Reflections, Memories and “Burnt Offerings” by Jim Davis


My story begins with a start and stop journey of feeling a call from our Creator God to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. The confirmation of this call came as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis under the creative, and profound ministry of several persons that I will never forget. It was because of these campus ministers and the programs they led that it became imperative for me to pursue ministry on campus, myself. It became my conviction to try my best to pay back what was given to me. I give thanks for the opportunity to have given my entire post seminary ministry of 38 years to three distinct types of ministry in higher education: Wesley Foundation and UMHE Ecumenical Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and College Chaplaincy at the University of Puget Sound.

Tom Payne was the pastor at the University Methodist Church in the university business area in Minneapolis called Dinkytown, and the Wesley Foundation shared a building that included the sanctuary of the church.  As a junior taking courses in history and philosophy and reading and studying such philosophers as Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, I had my socks knocked off by Tom Payne’s sermons as he connected his exegesis of biblical passages to the writings of these great philosophers.  It was to be my first concrete example of how the mind and the heart could engage each other in the development of the faith of young adults. This blending of reason and scripture as they joined with tradition and experience fed my own soul and excited me with the possibilities of how I might be part of such a church and ministry!

Two campus ministers from that setting that also engaged my mind and heart were Bob Ouradnik and Carl Caskey. This was the time of the primacy of the teachings of the Ecumenical Institute out of Chicago, which was created and led by Joseph Matthews and Joe Slicker, who came to Minnesota to speak and teach about how God was breaking into our lives and “cracking open” the wombs of possibility. I recall van trips to the West Side of Chicago, where E.I. had established a teaching/worshipping/mission community in the midst of great upheaval and social change in that neighborhood. Back at the U of M Wesley Foundation I vividly recall Bob and Carl leading study groups based on the same theologians and texts that E.I. used, such as Tillich, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, John A. T. Robinson, and others.  These “radical” studies excited my mind and heart with the call to act for societal and ecclesial change and social justice.

Jeanne Audrey Powers, campus minister at the St. Paul campus and director of the Minnesota Methodist Student Movement, was instrumental in bringing outstanding theologians as keynote speakers at our state-wide conferences and also getting other students and me excited about going to regional conferences where we met the likes of Clarence Jordan and James Lawson.

Jeanne Audrey was the key, as well, to sending a group of us to the South in 1964 for a Spring Break trip to Rust College. It was there that we had the incredible opportunity to join Rust students in a circle on the campus green to sing We Shall Overcome like I never had before. This followed having  tasted the strong anti-black prejudice of Holly Springs as death threats were directed at me and another Minnesota “white kid” as we ambled around town to look at antebellum houses. I believe these threats were directed at us because we were staying at “that black school”, symbolizing our support of Rust, and being perceived as meddling northerners. This experience taught me about the ugly reality of deep seated racism, something that African Americans faced in their daily lives, something which I realized that I could escape from merely by traveling back to my home state.

As I write I recall again how pivotal these campus ministers and the experiences they provided were in my own formation, one which put me on the path to develop my mind, feed my soul, and live out the Gospel to act for justice. It was this that drove me to declare my intention to enter the ministry and to vigorously pursue campus ministry as my own calling.

My first appointment following seminary was at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, serving as a half-time Wesley Foundation Director and half-time co-pastor with Richard P. Mathison, an outstanding preacher at University United Methodist Church. Evelyn Dack was an experienced, committed laywoman who continued to work with Wesley Foundation there and provided a good foundation for my initial attempts to figure out how I would actually go about this ministry! It was a good place to get my feet wet in both campus ministry and local church ministry. The realities of fiscal limitations became obvious when, in the spring of 1969, the church board announced that they could not afford two pastors and also pay for the new organ’s loan! Guess what stayed and who had to leave!

At that precipitous time, Richard E. Nelson, the Presbyterian campus minister who worked with the United Campus Christian Fellowship, came to me and the Wesley Foundation Board to offer a collaborative partnership in what would become the United Campus Ministry of Duluth-Superior. I shall never forget his generous offer to step back to ¾ time so that I could become a full time campus minister with the UCM. As a young, recently married young campus minister who would have an equally young family in the coming years, I was forever in awe of Dick and his graciousness. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him for the ensuing 8 years as part of the new ecumenical campus ministry organization, United Ministries in Higher Education. A patient mentor to me, Dick was a visionary thinker and creator of new ministry efforts and walked delicately into the field of creating a curriculum for educating medical school students on issues of faith and ethics at the new medical school at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. In working with the Dean of the Medical School, Dick adroitly arranged for Ron McNeur to come as a consultant for setting up such a curriculum on ethics and values for future physicians.

The importance of working effectively with the United Campus Ministry Board was clear. As the role of campus minister had evolved from being a “student worker” for a specific denomination into recognizing the importance of working collaboratively with professionals from various denominations and religious organizations, we recognized the critical importance of engaging the campus enterprise as a whole. This, of course, led to embracing the development of relationships with faculty, staff, and administrators.

