the spring of 1967, on behalf of the state level UMHE Commission, a campus ministry review team spent three days in which they visited the four campuses, interviewed numerous persons on and off campus and held group meetings.   To the extent a single sentence can capture the team’s findings, it is this:  “Although neither the Federation nor Hugh Nevin were known by everyone on each campus, their presence was felt on every campus.”

The advent of CHIS initiated a new stage in project work (a strategy that, by then, our Board had formally adopted):  some projects could be developed and then spun off.  The most long lasting of such efforts was the next project undertaken, again in reaction to an emergent need.  Psychology graduate students at Stony Brook who served as staff in the counseling center were rumored to be using their counseling information as the basis for academic papers.  True or not, it precipitated a crisis of confidence on campus.  Considering the situation, three of us – a tenured faculty member, biologist Jim Fowler (now deceased), local Methodist pastor John Paul Hankins, and I – set a goal.  We imagined the establishment of a crisis intervention phone service, identified a facility for it (an unnamed local church), and agreed on a person who could staff the project once initiated.  We then set about getting the ball rolling.  Conceived in 1969, RESPONSE began operations in 1971 as a campus ministry program with a group of 50 to 80 trained student, faculty and community volunteers under the steady leadership of our chosen staffer, recently-graduated Stony Brook student Maureen Bybee. (In addition to significant phone usage, there was an unexpected byproduct: student volunteers bonded with older community volunteers.)  After several years RESPONSE was able to receive funding from Suffolk County.  Soon after that it was spun off as a separate agency.  RESPONSE of Suffolk County is still active today.

Another project in the spinoff mode was the creation of a local agency, Community and Youth Services (CYS), with a variety of programs guided by a professional staff person and volunteer leaders and workers.  A professor in the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, a local church youth leader, and I provided leadership during the development stage.  The key ingredient was the community needs assessment undertaken to fulfill a class assignment by students in the School of Social Welfare.  Their final group paper was reworked as a proposal and a budget was added.  County funding was forthcoming.

Two other areas of involvement deserve mention. Stony Brook’s Administrative Officer, Karl Hartzell, spearheaded efforts over several years and eventually secured funding for a year-long study (1970-71) of the feasibility of establishing a major Center for Religion and Society at the University.  For a variety of reasons, faculty opposition not the least of them, the effort faltered. In retrospect, a comment in a letter to me from the Director of the study as he departed (I was on vacation at the time) – helpful then in quelling opposition to our strategy by some stakeholders – seems more notable in retrospect as a suggestion of the common fate of our enterprises. Robert V. Smith (a Methodist, on leave from his position as Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University) wrote:  “I’m sorry I did not accomplish more, but I did what I could.  Since my present model for the Center is much like what you do, I hope you will continue to support it.”    The experience with the Center proposal did have one lasting impact:  our ministry and others serving the campus developed a proposal for a modest interfaith center.  Four years after Bob Smith’s efforts, this initiative was successful in adding a permanent feature to Student Services – not least, as regards faculty support, because of the efforts of a member of the English Department, theologian Thomas Altizer.

Another example of church interest in creating new ministries in the growing Suffolk County area was a project of the Presbytery of Long Island.  Its Nesconset Experimental Ministry led by the Rev. David Bos and his co-director, Father Peter Ryan of the local Catholic Diocese, developed programs in response to the needs of those living in the marketing area of a major shopping center under construction, Smith Haven Mall (three miles from the Stony Brook campus).  Smith Haven Ministries (its incorporated name) was successful in securing significant space in the mall, opening with a full time staff of four.  David and I discovered a variety of ways in which our ministries could cooperate together, often utilizing University personnel or students (programs with Schools in the Health Sciences Center were noteworthy).  In addition to sharing office space for a period of time, while I was on sabbatical thanks to a Danforth Campus Ministry Grant, David served the Federation in a consulting role in my absence.

Part Two

            My second position on Long Island was created by developments at the state level in New York.  Because it did not involve any physical change in living and basic work settings for me, it would be easy to imagine it was simply a transition to another stage.  The change, however, involved a new call and the replacement of one working situation with a quite different one.  The merging of the Nassau and Suffolk campus ministry boards was what happened locally to create one of eight area ministries covering New York State:  the result, Long Island United Campus Ministries (LIUCM) was also UMHE on Long Island.  Statewide, 28 separate local ministries became 8 area ministries, the unique history of each Area dictating the changes necessary – often from assignments to a single campus – to create area ministries in which staff were deployed in teams with both area and statewide portfolios.  The New York State UMHE Commission process, completed in the spring of 1972, considered all local staff who wished to be involved and redeployed them, 18 in all, assigning Tom Philipp (previously at SUNY Oswego upstate) and me to the Island.

