What I Have Learned after 40 Years on the Same University Campus by Jim Pruyne

What I Have Learned After 40 Years of Ministry on the Same University Campus

Jim Pruyne, University Pastor

Illinois State University

The Beginnings

In the fall of 1955, my wife  Gwen and I returned to what is now Illinois State University, after a three-month honeymoon in Europe. It included three weeks of study at the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I had spent the previous year in a seminary fieldwork position at the First Presbyterian Church in Normal, Illinois, where Illinois State U is located.

The first thing we did after returning to “Normal,” was to rent a large house adjacent to the university campus which would provide us with a small apartment, space for a student gathering place, and space for five students to rent rooms for the coming school year. This was necessary to have enough income to rent the house. We registered our housing accommodations with the University and waited for students to show up. The first one to do so was a young African American student named Donald McHenry. I showed him the rooms available and let him choose whichever room appealed to him. Thus began our experience and love of campus ministry.

Donald McHenry lived with us for his last two years at ISU. Our relationship with Don, as with so many students, became a life-long friendship. Later, he became the United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter Administration. During the George W. Bush Administration, he returned to campus, bringing Madeline Albright with him. (We have a cherished photograph of the two of us with the two of them.) Together, they carried on an excellent discussion of current American foreign policy. Before the presentation, we sat with him during lunch and, for the first time, I asked him if, when he first knocked on our door, “Was he testing us?” His reply was, “You will never know.” He returned several times over the years, sometimes at our request and sometimes at the request of the University. In the beginning, I was the go-between for Don and the University administration. First, would he leave his papers to ISU? Answer: “Yes.” Then, would he serve on the ISU Foundation Board? Again, his answer was “Yes.” At one point, he set up an account for us in the ISU Foundation to which he contributed some of the funds he received for serving on various boards of directors. It was a match system. He contributed and the companies matched his gifts. I took students to Washington, DC, a good many times for a spring break study seminar. Whenever we were there, Don found the time to meet with our students, often at Georgetown University where he was on the faculty.

During the time he was a student and living with us, he and friends organized the campus chapter of the NAACP. One night, when I was out at a meeting, he went to Gwen and said: “I am going out to the Green Lantern Restaurant (one of our better restaurants at the time) to see if they will serve me. If I am arrested will you and Jim come get me?” Gwen replied, “Of course!” and off he went. He did not get arrested. They let him in, but refused to serve him. Thus began several weeks of challenging all the restaurants in the community. In the end, the students succeeded, but it was not without having to threaten a lawsuit. Don is an amazing man. The Jacksonville newspaper referred to him as “the quintessential diplomat.” This was the beginning of our ministry’s involvement in the civil rights movement and the many issues surrounding it.

Other actions we have been involved in over the years include

Housing –

When we arrived at ISU, there was only one residence hall on campus. It was Fell Hall for women. African American female students were permitted to live in it on one wing of one floor if they had an African American roommate. There were no dorms for men. Therefore, most students had to live in rooms rented from what were called Householders. The only area where African American students could find rooms to rent was the area in southwest Bloomington where most of the African American community lived. There were no public buses available after six o’clock in the evening. Hence, they often had to walk, sometimes a distance of two or three miles.

– Our students developed a “covenant of open occupancy” and went two-by-two to all 295 householders in Normal to ask them to sign the covenant. Only five did so. We were one; the Methodist pastor was one; and three others.

– We opened the “first integrated coop house for men,” as it is reported in The Grandest of Enterprises, the history of ISU’s first one hundred years.

Other actions and spring break trips

Our students worked with the student chapter of NAACP to desegregate the barber shops in town. They were prepared to challenge the theaters, but when the theater owners heard about it, they opened their doors before action was taken. In this, the student leader from the NAACP was Reggie Weaver, later president of the National Education Association for several years.

In 1957, a group went to Mary Holmes Junior College in West Point, Mississippi– a residential school operated by the Presbyterian Church for African American students. So incensed were our students at what they saw that they voluntarily did the necessary research and wrote a paper outlining the realities of the “separate but equal” defense of segregation. They shared the report with our local churches. It was reported to me that this was the first group from the North to come into Mississippi in support of the Negroes since reconstruction. I cannot confirm this, but the source seemed reliable.

In the spring of 1963, 18 students spent their spring break in Savannah, Georgia, doing voter registration in the African American community. This venture was arranged for us by Larry Jones, campus minister colleague from Fisk University, and Andrew Young. I was told a couple of years ago by one of our students who has spent his life addressing these issues that our trip was the test case that led to “Mississippi Summer,” the summer that the south was flooded with students–Black and White, Christian and Jewish– registering voters particularly in Mississippi and Alabama.

