Three by Thad by Thad Holcombe


(Thad Holcombe posted these three pieces on the NCMA Blog just before his Retirement in 2013– still using his 46 years of experience to teach others innovative ways to impact their campuses through ministry.)

Discerning Priorities of Campus Ministry at Your University/College

These comments are in response to questions asked in the workshop I facilitated at the 2013 NCMA conference in Georgia.  While presenting “Seeing the Forest Before Identifying the Trees: University Ministry as a context for Campus Ministry,” I suggested an approach to discerning what are the particular concerns of the college/university culture that might be addressed.  The process I am suggesting is, in addition to other resources, available in books/articles, which includes Sharon Park’s, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith and Eric H. F. Law’s Holy Currencies: 6 Blessing for Sustainable Missional Ministries.                                  .

This approach entails interviewing faculty, administration along with the ministers, priests, pastors, and rabbis that are staff for your partner congregations. The results of interviews would then be shared with your board, leadership team and/or a group you especially organized to give you feedback.  It is important to have several conversations with students who are diverse in academic interest, age, and classification, as well. All responses in interviews need to be kept confidential. These interviews may take several months or a semester and can be done when beginning a ministry or as a way to keep “updated.”

The questions I am suggesting can be amended, but need to be asked of each individual you interview.  It is important that the interviews be held on the “turf” of the person you are asking. It has been my experience that a forty-five minute limit can be difficult to keep.  It may be the first time you have met with an individual and so getting acquainted entails sharing with him/her who you are and why you are doing an interview.  This is in addition to the initial setting of an appointment.  What I discovered is that the time together is shared in the university “grapevine” within the department and/or friends.  Emphasize that the conversation is confidential as to particular responses, but will be shared along with other responses so you can get a perspective that is more accurate than your making assumptions.

The questions that I am putting forth come from my experience in the 60′s/70′s while being on site review teams that spent two days on a campus for purposes of support/evaluation of a ministry.  They were made possible by having  higher education staff employed by denominations who regularly visited campus ministry sites. Some of you reading this may remember Clyde Robinson, Abbey Abendroth and others.

Again, amend these questions as you see fit, add some if you feel something is lacking, but be consistent in asking same questions:

1. What are the crucial issues or problems to be dealt with, the opportunities to be taken, the accomplishments to be celebrated in your particular university? (You might add a follow-up to this as to how is the university dealing with any/all the matters described?).

2. Where in the university do you find serious conversation about the purpose of higher education?

3. Describe and evaluate the support services provided by the university (personal and career counseling, health services, support groups for gender/racial ethnic groups, etc.) Are additional services needed?  Are there reasons the institution is not providing them?

4. Describe the life of the typical student as much as possible.  What do you think are their apparent values, life styles, living patterns, social configurations, study habits, etc.

5. How would you describe what is needed to nurture ,encourage, and enhance students to be “engaged” learners and not focus on just grades and faculty expectations?

6. How would you describe the morale of faculty/administrators and their relationship with each other?

7. What keeps you excited/motivated about your position as faculty/administrator?

8. (If time allows.) How do you perceive  (insert the name of the ministry you staff)?

How do you identify who to interview?  Administrators are best done by position, i.e. Provost, Dean, Head of Department, etc.  Faculty can be identified (besides ones on your board) by asking students and looking at faculty who have received teaching awards – also, if you have a particular interest and want to become acquainted with faculty in a particular department, it would be worthwhile to set appointments with those faculty.

When interviewing those on staff with partner congregations, the questions could include the following:

1. What has been your experience with the ministry?

2. How is the best way to communicate with the faith community you staff?

3. What do you expect of the ministry?

4. (Add appropriate questions as you see fit.)

The question may arise, “What about the students?”  This is where your understanding of faith development comes in along with what you glean as you share the results of your interviews with students. It is also important to ask of yourself what you think is the purpose of higher education, given the context of today’s culture and the history of the university. Above all, the process I am suggesting is a way to practice one of the most important aspects of ministry – listening to what is said and not said and carefully listening to yourself.

(October, 2013)

Campus Ministry – InterCollegiate Athletics – Mission of Higher Education

 “…when football and men’s basketball programs cloak their vigorous commercial activities as educational endeavors, they are deceiving tax payers and their own universities” ( Nancy Hogshead Makar, “Tie Money to Value”‘, Chronicle of Higher Education, December 11, 2011)

A six million dollar football coach “buy out” and ticket scandal at University of Kansas; the Penn State controversy; and my being at the University of Oklahoma when weapons were found in an athletic residential hall and…the list goes on and on.  While being at KU, I have listened to an increasing number of faculty express anger at not having any influence on the direction and quality of athletics.  It was not the student athlete that was prompting this frustration, as much as the increasing systemic influence of the athletic corporation in the “commercialization” of the university that occurs through sponsorship of a major entertainment industry, i.e. football and basketball.