On Long Island, because I had already been working in a smaller area there that was now being enlarged – from 4 campuses to potentially more than four times that number, I did not experience the change as dramatic; Tom did.  One of the students active in the Christian Association at Stony Brook when I arrived over nine years earlier, Gerda Barber, wrote an article for a local paper describing the changes at a time when the new pattern was five years old, an article reprinted in the national UMHE publication, Connexion.   In it Tom described the shock of going from being a well-known campus leader to a campus visitor known by only a few.

However, in the article Tom also described the development of a project initiated with his leadership.  We had had a peace education – draft counseling project during the Vietnam War.  When the War ended (troops began returning in 1973), a survey we conducted indicated that there were 16,000 Vietnam veterans on twelve of the campuses in our area, with many more in our communities.  By creating a veterans peer counseling network, our ministry was able to provide a needed resource.  Many veterans had problems relating to standard campus procedures; they could relate to their peers, who were able to provide both basic support and serve as guides or intermediaries in accessing campus resources.

Emblematic of what ministry meant during the UMHE on Long Island years was the statewide Lay Ministry Training Project, which I had a hand in initiating.  In response to the World Council of Churches emphasis on the missionary structure of the congregation, a small group working under the title of the Metropolitan Associates of Philadelphia (MAP) – represented most often, in our experience, by Richard R. Broholm – had created the Lay Ministry for Organizational Change Strategy.  A well-articulated training program introduced several of us as statewide staff to a process in which each of us with a non-staff partner from our Area was trained in the Strategy. Part of that training included each of these teams replicating the training with others in their own Areas.  The Strategy was applicable for enabling ministry in whatever church and community or campus setting each participant chose to engage; I produced a local training workbook as a resource.

Long Island was the only Area to specifically identify its work as project-oriented.  Staff in other Areas  were quite effective in this and other ways in their own situations.    One with special prominence was William Gibson, a member of the Southern Tier Area staff whose EcoJustice Task Force work was influential far beyond the bounds of New York State.

The issue we all confronted was the problem of replacing the familiar chaplaincy/campus ministry model with a way of presenting the area model of ministry in higher education that captured the imagination of both church leaders and people in the pews, or at least dissuaded its outright opponents.  Truth to tell, most of us as staff would not have listed area ministry as a choice, though I can recall only one outright voice of opposition once the change was made.  However, other incontrovertible facts soon became apparent: the reduction, between 1972 and 1979, of the statewide staff from 18 to 12; a pattern of declining income; and a projected 1980 deficit of $100,000 (roughly a third of our statewide budget).

The end came at a meeting of the UMHE in New York Executive Board on June 2, 1979 at which the following objectives were adopted:

“1.  Participation in the development of a new set of goals, strategies,  structures and funding supports to carry on ministry in higher education in the state.

2.  Cessation of the present program of staffing as of June 30, 1980.

3.  Cessation of operations by the UMHE/NY Executive Board as of

December 31, 1980.”

I approached this development from a newly-acquired perspective.  At the beginning of 1979, I had become the Interim Executive Director of UMHE/NY.  In this role I now provided staff service to a high-level Futures Planning Committee that worked from July through November,1979 to implement the first objective.  In addition, I worked with Jon Regier, Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches, and the Council’s Design Task Force as it developed a state level component for the emerging picture.

I also worked with the UMHE/NY Executive Board and Area personnel to prepare for the cessation of all area staff employment.  Part of the effectiveness of these various operations was that they were guided by groups of people with single objectives:  those looking ahead didn’t have to look back; those winding things down didn’t have to worry about what would happen next.  As the one who staffed both kinds of activity, I did not enjoy the same luxury.  At some point in the first half of 1980 I entered on a second interim position, becoming Higher Education Project Staff for the Council of Churches.

Once the Council’s Design Task Force had determined that the Council should have a higher education position on its staff, a hiring process was instituted and Adam J. Kittrell, a Baptist pastor, was chosen to become the Council’s Associate Director for Ministry in Higher Education.  Adam brought good skills and church, campus and community experience to the position; what he lacked was familiarity with the New York State scene.  As a result, in 1981 I stepped into a third interim position in as many years, Higher Education Consultant affiliated with IDEA, a New York State educational network under the direction of Christian Educator David Lewis.  In this role I introduced Adam to the persons and institutions around the State with whom he would be working.  At the same time I continued work across the State with localities that were seeking to redesign their approach to ministry in light of the events that had taken place.

