Ministry in Higher Education: A Journey by Robert L. Epps

Ministry in Higher Education:  A Journey


In September of 1964, I moved my family (wife Richie, children Thomas and Elise) from Kansas City to St. Louis to be the Wesley Foundation Director for Washington University.  The second week I was there, Mario Savio was pulled off a stage at the University of California-Berkeley, and the “60’s” were underway in Berkeley and St. Louis.

I left Yale Divinity School in 1958 to go to Kansas City, Missouri, to teach at Nationa lCollege.  National was in transition from being a training school for Methodist Deaconesses to a liberal arts college.  That was a difficult transition.  National failed to get accreditation or attract students.  I taught one year, and two years later it closed and the property was given to St. Paul School of Theology.

From National, I went to be Associate at Central Methodist in Kansas City, and three years later went to a “soft money” job at the PsychiatricReceivingCenter, also in Kansas City.  At PRC, I edited one book and wrote another.

In each of these assignments, I had contact with students.  At National, I sponsored the Methodist Student Movement, at Central we had a Sunday School class for students from the University across the street, and at PRC there were students for every medical and psychological field in training positions.  Unknowingly, I was being prepared for my real Vocation-ministry in higher education.

WashingtonUniversity in St.   Louis is a high-quality institution with undergraduate and graduate students about equally divided.  The “main line” Protestants campus ministries had no buildings, but I had office and program space in GraceMethodistChurch.  I early made contact with Jim Ewing, director of the United Campus Christian Fellowship, who became my friend and mentor.  We each had a small student group and co-sponsored some study and on-campus worship events.

In the years 1964-65, St.   Louis higher education was undergoing radical change.  The Catholic schools (St. LouisUniversity, Fontbonne and WebsterColleges) were opening up in response to the work of Vatican II. The St. Louis teacher training schools were combined into racially integrated HarrisTeachers   College.  The University of Missouri established a St. Louis campus in the suburb of Normandy and a three campusCommunity   College system was created.  Eden, Kendrick, and St. LouisUniversity were graduate theological schools.  Across the Mississippi, the Illinois urban area had a unit of Southern Illinois University and a community college.

These developments made it necessary to “out-grow” the older traditional ministry base at WashingtonUniversity and find ways, with no significant new resources, to serve the larger mission field.

The Episcopal Church was engaging in a “Pilot Diocese” program to use nine Dioceses to explore and study new ways to be in ministry in the changing culture of the closing years of the Twentieth Century.  The Missouri Diocese was one of these pilots, and was the only one in the nation to include a higher education component.  Richard (Dick) Tombaugh was the person employed to direct that aspect of the study.

Soon after Tombaugh’s arrival, Ewing and I began weekly conversations with him around ways to understand and respond to the new higher education situation and its impact on the city, the church, and ministry in the various higher education settings.

Together, we did extensive interviews and more formal meetings with administrators, faculty, and students.  Through these, we came to know a great deal about the developments in higher education and were well known as Christian clergy who honored and supported the mission of these institutions.

At the end of that year, I attended the first meeting of the National Campus Ministry Association at MichiganStateUniversity.  Also, it became apparent that an organization, both more formal and accountable, was needed in St. Louis.  The Experimental Campus Ministry was born with the consent of supporting boards and committees.  Its use of “experimental” was a deliberate choice to indicate that it was a process, not a fixed institution.

During the following year, the civil rights events in Selma, Alabama, were underway.  Without our knowledge or permission, the (misnamed !) St. Louis Globe Democrat announced in a story that the Experimental Campus Ministry was organizing buses to go to the closing of the march to Montgomery.  The article gave the phone number of GraceMethodistChurch as the contact.  All Hell broke loose.

The three telephone lines into the Church were busy night and day for three days.  The congregation, an upper middle-class group, had vocal opposition to us and seemed to believe we had planned that.  Relations with the Church were never warm after that.

The result, however, was eight buses that went to Montgomery gave us visibility with Church and higher education audiences, and served as a powerful entrée to the next six years. Jim Ewing left to be on the student services staff at WashingtonU. and Earl Mulley joined the team from Houston.  Over the years we had seminary interns from Eden, St. Louis, and Perkins.

The ministry rented a store-front to be used as an office and base of operations.  During the coming years we worked on issues and with groups that were not tied to one campus location.  With faculty, we had on-going organized hospitality and conversation including an extensive set of week-end issue seminars.  The University of Missouri-St. Louis was operating in a country club building,and there was no social or study space for students, so we coordinated the work of several  congregations in the area to use Church space and provide refreshment and conversation.

Student worship communities were created and maintained, as well as study and conversation groups as needed or requested.  Individual counseling is inevitable when staff is involved in faculty and student communities.  Contact was maintained with denominational and ecumenical student organizations.