We were extraordinarily blessed with an organization named the Council of Religious Advisors, which was composed of various Protestant campus ministers, an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, a Catholic priest and Benedictine nun, and a Christian Science practitioner. The university recognized us as advisors to registered student organizations, which gave us the privilege of being on campus.

The CRA became a remarkable ecumenical team that, while recognizing our traditions’ differences in practice and issues, was effective in developing significant levels of trust with the university administration. Of course, there were limits! Worship could be held on campus, but only in buildings that did not receive legislative money. In fact, I vividly remember the Academic Dean coming to a meeting of the CRA to apologetically request that we not continue to conduct Lenten prayers in the Art Gallery. The student government president, a Jewish student and nephew of the local president of ACLU, had lodged a complaint! I also recall how Father Selman Threadgill set a meeting with the Provost to object to the Provost’s plan to bring a retired battleship to the Duluth harbor. Selman later reported to our CRA team that he had not been received warmly and was summarily asked to leave the provost’s office!

Many of our ecumenical “team” members were involved in efforts to be peacemakers during the escalation of the Vietnam War. Lutheran campus minister Brooks Anderson participated in marches in the South and several of us participated in organizational meetings of students and other activist oriented young adults from the community to plan protest marches. It was a pivotal strategic presence for us to encourage non-violence as protests were planned, including two large marches through the city. These activities involved a large number of students, and it was clear to us that our roles were important as witnesses to our belief that God called us to be peacemakers. We were deeply aware of the possibility of escalation and violence even in Duluth because we knew of the bombings in Madison at the University of Wisconsin. Newscaster Charles Kuralt determined that it was worthwhile to show that protests even in the small city of Duluth would show the extent of the antiwar movement in America.

I was always struck, however, even in very serious times, by the humor of God and the complexity of humanity. I recall well a favorite story from this time, one which involved the single campus policeman on the UMD campus. Officer Ole was a friend to many and all of us in the campus ministry. He did his best to “educate us” about the foibles of pot and started each September by coming by the Student Religious Organizations office to light some up for us all to smell and be aware of how it was a dangerous and nasty habit. Prior to one of the two large anti-war marches in downtown Duluth, a rumor surfaced that students were planning to burn down the ROTC building on campus. The administration assigned Ole to guard the building (and we later learned that he had taken a portable tv with him to camp out in the building) to protect it from violent students. The march concluded successfully and peacefully, and upon our return to campus we learned that some students, in fact, had tried to burn down the ROTC building. The irony of this story is that the building was constructed of corrugated metal walls and the students had used highway flares to try to accomplish their ends! There are times, indeed, for laughter and relief in this world of conflict, anger, and injustice.

The CRA was consulted regularly by the Dean of the University and the Dean of Student Activities, Dean Kjolhaug. The importance of building trusting professional and personal relationships with administrators, staff, and faculty was apparent on many occasions during those nine years that I experienced with them. This was visible through invitations from the dean for us to attend Student Affairs staff meetings, even as the university was deeply aware of the constraints of separation of church and state. These relationships of trust led to invitations to Sister Claudia Riehl and me to teach a freshman seminar for credit and to Father John Husband, Sister Claudia and me to participate in staff training for resident assistants in the dormitories.  This group became a prototype for me for the possibilities for interfaith and interdenominational cooperation and collegiality. We held retreats together, did planning meetings together prior to the beginning of each academic year, and attended each other’s family events and personal celebrations. This deep collaborative spirit led to such remarkable occasions as my spouse and me being invited by Bishop Anderson of the Diocese of Duluth to present the elements during mass at the College of St. Scholastica, where our CRA team member Sister Claudia, “happened” to be a member of the faculty and the Benedictine Order.

It was during this time that I became an active member of the National Campus Ministry Association. Attending national conferences became an important part of my life. These conferences, starting with one in Denver, gave me opportunities to meet other colleagues in campus ministry from around the country. Hearing dynamic speakers and theologians was highly significant to enabling me to “do my ministry” back at UMD and in the Duluth community. A regional conference held at a retreat center near Stillwater, MN, on the banks of the St. Croix River, brought together campus ministers from all over Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The keynoter was Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly and Faces of the Enemy. That is where I met several colleagues who impressed me with their deep commitment to a cutting edge ministry on campus that my own denomination used to call a specialized ministry until it became defined as “beyond the local church.”

The 60’s and 70’s were also times often filled with distrust and disrespect from local church members and pastors and those in the communities in which our universities resided. Sarcastic comments such as “When will you enter the REAL ministry?” were often hurled at campus ministers, and funding from denominational sources was regularly jeopardized. Often small campus ministries were pitted against larger programs at major universities, which stressed collegial relationships at times. I recall well the deep anxiety created by state commission budget meetings when we never knew whether we would go home with a job or not. Shortage of funds led to calls for detailed evaluations of campus ministry programs and campus ministers.