The call for  “an ecumenical ministry in higher education” saw the number of supporting denominations rise from the six in UMHE in New York (American Baptist, Christian Church, Reformed Church, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, United Presbyterian) to eight with the addition of Lutheran Synods and Episcopal Dioceses.  Denominational funding, which had been provided to UMHE at the State level from which it was distributed to the Areas, was now returned to the direct support of local and regional ministries.  The new scene was identified in a Directory of Cooperative Ministries in Higher Education in New York State issued by the New York State Council of Churches in 1982.  It notes six models of ministry in use: parish-based ministry, institutional chaplaincy, shared or part-time ministry, denominational chaplaincy and appointment, cooperative or ecumenical ministry, and student-based organization.  It lists 142 persons (by County) engaged in higher education ministry.  Of these, 26 are identified as full time, 87 as part time,  and 29 have no identification (most appear to me to be part time).  For every one that was full time, approximately four were part time.

 Part Three

            As my consulting role was beginning to run its course, a new position was announced at Union College in Schenectady, made possible by the redistribution of funds that had taken place with the demise of UMHE/NY.  As it happened my wife, Vaughn, and I had moved to Schenectady in the summer of 1980.  She had been appointed to a faculty position in the Nursing Department at Russell Sage College in nearby Troy (she had previously occupied a similar position in the School of Nursing at the Health Sciences Center at Stony Brook).  The move also made travel about the State easier for me. My office with the Council of Churches was at First Presbyterian Church, Albany, along with Elenora Ivory, the Council’s Public Policy Director (ten years later I would serve First Pres as Interim Minister on the retirement of its long time pastor, Robert Lamar).  I applied and was called to the position of Campus Protestant Minister at Union College, half time, in the winter of 1982.  By the fall I had also become Interim Minister/Head of Staff at Albany’s Westminster Presbyterian Church – where my colleague was Rick Spalding, now Chaplain at Williams College (site of my own undergraduate experience).

The 12½ years at Union had as background a continuing conversation within the local Board:  how to make the ministry full time.  We progressed in steps.  For the first three and a half years I was on my own.  The following year we added a part time ordained assistant.  Then, for the next five years we had full time seminary interns (one staying a second year).  Finally, for the last three years I served as Coordinator and two recent seminary graduates served full time as the Protestant chaplain. (Dr. Viki Brooks now serves full time, supported by both the College and the church community, in three roles:  Campus Protestant Minister, Interfaith Chaplain, and Director of Religious Life.  In between our times, Kathleen Buckley, now Chaplain at St. Lawrence University, was the Campus Protestant Minister.)

Union, founded in 1795, did not build its Memorial Chapel until the early 20th century.  It was founded (thus the name) by three groups of early Schenectady residents and their churches:  the Dutch of First Reformed, the English of St. George’s Episcopal, and the Scots, Scotch-Irish and New Englanders of First Presbyterian.  For years commencements were held in First Presbyterian’s sanctuary.  Not a few Presidents over the years have been members of the clergy.  Most prominent was Eliphalet Nott, a Presbyterian who served as Union’s President for sixty-two years in the 19th century.  Indeed, during my first eight and a half years at Union the President was John S. Morris, a Presbyterian Minister and former Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University.

With the completion of Memorial Chapel, the College provided a position for a director of religious activities.  By mid-century, this had become a member of the Classics Department who also served as Chaplain, Norman Johnson.  With Norman’s retirement in 1968, College funding for such a role ceased.

While the campus ministry board’s oft-stated desire was to provide students the full time presence of a trusted counselor and leader in the faith, detailed above, it seemed to me that this intention needed to be supplemented by activities that were directed at repositioning what it means to be religious in relation to the College’s  history and the current educational enterprise.  Over-simplified, this became a focus on values education, variously presented, and the use of orthogonal framing.

Worship, study, fellowship and service were still there for those who responded to them in their typical formats.  For them, but especially for others, there were other opportunities.  Here, in lieu of a description of the values education approach and orthogonal framing, are some suggestive recollections:

➧ Fresh from the completion of her seminary education, Protestant Chaplain Alison Boden (now Director of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University) reciting the Gospel of Mark in a cabaret setting.  Someone schooled in drama, as she was, taking the Good News out of the church and onto the student stage.

➧ President Morris, First Reformed pastor Dean Dykstra, my Catholic colleague Father Dennis Cox, and I, on an alumni weekend, concelebrating the eucharist using First Reformed’s Lydius communion cup.  The cup came from the period following the 1690 massacre of Schenectady citizens by French militia and native raiders, and had likely been touched by the lips of the fabled native American, Lawrence, a member of First Reformed who helped rescue captives led away after the massacre.

