REFLECTIONS AND PROJECTIONS ON CAMPUS MINISTRY by Dick Bowyer
(Dick served for 43 years at the Wesley Foundation at Fairmont State University in W.VA, where he was also a faculty member and pastored a church for ten years.)
For a number of years, even before my retirement 8 years ago, I have enjoyed a once a week breakfast with a handful of clergy. It is an ecumenical and diverse group in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. The nature of the gathering has morphed at times from a more devotionally based conversation to essentially a social and fellowship get-together. Some participants are quite regular in attendance while others are more occasional. Over time and as pastors come and go according to denominational processes or their levels of community involvement, medical situations, etc, a progression of folks have participated in the group.
Two, one regular and one occasional, are now retired pastors whose entrances to ordained ministry were influenced in part by my role as their campus pastor. One of those two served a few years as a campus minister. Three of my successors at The Wesley Foundation at Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community and Technical College have been participants. My first successor was a regular until he left to attend graduate school and later return as a full time faculty member. The two subsequent successors, both female and one African-American have been occasional participants. One other, a Pakistani-American, came to the United States and eventually to West Virginia and the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church as a consequence of an elder brother who had taught at West Virginia Wesleyan and a younger brother brought to the US to attend Fairmont State as the first full time international student sponsored and funded by the Wesley Foundation while I was campus minister. He is within months of retirement and has become a very occasional participant. The others are or have been local pastors.
On a recent morning a conversation with one of my former students, now retired, led to my reflections on some basic guiding principles of campus ministry. The upshot of that led to the title I have placed on this essay. We were talking about the fact that much if not most of the leadership, clergy and lay, in our various churches and communions are at least verbally concerned about the disconnection between the current youth and young adult generation and organized religion and “the church.” Our perception is that many, and perhaps most, of these same persons see campus ministry in terms of nurturing church connection and including “traditional” local church like programs and opportunities. They expect regular or at least scheduled, if occasional, worship experiences and some degree of an identifiable group or “membership” or affiliation. Quite often the measuring sticks of evaluations are geared to such factors: how many or how often?
My comment in the midst of this conversation was that from the earliest times my ministry, where this particular former student was involved, was guided by a style and approach that was still quite appropriate and relevant to the current “disconnected” and unaffiliated generation that increasingly identify themselves as “nones” in terms of religious affiliation.
The guiding principles for me have been basically those of presence and relationship. More than half a century ago, as an undergraduate student involved in an ecumenical campus organization and as a student pastor, I was asked to contribute an article to the campus newspaper. The theme or essence of that article was my understanding of Christianity as essentially a matter of relationship, with Christ and with one another.
Certainly groups and organizations, whatever their nature and purpose are matters of relationship. That needs no further comment. But one of the major problems of organizations is their tendency, if not their intent, to be exclusive and in-grown. Keeping the focus on campus ministry, I can still recall many years ago and often and through time, conversations with “my” Wesley Foundation “members.” The students could only identify participants in the organization with the relatively small number of students in the campus community who came regularly to the programs and activities that they enjoyed. They were unaware of other students with whom I had ongoing and often very meaningful connections and relationships. Some of those were just clusters of students who happened to be drinking coffee or playing cards in the Student Center. In those early days, the various Greek organizations tended to have their own tables in the Center. I would often sit with them and engage in whatever was being shared. Often those conversations would not be acceptable in church or perhaps other “polite company.” These persons, too, were “members” of our campus ministry. The group was broader and much more inclusive than the regulars at Bible Study or Sunday evening “vesper services.” Some of them have gone on to become leaders in local congregations wherever they reside and in whatever communion they are affiliated with. One or two even ended up in ordained ministry. I make no claim to influencing them nor those outcomes, certainly not as much as I might lay such claim to those with whom I was more actively engaged in Campus Ministry programs and activities. But I have had one or two comment to me many years later that my presence and influence was in some way meaningful to them.
I have always understood Campus Ministry to mean just that: campus ministry. I recall that about 1964 the Methodist Church (well before we became “United”) officially changed its terminology from “Student Work” to “Campus Ministry.” No longer was the Church engaged only in ministry with and to students, but to the whole of the campus community.