New Campus Ministry Facility

In 1969, we opened a new ecumenical campus ministry center which included ministries supported by The United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), The Church of the Brethren, The Mennonite Church, The Presbyterian Church, The American Baptist Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Episcopal Church and the Christian Scientists. This center over the years has also been used by Jewish Hillel, the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist Communities at various times and in various ways. The building, known as The Campus Religious Center, was constructed out of black brick, as our expression of the “black is beautiful” affirmation at the time. The building immediately became the “home” of the Interdenominational Youth Choir, a gospel group that was the largest African American group on campus.

Just shortly after the building was opened, I received a call one afternoon from Lonnie Pruitt, now an Episcopal priest, who was the President of the Black Student Union. I knew him well. He had been a part of one of our study seminars at the U.N. Lonnie said, “Jim, we want to hold a press conference this afternoon, can we use the Center?” I checked with my Lutheran and Baptist colleagues and then told Lonnie, “The building is available to you.” In that press conference, these students stated their demands to the University. They included:

– more students of color on campus

– more faculty of color

– courses in black studies

– the naming of a University building for Malcolm X

During the following week, other press conferences were held; the faculty members of color met; the faculty and students met together. They negotiated with the administration on an almost continuing basis – and all in our black Campus Religious Center. The University administration agreed to almost all of the requests in one way or another. They did promise to name a building after an African American, but they refused to name it Malcolm X. After all negotiations were complete and changes approved by both groups, we received “thank yous” from both students and the administration. The Importance of Place cannot be overstated!

Special Efforts with High School and College Students

Working with the Chicago Urban League, we arranged for a dozen students of color to spend ten days on the campus of ISU for academic enrichment. The University’s residence halls were not open in the summer, so we arranged for these students to spend time in small communities and farms near the University.

A grant from the Presbyterian Church allowed us to work with a dozen African American Chicago high school students, providing mentoring and tutoring for them during the school year and bringing them to campus for two weeks of academic enrichment every summer.

We received an Illinois Board of Higher Education Higher Education Cooperation Act (HECA) grant permitting us to create mentoring programs for male African American students on four college/university campuses: ISU, Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Elmhurst College.

Then we received a second HECA grant to support the Student Volunteer Center we created. We staffed it with student interns who received three hours of academic credit for operating the Center and doing some workshops on race relations. Nine departments provided me with interns: art, music, theater, English, Communications, Political Science, Sociology, Educational Administration and Special Education. There were as many as twelve interns each semester. The music majors organized a choir from their friends. We shared them with the smaller churches surrounding Normal. One brought together not only a choir and soloists, but also a small orchestra. They did a portion of the Messiah in several small congregations. He later worked with the Robert Shaw Chorale.

Theater students presented a different children’s play each semester to the same small communities. The art student did all of our graphic arts, posters, brochures, etc. I talked with each group explaining my Christian understanding of the importance of community service, using the Parable of the Good Samaritan to do so. I was surprised to discover how many of them had never heard of this parable nor any other one. I also introduced them to the community’s human service groups with whom we would be working. One time, we did a study to see how we were doing. Students were the second largest source of volunteers in the agencies, exceeded only by senior citizens, and that was not by much. Students staffed after-school mentoring/tutoring programs in two Normal elementary schools and one Bloomington school. They did an amazing job! They also worked with the hospitals, neighborhood houses, etc. The University Student Affairs Office provided me with two graduate assistants each year. Two master’s degree candidates did their practicum with me. One doctoral student did his in-service requirement with us, including among many other things, leading one of our spring break trips. At the high point, we were sending out six different groups each spring to various service/learning projects all across the country. Many of the interns were either African American or Latino/a. After graduating, one of the students wrote me to say that he had received a graduate assistantship only because of his intern experience with us.

The Development of Peer Ministers

With a grant from the Presbyterians in the early 1970s, each school year, we recruited a dozen students and trained them to be what we called “associate campus ministers.” Later. “peer ministers” became the accepted term. One of our Board members, Betty Rademacher, a staff person in Student Affairs, had prepared a workbook for training residential assistants and other students in some “peer” student led activities, and she and I trained these peer ministers. The students did a superb job with this effort at outreach. They were also involved in leadership roles with various campus ministry programs, for which they were given a $1,000 scholarship each semester.