During this same period, the ministry maintained formal contact with the anti-war and anti-draft activities.  This created serious difficulties in public relations and interpretation of the ministry.  On the occasions where the concerned critics asked for explanations or conversation, there were fruitful insights on all sides.

There were problems, however.  Some of the Church sponsors really only wanted the ministry in higher education to be done on the older Youth Group model.  The concern for peace, civil rights, and the environment were not universally popular.  Funding declined.

In 1973, I was invited to be Director of the Wesley Foundation at IndianaUniversity working with co-Director, Hubert Davis.  I accepted. In Bloomington over the next 19 years, there were close relations with the ministries of the AmericanBaptistChurches, the Episcopal Church, the EvangelicalLutheranChurch, the United Church of Christ, and the United Presbyterian Church.  Compared to St. Louis, this ministry was more student- oriented and tended to the traditional.

Several activities were unique, however.  Through the AELC, there was a weekly worship using contemporary, largely secular, music and committed to careful use of the Lectionary.  In place of the “Sunday Supper” format, we developed “Agapes,” a meal over several weeks limited to a dozen participants and two staff.  This always included Holy Communion at the dinner table. Each year, four groups of “deacons” re trained in the history and meaning of worship and served as worship leaders.  A very careful program was developed with the Residence Life staff and student Resident Assistants. This program was taken up by the University, and the Psychological Counselors at the Health Center became involved.  This project, and a parallel leadership education program, lasted for nearly a decade.

The relationships from these programs produced friendships that continue into the present.  Most important were the relationships of those who worked together as staff at one time or another over the two decades: Susan Ban, Robert Boyer, Nevin Danner, Diana Hodges, John (Jack) King, Ann Larson, Joan Tupin, Robert (Bob) Turner, Roger Sasse, and William (Bill) Webster.

The campus ministry board decided to grant one-semester, full salary, sabbaticals after six years of work.  I had two of these.  In 1983, I spent several months in South   Africa,visiting secular and religious student groups and looking at ways they were preparing foran end to apartheid.  In 1989, I spent a semester at the Center for the Study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations in Birmingham, England.  In each case, I traveled extensively and, on return, did speaking and writing, both in the Church and in higher education.

In addition to those trips abroad, I went to Israel/Palestine three times.  The most significant trip was a traveling seminar sponsored by the Society for Biblical Studies, based in Boston University School of Theology, which explored the political and economic situation of the Palestinians and the remnant Christian community there.

In 1990, I was appointed to the pastoral staff of St. Luke’s UnitedMethodistChurch in Indianapolis.  St. Luke’s is a mega-Church with a vast variety of activities.  I did pastoral work, taught Disciple Bible Study, and oversaw local mission projects.  In 1995, I was appointed to be the pastor of the Pittsboro (Indiana) United Methodist Church.  This was an active congregation in an area moving swiftly from farm community to suburb.  This was my only real “pastoral” assignment and I both enjoyed it and learned a lot.  In 1997, I retired after 41 years in the ministry and moved back to Bloomington, Indiana.

The only breaks in my quiet retirement were a five month interim appointment as pastor of the EllettsvilleUnitedMethodistChurch and service on the Board of the Area 10 Agency on Aging.  The pastoral assignment was one in which I discovered I could help to heal a congregation that had experienced the removal of their pastor “under charges.”  That congregation still treats me like I am one of them.  The Board membership and chairmanship put me in touch with a larger community and the finer points of state and Federal law and regulation.

I did a short assignment for the General Board of Mission of the UnitedMethodistChurch by sharing in the training of the mission team to Latvia and, later, going to Latvia to do “on-site” evaluation.  Latvia has had a long history of Methodist involvement, interrupted by Russian and German military interventions, and is restoring its institutional life with new congregations and educational services.

In retirement, I was a part of organizing the Reconciling Ministry Community in the South Indiana Conference of the UnitedMethodistChurch.  Reconciling Ministries is a nation-wide program seeking to welcome persons of all sexual orientations into the life of the Church.

My sabbatical in South Africa had been underwritten by Campus Ministry Advancement, Inc., a foundation based in Ohio.  On my return, I was elected to that Board and, when the founding officers retired, I became chairman.  That has been both a time consuming and rewarding volunteer job.  CMA, Inc. is in the process of closing

As a family, we have traveled in England, Costa Rica, and did a two-week cruise through the Panama Canal.

At the present time, we are in the process of moving to Bell Trace, a retirement community in Bloomington.  Our new address is 800 N. Bell Trace Circle #305, Bloomington, IN47408-4022.

In review, my journey has been eventful.  I have had a patient and loyal wife, Richie, and two children, now adults.  In large measure, the Church has set me to tasks that used my talents and responded to my interests.  For that I am very thankful and grateful.  My only regret is to see the “mainline” Protestant Churches in America retreating from creative ministries, especially the essential ministry of higher education.  Surely this is not the end of the story since “the times are in the hands of God!”


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