Here again relationships have become crucial. Many faculty, administrators and staff are active in their faith groups and local churches. Others have not had a church affiliation at all. And some have been turned off by incidents or situations that have soured them on the church. For them a pastor with an open mind and heart, a listening ear and attitude of caring has often been significant. The number of counseling situations, weddings and funerals or memorial services those connections have educed are noteworthy. But those faculty, staff, and administrative relationships have led to many referrals of students in need of assistance– whether merely financial or academic or actually spiritual or vocational. Relationships are crucial and at the very heart of effective Campus Ministry.
At the core of all of this is the matter of presence. It is simply important “to be there,” wherever “there” happens to be. I can’t begin to recall nor cite the numerous times across my 45 years of active campus ministry that I was stopped in a hall way or in the library or a faculty lounge or even the Student Center by an administrator and invited into her or his office. Many times it was to ask for assistance with a problem faced by a student. At times it was to share freely a problem, issue, incident or concern that they were too intimidated to share with colleagues let alone voice to their supervisor. They knew, or trusted and hoped that my relationships would open a door and perhaps the ear of a higher level of the administration where a concern might be addressed. There were a few times when that administrator was at the top of the power chain.
One of the more memorable experiences of the ministry of presence occurred at half time of a basketball game. Two students approached me. One, a student leader both officially as a student government officer and as a person of character, brought a fellow student to me. It was between semesters. The one in need of help had withdrawn the previous semester due to a family crisis. His financial aid for the next term was rejected because he had not made “due progress.” He was given an opportunity to appeal but found difficulty in writing his appeal letter. I was asked to talk with the Financial Aid Director. I did that. Several days later, the Director called to me in the hallway and proceeded to tell me that based on my recommendation the young man’s financial aid package was restored. That young man became a campus leader, graduated the next year and has become a counselor in a facility that works with troubled youth.
Presence and relationship are at the heart of effective campus ministry.
Such connections are certainly not limited to persons with Christian or church relationships or affiliations. Several have been with students and faculty of other faith traditions. Years ago our Wesley Foundation received a grant from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church to develop a video about Campus Ministry. It was entitled “A Ministry of Accessibility.” Among those included in the video was the President of the college and a student who was Muslim. In fact that student’s father was the Imam in his African home and his uncle a noted faculty member in Islamic Studies at a prestigious US university. The student, who actually became a member of our Board of Directors, stated on the video that even though he was of a different faith, he found his source of spiritual strength at the Wesley Foundation. That man is now a director of human resources for the International Monetary Fund.
On the occasion of the infamous 9-11 tragedy, I sent an e-mail to our two Iraqi Muslim faculty members offering them support and asking to be informed if either experienced any negative or hostile instances. One wrote back simply, “You are a good Christian.” I had been at his bedside after very serious surgery a few years before and with his permission, as Islam allows, prayed for his recovery. Presence and relationship was well beyond the bounds and scope of traditional or certainly institutional Christianity.
My conversation at breakfast with a person whom I first knew as a student more than 50 years ago turned to the relevance of such a style of ministry to today’s generation of “nones” and unaffiliated or disaffiliated. I recalled a conversation over lunch with a group of faculty many years ago. One at the table was more than non-religious. He would have self-described himself as “irreligious.” Somehow the table talk turned to me and my role on campus. I don’t recall anything of the nature of the conversation or what prompted it. But that man said to his peers, “Dick is God’s man on campus.” What an affirmation! What an application of incarnational ministry. And it was rooted in presence and relationship. That man was in the theatre department. My attendance at plays and engagement with students in the department, as well as with him and some other faculty who were somewhere outside the bounds of acceptable views and play selection at a then very conservative campus, made a difference.
I have long believed that Campus Ministry at its best is or should be a prototype for ministry and something of a laboratory exploration of what might be the future of the larger ministry of the church. These reflections lead me to the projection that the model of ministry needed today and in the future is simply one of presence and relationship that is certainly not confined to the facilities and activities of “the church.”
March 4, 2014