Efforts with Faculty, Staff and Administrators

In the 1950s, the Presbyterians did not use the term “campus minister.” We were called, “University Pastors.” This is still the best name for who we are and what we do. We are “University Pastors!” The large, ever increasingly secular public universities are our “parish.” We were not called primarily to be pastors to a collected group of Christian students, but to be a pastor to all those who live and work in a university — a very diverse and ever changing institution of learning. From the beginning, we were educated to love and, sometimes, to criticize out of that love this monstrous collection of communities bound together by the love of teaching and learning. We must be concerned for students, but we must be equally concerned for faculty, staff, administrators, etc. From the beginning, our ministry sought to embody this concern. Here are some of the ways we went about it over the years.

We began with a small faculty group gathered to read and discuss books dealing with theology and the Christian life. This was not enough. We soon discovered that there were no scholars from outside-the-campus coming to speak to our faculty and staff as well as students. So – – – —

We created what we called “The DeYoung Lectures.” We gathered together a small, but disparate group of faculty representing a variety of disciplines. This Committee, each year, invited an outside scholar to address the issues in higher education from the perspective of their own discipline. Each gave three lectures on campus. After the first year, the University asked if they could publish the lectures in their quarterly journal, and we, of course, agreed. Scholars who gave these lectures included Harold Schilling, a physicist from Penn State; Robin Fleming, President of the University of Michigan, Nevitt Sanford, perhaps the most outstanding scholar on higher education, itself, from Berkley; as artist from the University of Illinois; Tom Green, a favorite of campus ministers at the time, who taught philosophy of education at Michigan State; a philosopher of science from Wayne State; a physicist from Carleton College; and David Berlo, a professor of communication, from Michigan State. One faculty member said to me that she was grateful to us for these lectures because it meant that we had not forgotten that those who spend their time teaching others, also needed to be taught on a continuing basis. When the University began to bring in speakers on their own, we moved on to new things.

We moved on to “Faculty Forum.” With a new faculty committee, we would pick a theme for a semester, divide it into sub-topics and knowledgeable individuals, most from off-campus, but sometimes from on-campus would be asked to address them. Each series would consist of six to eight weekly addresses over a luncheon in the student union. Well over a hundred faculty and staff would attend these presentations every week. We had six or eight presentations on a common theme in the fall and another theme and presentations in the spring semester. One semester the theme was “The Liberal Arts.” One faculty member told me that this series changed his whole approach to teaching.

“Humanizing Higher Education”

was the next theme. The format changed to a once a month dinners dealing with this topic. Speakers came mainly from higher education: legislative leaders, Board of Regents and State Board of Higher Education. ( A great opportunity for me to get acquainted with these people.) Others came from the various disciplines, primarily from within the liberal arts and education communities. Attendance numbered seventy or so. Participants came largely from central administration, colleges of liberal arts, education and fine arts – not many from business. Again, an interdisciplinary faculty committee made the decisions and ran the programs. Staff did the administrative work.

When the new Campus Religious Center was completed, much of our effort in this area took place in this building, which was adjacent to the University. At the high point, we had three groups meeting on different days of the week. The American Baptist colleague, Walter Fishbaugh, met weekly with a group of faculty who shared their research across disciplinary lines. He called the group, Eureka! Our Lutheran staff member, Gerald Kissell, met with a group called “The Guild of Soup and Salad Theologians.” He was the best academic theologian among the staff. There were fifteen or so faculty and a couple of local pastors who read and discussed solid works such as Hans Kung’s book on “Resurrection.” I led a group that was composed of faculty, some students and townspeople. Topics ranged all over the map geographically, politically, economically, scientifically, religiously, artistically, and the like. These lectures were called The Fell Lectures, names for Jesse Fell, who founded the University. His two sisters, Alice and Fanny, provided in their wills funds to be used to bring lectures to campus for the “whole community.” Annually, we received grants from the Fell Fund to support these lectures. Our center became known among faculty, administrators and students as the “place that was open to free and balanced discussion,” with advocacy on many issues thrown into the mix.

We also used faculty in a variety of other ways.

-When the American Embassy was invaded by the Iranians and our embassy staff became hostages, we organized an all-day Saturday event on Islam and the Middle East for high school teachers in the county to prepare them to deal with this issue with their students.

– In the early days, we did a workshop for public school teachers on teaching religion in the schools. When Mr. Justice Jackson wrote the findings on the role of prayer in the public schools, he went out of his way to say that though the schools could not pray, they ought to be studying religion. We were aided by curricula already prepared by three states: Florida, Montana and Pennsylvania.

