Places I’ve Loved…And Never Really Meant to Go
By Helen R. Neinast
By any measure, it was a strange way to begin a career in campus ministry. I had just finished my M.Div. at Duke and was awaiting word of my first appointment. (Unlike other denominations’ systems of being called to a placement, we United Methodists have bishops and district superintendents who tend our ministerial careers.)
My district superintendent finally contacted me (as a recent seminary grad and a female and part of a clergy couple, I was fairly far down the hierarchy of appointments). There were two appointments available to me—one a small church high in the New Mexico mountains, the other an ecumenical campus ministry at a state university near the Mexican border. Their decision had been made—since they “didn’t want a woman to have to drive in the mountains in winter,” I was appointed to Western New Mexico State University in Silver City—a beautiful town in the Gila Wilderness where copper mines were struggling and the university president would later be indicted for using state funds to add to his gun collection.
A strange beginning, and one with plenty of challenges: the student population was largely commuter, majority Hispanic, mostly Catholic and often worked two jobs to support their families. It was also very isolated—far from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, two hours to the nearest movie theatre.
And I loved it.
I learned how to reach students through the only stable population on campus—faculty and staff. I benefited from the very best in ecumenism—support from three denominations and a committed board. I made my first post-graduate foray into local and national politics: it was the 1970’s and the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. (I still can’t believe it’s never passed.) Our campus group dealt with the red herrings (unisex toilets) and the true realities (equal pay for equal work) and we sponsored educational events for town and gown. The local newspaper reporter covered one of these events. The headline for his story was “Campus pastor says things were better when God was a woman.”
That got my board’s attention.
But they stood by me, and I was privileged to work with students, faculty, and staff on issues of spiritual formation, ethics, community and worship. My tenure in the Gila Wilderness was a time of great growth. I came to understand things about both myself and about ministry in higher education that might not have come to me any other way. (Though, just for the record, I can drive in the mountains during winter, and do so to this day.)
From southern New Mexico’s sparse landscape I moved to Nashville, Tennessee’s lush hills and immediately felt claustrophobic. Both the physical environment and the demands of working in an under-staffed national higher education agency were enormous. At a time when the church was (and still is) in dire need of ordained clergy, the agency that supported work with colleges and college students had seen severe staff cuts, and the local churches that supported local campus ministries were cutting budgets and closing ministries.
Once again, it was colleagues and mentors whose support and unabashed cheerleading helped me find my way through to campus ministers, chaplains, and organizations that were on the sometimes rag tag, sometimes thriving, sometimes desperate, sometimes wildly creative edge of ministry in higher education.
One of the first things that became apparent to me when I took the job of director in the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry is that professionals in the field have a love-hate relationship with their judicatories. There’s love for the support and resources judicatories can bring to bear, and there’s hate for some of the ways those same judicatories bring those support and resources to bear. Standing before my second or third such love-hate crowd, I redacted the old attorneys joke: What do you call ten church bureaucrats dead in the bottom of a river? You call it a good start. Some laughter, some loosening of tension. I also told them I suspected most of them spelled Nashville with a silent “g”—gNashville—and from there we were on our way together.
The ten years in Nashville were extremely rewarding and extremely frustrating. Listening to those who had been called to ministry in higher education, with all their enthusiasm and energy was a privilege. Getting them the resources and support they needed was often an exercise in frustration. It is hard to impact something as big and unwieldy as a church agency trying to respond to the ever-changing landscape and mission of campus ministry. But we tried. And it seems that it could sometimes be something as simple as a one-on-one phone conversation or something as tedious as the efforts to publish a national directory for higher education that actually made a difference in someone’s life.
There were some important and concrete projects that came from GBHEM during those ten years. The United Methodist Student Movement was revived (within the context of renewed support for the ecumenical student movement) and became an important player on the national stage. Support for Campus Ministry Women increased, as did ministry with women on campus. Resources for ethnic-racial ministry were strengthened. The idea of campus ministry as “student work plus” became a bridge for conversation and understanding between campus ministries, annual conferences, and national work. And we produced a great number of resources from the national office geared toward students, campus ministers, chaplains, annual conference boards, and ecumenical agencies.
After ten years’ of constant travel, the novelty wore off and left me worn down. I took a break from ministry in higher education. I wrote (and supported myself with a paper route, an entirely different form of travel). I worked as chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in Florida. It was during this time I co-authored two of my favorite books for college students: What About God? Now That You’re Off to College and With Heart and Mind and Soul: A Guide to Prayer for College Students and Young Adults. I did small pieces of consulting work. I rested.
Then my husband of four years, also a United Methodist minister, came across an opening for a United Methodist campus minister at Emory University. Tom was serving a local church at the time, but he had several years of campus ministry experience at two state universities in Florida. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said to me, “if we applied for the position together?” I was happily ensconced as a hospital chaplain, and I’m not keen on moving, but I figured no campus ministry board would go out on a limb to consider hiring co-campus pastors.
So, I said, “Sure. Go ahead and apply for us.” I settled back into hospital chaplaincy, certain that this was the end of it.
Six months later, we moved to Atlanta and spent the next ten years working together at Emory. It was amazing.
Helen R. Neinast, an elder in the New Mexico Conference of the United Methodist Church, served as director of United Campus Ministries at Western New Mexico University in Silver City from 1975-1978. She served pastorates in northern New Mexico and then was Director in the Campus Ministry Section of the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tennessee from 1980 until 1990. Currently, she works as a consultant for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She lives with her husband Tom Ettinger in the northeast Georgia mountains, where she also writes and edits.