➧ Vermont artist Melinda White (now White-Bronson), in the College’s theater-in-the-round, reflecting on her arresting sculpture, “We are the Angels:  We are the Mortal People,” with responses initiated by Rudy Nydegger, Associate Professor of Psychology and Management and a local Hospice Board member.  Using papier-mâché, leaves, wood, and burlap, the ten-foot high by seven-foot by five-foot sculpture depicts an angel leaning over a dying woman on her bed.

➧ Seminary Intern David Bodman (now Randall-Bodman) developing and presenting a first Interfaith event on campus titled “Reflections on Jewish-Christian Dialogue Today” and featuring guests Rabbi Leon Klenecki, Dr. Eugene Fisher, and Dr. Robert Everett.  Opined Union’s Associate Dean of Faculty Terry Weiner, in a next-day note to David, “The panel for the Interfaith Dinner was absolutely first rate!  Bravo!”

➧ Seminary Intern Laurel Hayes (most recently Campus Minister at Webster University) initiating and moderating “Plateful of Questions,”  a student lunchtime discussion program that continued long after she had returned to seminary.

➧ Writer and preacher Frederick Buechner, resident for three days on campus, telling a class in the English Department how he writes to spark the imagination:  long-hand, with colored pencils which he changes every few sentences.

➧ Seminary Intern Gloria Korsman developing and conducting an Interfaith worship service, “Living With AIDS.”

➧ Malusi Mpumlwana, colleague of Steve Biko in the creation of the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, sharing his experiences with students.

In nearby Albany, when UMHE in New York closed up shop, Lutheran and Episcopal ministries continued.  Fourteen years later, the Albany-based Capital Area Council of Churches formed a campus ministry committee and advertised a new half time position.  I applied and was accepted for the position; it was time for a fresh presence at Union (which Kathleen Buckley ably supplied) – and, as it turned out, a final new start for me.

My Protestant colleague at the University at Albany’s Chapel House was Lutheran Chaplain Dennis Meyer, also part time (but in an installed local pastorate).  It did not take long before we were agreed that Dennis should continue as the primary staff person for the gathered life of the Protestant community and I would take primary responsibility for the community’s outreach activities.  In practice we each did some of both; we also each shared responsibilities in relation to the rest of the Chapel House staff.

In sum, in two years, my contribution was to expand good working relationships with partners on campus and in the local church community.  Two years later, in the fall of 1998, the Lutheran Board for Campus Ministry initiated conversations with its Council of Churches counterpart.  A new Board with equal representation from each of the old Boards was in place by the following spring, the two half-time positions were merged, and a new full time Campus Minister, Sandy Damhof, was in place the next fall; this spring she will finish her 15th year.

There was one other project that I had begun while at Union that was completed while I was at the University at Albany: the nationally-attended Consultation, “Out on a Limb:  Thinking About Faith and Ministry in the College and University Setting.”  This fall 1995 Consultation, generously funded by the Louisville Institute for the Study of Protestantism and American Culture,gathered some 120 persons over three days to talk together about the state of ministry in higher education, prompted by presentations from Episcopal Chaplain Sam Portaro, Professor of History and Education Douglas Sloan, Harvard Senior Research Fellow Sharon Daloz Parks, and Theologian Douglas John Hall, with responses by UCC Area Minister Donna Schaper and Auburn Seminary President Barbara Wheeler.

One denominational official later wrote that it was a “rare event.” The letter writer was speaking of the caliber of the presentations and the design of what took place. It was, I believe, rare in another sense.  Extended applause at the end of the gathering was prompted by an opportunity to thank me for my work as coordinator of the event.  Yet, as the applause went on and on, it became clear that those present were also expressing, as Bob Lamar, moderator of the final session, said to me at the time, “something more.”  I would hazard the guess that what they were expressing was their heart-felt appreciation for their time together.  Thoughtful conversation and fellowship, preceded and followed by artfully-crafted common worship/celebration (the contribution of Gail George, worship consultant, liturgist and dancer, now deceased) had evoked much of the best that nourishes the spirits of those who claim the title “campus minister,” as well as those whose lives express the claim without the title.

There have been times over these years when my reaction to the prospects for this ministry have been anxiety, fear, and depression; a sober analysis of its statistical decline would say the same without the feelings.  In addition, I could not even have considered the interim and, especially, the part time positions in which I served had it not been for the steady employment of my wife.  At the same time, I’m hard pressed to imagine myself in a life’s work that could equal it for energizing challenges, rewarding personal associations, and meaningful fulfillments, small and large.


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