– At one point, we were able to offer a group of local churches, a six-week Sunday School teacher preparation experience. Although we offered to pay the faculty for this–or at least pay their transportation–in every instance, they declined. One faculty member said to me, “This is the first time the church has ever asked me to use my expertise in support of the life and work of the church.” Prior to that point, all she had ever been asked to do was to bring a dish to a potluck.

The Regular Aspects of the Campus Ministry

In the preceding comments, I have talked about the program. While all of those things were going on, we also often worked with a student fellowship of some type. We listened to students and mentored them. We counseled with them. We took them home when a crisis in their family required it. We married them. We fed them. My wife put together a small wedding reception on very short notice. In other words we were there for the students whenever and wherever we were needed. We did draft and conscientious objector counseling during the Viet Nam war. We did problem pregnancy counseling when needed. We helped students who wanted to tell their parents that they were gay or lesbian by listening, supporting them and sometimes going with them to talk with their parents. We were a safe place for them. We did this long before the church developed the terms “open and affirming” or “more light.” We helped residence halls and those who lived there to find some healing when a fellow student died by whatever means. We took students on retreats. We prayed with them, studied with them and played with them, loved them, challenged them and were with them as they searched for their own spiritual identity.

We also listened to faculty and staff of the university. We did, in the university context, all those things that a pastor in a local church was called to do. The difference is that we were able to do all these things and many others with the members of our parish in the place where they worked. Five days a week we were there for them in the university.  On weekends, if we were not doing something with students, we could often be found worshipping with them. We substituted for pastors on vacation and for those who were ill. We also became interim pastors when a nearby church was vacant.

What I have learned as a University Pastor

1, I have learned that campus ministry is a great ministry, important for the university and for those who live and work in and for it as students, faculty, administrators, campus police, secretaries, student affairs staff, alumni, et al. It is important for the church. Above all, this pastor is thankful that our churches had the wisdom to give birth to campus ministry. It has been a total joy for me. Let us hope that we will find ways for it to continue. The work is not done!

2. Place is important!

Where would the black students have gone without our ministry and building? How could we have become the place where everyone felt safe and all issues were addressed fairly…?

3. Being “in but not of” the university is often an advantage in ministry.

We can go anywhere, talk with anyone, do anything without having to get the permission of the University hierarchy. I mentioned earlier the workshop we did for public school teachers on teaching religion. The funds for this came from us, from the university and from a grant from the Danforth Foundation. I was sitting in my office with one of the faculty members who had helped plan the event and would be one of the leaders. The daily mail came and in it was a letter from the Danforth Foundation agreeing to our request, IF the university would put a little more money in it. I dialed the University President and explained the situation to him. He immediately approved a larger amount. When I hung up, the faculty member was amazed.

In the 1980s, I heard a number of faculty complaining that the University did not have a Faculty Club. I said, “Why don’t you organize one yourselves? I will help you.” Four female faculty agreed to work with me, BUT they could not begin until some administrator approved what we were doing. So, we did and they did. There is now The University Club with space provided in the Student Union and free membership for faculty and staff. Even though I am not faculty or staff, I served as president of the club for one year. The point is not what we did. The point is that a university is very hierarchical. A faculty member is hesitant to approach the top of the hierarchy without first getting the permission of those who stand between the faculty member and the President or the Provost. Being in, but not of, means that you have an access to all levels of the university that are not available to those who are both “in and of” the University. It helps us and the university as well that University Pastors can have this relationship. Occasionally, it makes it possible for the Pastor to become an ombudsman for a student or faculty person. It permits one to become an advocate for a person or an idea or program. Warning: use this relationship carefully and well.

4. Campus ministry is neither a ministry of presence, nor a ministry with program. It is both. They each support the other. Presence enabled me to know personally over 350 faculty and administrators. It made it possible for me to bring together a group of faculty to suggest they might want to consider developing a program in Latin American Studies and another group to suggest a Middle Eastern Studies program. It made it possible for me to serve on a variety of University Committees. The first one came early when I was asked to work with faculty in psychology who wanted to develop the protocols and rules that would make it possible for them to use students in their research while offering counseling to them at the same time. There was no student counseling center at the time. It made it possible for the Provost to call me and to tell me that the University’s curriculum committee would be spending the next semester studying carefully its general education program. They needed student input and wondered if I would gather together a group of twelve or so students and spend the semester working with them on this question. At the end of the semester, the committee held a retreat and the students presented the papers. It also led to the creation of many of the programs described above and then made it possible for me to know even more of the university community.