I personally recall my own angst when I learned that our campus ministry program in Duluth-Superior was scheduled to be evaluated by two regional staff members from UMHE. In fact, we hosted two such evaluation processes during my tenure in Duluth.  It was through these processes that I learned the importance of completing thorough evaluative processes conducted by outside consultants. The UMHE staff that came to our campuses were Dale Turner (AB) and Cecil Findley (UMC), who conducted in-depth interviews with university staff, administrators, students, faculty, campus ministry board members, and various clergy from congregations near the universities. These evaluations were extraordinarily valuable to Dick Nelson and me and to our board. I was gratefully surprised to realize that such thorough, careful evaluations by established professional consultants from off-campus in effect reinforced the importance of these ministries to university and community people alike. The credibility of the campus ministry venture itself was heightened significantly by the systematic process of evaluation established by UMHE, which I hold in deep admiration for its commitment to excellence but also its ability to address the need for evaluation to deal with the distrust of campus ministry in the larger church.

As the “management by objectives” quantitative movement had begun to make its presence known in all kinds of ministries Dick Nelson, our governing board, and I examined the Danforth Study on Campus Ministry by Kenneth Underwood and found it to be a most helpful tool to refocus upon what approaches Jesus had taken in his ministry. (The Church, the University,and Social Policy: ‪The Danforth Study of Campus Ministries). The much shorter summary booklet, New Wine, became an invaluable resource to guide us in measuring the effectiveness of our campus ministry. The priestly, pastoral, prophetic and kingly (governance) roles identified as foci of Jesus’s ministry provided insights into how our campus ministry board and we as campus ministers might more effectively direct and measure our efforts in ministry. In fact, this format was most useful in writing annual reports to judicatories, commissions, and interpreting our work to local churches.

The end of the 60’s and early 70’s found me engaging not only in efforts to end racial injustice and the Vietnam War, but also to join women in advocacy for women’s rights.  Although the Methodist tradition had been ordaining women for more than 20 years, by the mid 70’s the majority forces continued to minimize women’s leadership opportunities in the church. Women in prominent leadership positions included campus ministers such as Jeanne Audrey Powers, whom I mentioned earlier as pivotal in my faith formation. As ordination of women had yet to arrive in some traditions, the Council of Religious Advisors at UMD sought to raise the bar by inviting persons such as Jeannette Piccard of the Episcopal Church to speak on campus. Prominently known with her husband Jean Piccard as world-class hot air balloonists, she sought to be ordained. “How long must I wait?” she proclaimed!  “I am now 78!!”

In addition to seeking approval of the Equal Rights Amendment, the movement to establish the right to choose abortion for unplanned pregnancies was a major issue on our campuses as much as elsewhere in the country. My own collaboration with faculty members included working with a psychology professor who established a counseling group of professional persons on campus and in the community who would meet with women, girls, and family members as they considered their choices concerning their pregnancy. Our group of professionals included three clergy, a professor, a community activist and a social worker. When requested, referrals were made to physicians to perform legal, medically sound abortions out of state. Many of the women with whom we met were students. Some were persons from the greater community. As we became known widely as a resource, we found ourselves the center of controversy. Like my experience during the protests during the war, I found myself receiving phone calls at all hours from persons objecting to this type of ministry.

An additional emphasis of ministry on campus included the first Earth Day observance and programs advocating for care for God’s creation. Again, it was a member of the Council of Religious Advisors, Brooks Anderson, who initiated the Earth Day program, which became an annual event. Inspired by his efforts and knowing that all of creation is of God, many of us became advocates for environmental care and justice.

Another emerging emphasis in campus ministry was learning to understand and listen to gay and lesbian students, faculty, and staff about their lives and experiences of oppression. I am deeply grateful for a young man who was a guest speaker in a graduate school class at UMD. He shared his sexual identity with us and proceeded to talk about the deep pain he had experienced as a gay man in his church. His candor led me on a long journey of seeking to more fully understand, which in turn has become a key component of the campus ministry programs I led since that time in Duluth, particularly in my recent role as chaplain at a private, church related university. Campus ministry programs across the country have come a long ways in affirming lgbtq students as children of God deserving the full ministry of the church.

I left Duluth and the campus ministry at UMD in 1977 to accept an invitation to become the chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington. I continued to be a member of NCMA for several more years but eventually found that my budget did not allow me to continue to attend two national conferences each year. I give thanks for the extraordinary opportunities to continue a ministry in higher education at Puget Sound from 1977 until my retirement in 2006. I know, for a fact, that my years of experience in ecumenical ministry and interfaith expressions of faith in Duluth laid the groundwork for leading a chaplaincy program which embraced a wide spectrum of needs for students, faculty, and staff, while also seeking to act for social justice on campus and beyond.

I hold a deep gratitude for the privilege to work with immensely gifted and prophetic campus ministers, not only at Duluth-Superior, but across the nation through United Methodist Campus Ministry, UMHE and the National Campus Ministry Association. NCMA is to be recognized for its significant role in enriching the lives and ministries of countless colleagues throughout the nation. It has ably served as the right organization at the right time through times of great change and immense challenges.  Bravo to all those colleagues who gave sterling leadership to NCMA and forged new pathways for campus ministry to be such an effective witness to ministry with students, the university, and society at large.

K. James (Jim) Davis

May 30, 2014

Port Orchard, WA




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