At the suggestion of a faculty member, I contacted Amy Perko, Executive Director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.  This commission continues to be the major force in asking for reform of the NCAA.   This set in motion what is now given the title “ECM’s University Community Forum on Higher Education and Athletics: which coordinated Amy Perko’s visit.  She did two excellent presentations early in the semester, followed by a UC Forum ECM sponsors on a weekly basis.  It was a panel of two faculty and a Chancellor Emeritus.  Since then we have had two more panel presentations. These were suggested by the members of the UC Forum composed of 24 members, who are faculty, athletic corporation staff, and students.

Many faculty are frustrated, others disillusioned, while others could care less,– or see any challenge to the coming “tsunami” of money similar to “tilting at windmills”.  I think the consequences of a major Division I reseach university, such as KU, not challenging the growing acceptance of sponsoring a multimillion dollar entertainment industry are detrimental to the mission of higher education.

I watch the basketball and football games and read the sports section in the Kansan, KU’s student newspaper.  This section seems to grow larger, so much so that I wonder if it is not analogous to the priorities of many students at KU, who experience their classroom education as another commodity to be consumed along with sports?

It is complicated.   Why should ECM at KU even be involved?  Our stated purpose of the UC Forum on athletics is “to coordinate and facilitate, during the Spring Semester 2012, dialogue for examining the compatibility and improvement of the relationship between higher education and collegiate athletics at KU.” Our hope is to have a dialogue and not a debate.

The ministry’s involvement is in keeping with the stated purpose of the UC Forum, a tradition at KU since the 40′s, which is to facilitate dialogue that can build bridges between different perspectives within the university, especially pertaining to the important issues of the mission of higher education.

I encourage any of you reading these comments, especially if you are having a ministry with a Division I school in athletics, to consider initiating such a dialogue as a way for faculty and others to speak freely on how they are feeling about this issue.

As one faculty member said “What the university pays our janitorial staff is inadequate, while our athletic salaries and expenses increase exponentially.”  It is an Occupy issue and an issue of justice that we in campus ministries can attempt to address.

(March, 2012)


Alternative Breaks are often opportunities for university students and others to understand themselves, society, and their interdependence with the earth, in new ways. The alternative breaks sponsored by the Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas are open to persons of all faith traditions and those who have none. They are influenced by the “critical pedagogy ” of Paulo Freire, an important educator of the 20th century, who was an education adviser to the World Council of Churches.

“Praxis” is therefore encouraged. It is a process of reflecting on the experience of the alternative break. This is done recognizing that the participant needs to be open to rethinking his/her own way of life as they experience another culture or context than the one in which they had been raised.

Alternative breaks can be very affirming.   Participants can learn that they are not  “empty vessels” to be filled by the expertise of an authority figure in a classroom. Freire challenges such “banking education,” where students answer questions that have no relevance to their own experience. Unfortunately, at KU, not all classrooms are like this; in contrast, questions raised from alternative breaks are welcomed. Both student and professor are recognized as having expertise.

As I listen to evaluations of alternative break participants, I am often struck by how the learning experienced becomes connected to the possibility that they can effect change in society. A new or deeper understanding of their life story gives impetus to this possibility. The past becomes connected to the present in a way that a new narrative empowers them to explore their life as one where “their great joys (gifts) can meet the world’s deep hurts” (A paraphrase of Frederick Buechners’s definition of vocation).

The aspects of faith that are reinforced are numerous. In addition to possibly discerning their “call” or vocation in life, justice is understood as systemic and as in contrast to charity; thus, love becomes a way to publicly affirm social change with compassion – an ability to “suffer with others.”  Faith becomes a verb that describes how one makes sense of life. It changes as one understands one’s life as a faith, and with a sense of “grace” can accept the past as a way to learn and not be thwarted by mishaps that have occurred along the way. Often a sense of gratitude is evoked as the ability to be in solidarity with others who are different is experienced and the hospitality extended by the stranger is celebrated.

“Journey” as a metaphor may be discovered as they have a change in perspective on social and political issues, or  as a new appreciation of living interdependent with the earth is acknowledged. Our own story of  liberation, i.e. Exodus, gains new relevance. One can be “reborn,” not in the sense of suddenly being “saved” and protected from life, but in being drawn into the very midst of living where the Holy is present in the mix of the sacred and the secular.

(February, 2012)

Thad Holcombe was the Campus Minister for Ecumenical Campus Ministries at University of Kansas from 1991-2013 (Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Church of Brethren, Quaker, Unitarian).  A graduate of Oklahoma State University and the University of Allahabad, Allahabad, India, Thad attended  seminary at San Francisco Theological Seminary and hold both a B.D. and Th.M through them.  He is married to Linda Watts, School Social Worker and has two daughters Anna and Kara. Previous campus ministries positions include United Ministry at U. of Tulsa, United Ministry at U. of Oklahoma.  He served as NCMA president 1991-1992.


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