5. Local church pastors are often taught that they should not stay in a local church for more than six or eight years. For the University Pastor, a long tenure is advisable. It takes time to gain the trust of the University. Faithfulness to the calling and time does make a difference.

Lastly, What of the Future?

It doesn’t look good for our mainline denominations. Our membership continues to decline radically, causing us to lose churches, as well as members. In the 1980s, I did some research and found:

– At that time, the birthrate in our churches was at least one whole child less than the population at large (< than one child per family).

– The average age of our denomination was 58 and climbing. The median age of the population at large was 32.

Since I began in ministry in Illinois in 1954, each of the three major denominations I served (United Church, Disciples and Presbyterian) has lost more than 100,000 members in Illinois, alone. At one point, all or most of our funding came from the central offices of our denominations. Today, at best, our denominations cannot support even one ministry, let alone the fourteen or so ministries we once had. In Illinois, for example, campus ministries receive no support from the Presbyterian Synod or the Disciples Region. The UCC Conference support is important, but token at best.

And yet, I think our mainline ministries are more needed than ever before. Why?

The importance of the separation of church and state is vital to our life as a nation, but it is under strong attack from the right wing of both the political and religious communities. Right wing Protestantism and Catholicism has never been supportive. Both would be happier if the church–their church–had some control over the universities. Our ministries are the only religious bodies in support of the separation of church and state and thus in support of our public higher education.

Religion has always been close to higher learning. It founded the earliest of what we today call universities. The first one was founded in Bologna, Italy in the 15th Century; The University of Paris came next. The type of contact we have provided and need to continue to provide is summed up in the words of a little book entitled  Excellence, written by John Gardner in the 1970s. He says, “There are a lot of people who love higher education, but are not critical of it; and there are a lot of people who are critical of it, but do not love it. What the University needs is people who love it and are critical of it.” We have been these people! Both the church and the university–and I dare say the nation–need us to continue to do so.

Higher education is under attack in this nation. In many ways it is in disarray. We need to be a part of the conversation that works these issues through. Some of the issues include

1. How are we going to pay for it?

2. What is the proper role for technology?Can a degree be earned entirely over the internet, and if so, what is lost and what is gained?

3. Are our universities and colleges to educate our young men and women, or are we to be satisfied with only training them for work that is available?

4. What is the role of community in learning, and what is community anyway?  Does it require people being bodily present to one another in particular place, or is seeing and hearing them over the internet sufficient?

5. The “for profit” institutions get the lions’ share of federal and state support for student aid. Do they, indeed, provide Bachelors and Masters Degrees and often doctorates that have the integrity that we believe the same degrees provided by the residential colleges and universities do?

6. Our founding fathers (and I daresay, mothers) thought that when they created Harvard and William and Mary, they were doing so in order to have “an educated clergy and an educated citizenry.” Are our colleges and universities doing this now?” Should this indeed be part of the purpose of any accredited institution of higher education?

These are but a very few of the questions that have been raised or need to be raised. Each radically affects the other. Where are they being addressed now? How are they being addressed? Should our progressive Christian community be a part of these conversations or even the convener of groups to address them?

In Illinois, our dormant state commission has decided that what our universities need right now is an inter-faith center on each campu– that our progressive Christian ministry needs to occur in an interfaith context. What does that mean and how could we move in this direction?

I am sure the readers of this list are aware of them and many more. I remind you of them because I believe that although we may be declining in number, there may still be questions we should consider, ministries we must try to address.

If we move in any direction, indeed, if we are to continue to exist, we will have to fund ourselves. Is that even possible?

We cannot count on the structures of our mainline churches for any significant support. In many cases there is, or will be, no support at all. My own conviction is that we may need to separate ourselves structurally from dioceses, synods, presbyteries, conferences, regions and the like. In its place we might seek to build a group of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, secular humanist individuals who would become the supporters of these interfaith ministries. We could become a ministry of religious individuals rather than a ministry tied legally to structures. The Parliament of World Religions works like this. The Student YMCAs that still exist on some of our campuses function in this manner. And I do believe that NCMA itself needs to become an interfaith association.

Jim Pruyne spent 40 years as University Pastor at the University of Illinois in Normal, IL often in partnership with his wife Gwen.  He has been active in NCMA since its beginning. They still live in Normal and continue to be an advocates for higher education ministries.


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