Called OUT of Campus Ministry to Motherhood
By Debra Brazzel
My diverse experiences in campus ministry span a period of over 25 years, from Texas to North Carolina. I enjoyed almost everything about working in ministry in higher education, and found it to be a very welcome place for a feminist clergywoman to explore new dimensions of ministry—and of herself. But I chose to “give up” this vocation to “take on” full-time motherhood for almost fifteen years before designing a new career—as a “minister for all occasions”!
In the summer of 1984, beginning my 3rd year of seminary at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, I took a campus ministry course with Betsy Alden and Mark Rutledge. I loved the class and was intrigued by the idea of meeting people where they were by bringing the church to the campus. The campus ministry programs we explored were creative, relevant and meaningful. With serendipity (another word for grace), there was an opening for a part-time campus minister at Mountain View Community College and I was hired for this position at one of the seven campuses of the Dallas Community College District. The Dallas Community College Ministry was sponsored by the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, with more than 200 Christian and Jewish member congregations. This was the ministry that Betsy created before taking a position as National Communications Coordinator for United Ministries in Higher Education. I worked with her successor, Georjean Blanton, and six other wonderful campus ministers.
Providing campus ministry on a community college campus was challenging because all of the students were commuters. Most of them had one or two jobs, in addition to their college work, so they were busy! How do you connect in meaningful ways with people who are literally coming or going? The Praxis program was a creative way to meet these students where they were – in the classroom! Each semester, I worked with 25 classes and presented the opportunity for service learning to hundreds of students. I was able to meet with 30-50 students a semester to meaningfully reflect upon their experiences with the people they served, to engage each other in significant conversation and to deepen their exploration of the courses they were taking. It was a brilliant model, especially for the community college context.
I was there for five years. Very quickly, I realized that I needed to build an ongoing community, and the obvious starting place was with faculty and staff, the people who stayed through the constantly changing student population. I formed wonderful relationships with the faculty who offered Praxis through their classes, with the counseling and programming staff and with the administrators. They were kindred spirits, and I found many enduring friends and discovered many collaborators for ministry outreach to students and staff. (Ann Fletcher, a counselor, hosted a post-wedding brunch for me at her home).
I formed a spirituality group for faculty and staff that met once a week for years for meditation and spiritual practice. With Ann Fletcher, I founded the Buddy Program that paired American students with new immigrant students (mostly from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia), in which students met for casual conversation, and out of this growing community, we formed an International Club that met weekly. We made literally thousands of homemade eggrolls to raise money for the group to plan activities that helped strangers become friends. On eggroll days, you could smell them wafting through the campus the moment you entered the doors! We went bowling, camping, to people’s homes and even a spring break trip to Florida. We had one young African-American man with severe cerebral palsy who found loving support and community in this group. I loved being part of it.
As I engaged more meaningfully with the community at Mountain View, I was offered a part-time job as a grant writer/administrator of a program we called Life Transitions. This allowed me to stay on at Mountain View after graduating from seminary and, with the campus ministry position, gave me full-time work and a full-time ministry appointment. The grant allowed us to set up an on-site day and evening child care program for adult women returning to school, where we offered counseling, financial aid and programming since most of the women were single mothers struggling to provide for their families. I had already established a women’s spirituality group for students that met weekly, which fit very well with this focus on women in transition. I did collaborative programming with the counseling center and with Guy Gooding, who coordinated student programming. I was also asked to teach a World Religions course for a couple of semesters and an Ethics course. I was the staff “pray-er” for community gatherings — opening days, graduations, holidays. I learned to be comfortable with people of many religious traditions and those of no tradition. We even held the first Interfaith Worship Service at the college. I will always be grateful for my time at Mountain View and know that my openness to people of many different cultural and religious backgrounds was nurtured in this community.
My next campus ministry position was Assistant Dean of Duke Chapel from 1991-1994, Associate Dean from 1994-1996, Acting Dean from 1996-1997, and Associate Dean from 1997-1998. I was also Director of Religious Life for Duke University from 1991-1998– challenging and varied work that I loved!
Having worked as a campus minister for five years, I was naturally supportive of the campus ministers at Duke. In my tenure, we grew from a staff of 14 to 20 campus ministers. Unlike many campuses, where denominational and para-church staff were antagonistic toward one another, we had a collaborative approach that welcomed and provided funding and space for many Christian groups. With a commitment to interfaith presence, we invited a Muslim imam to the staff, welcomed a Buddhist monk and supported the rabbi’s work to raise funds for a Jewish Life Center. We also added a Black Campus Ministries staff position. Each campus minister was hired by the university and given a nominal annual salary and a staff identity card. This gave them status as university staff with access to university buildings and resources. My position as a university administrator afforded me the opportunity to make connections that helped boost the visibility and credibility of the campus ministry staff as a whole and helped us advocate for the needs of the various religious communities at Duke.
Most of the denominational campus ministries at Duke did not have individual houses, but instead had small offices in the basement of Duke Chapel. All the campus ministries, those with and those without offices, shared a secretary, a conference room, a lounge, a kitchen, a computer room, and a copy machine. A lot of coordination was required but this became one of our strengths. Because the staff knew each other well, they were better able to negotiate conflicts when they arose. It also created an atmosphere of trust that allowed people to speak the truth to one another without destroying friendships.
We worked hard to foster these relationships. The campus ministry staff had two retreats a year (a two-day retreat before school started and a day-long retreat after it ended). We met bi-weekly for business meetings where we addressed everything from “who left the kitchen a mess” to strategies to ease racial tension and work for justice (the Rodney King beatings and the ending of apartheid were in this era). We also met bi-weekly for staff development. We invited people from the university that our staff needed to know (i.e., the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Director of the Counseling Center, the Dean of Students and many others). Sometimes staff shared their knowledge or interests with the group. Sometimes we dealt with problems, like the presence of religious cults on campus (we developed a student brochure on “How to Discern Healthy From Destructive Religious Groups”.) We worked on annual service projects including Gleaning Day, CROP Walk, and the OXFAM fast. We invited religious speakers such as Tony Campolo, the Brothers of Taize, John Shelby Spong, Thomas Moore, Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox and Huston Smith (one of our colleagues said he wouldn’t attend but would pray for us, and that was okay!). We hosted a two-day regional Renovare Conference with Richard Foster for more than 500 people. We held several ecumenical and interfaith worship services annually including Blessing of the Animals, Holocaust Remembrance, an Advent Service of Lessons and Carols and Ash Wednesday. We sponsored religious art exhibits and plays such as Mark’s Gospel by Max McLean and the Gospel of Luke by Bruce Kuhn. The possibilities were limited only by time and imagination.
Duke Chapel provided extra funding to campus ministry groups for programming, especially international and domestic mission trips. Fall break, spring break, and summer mission experiences gave students the chance to work in places of great need. I co-led a student group to Washington D.C. over spring break with the Catholic campus minister, Sister Peg, and again the next year with the Episcopal campus minister, Ann Hodges-Copple. Twice, I was a member of a medical mission team to Honduras with Duke physicians, nurses and medical students. As anyone who has ever done mission work knows, the impact you make on the places and people you visit is small; the impact these relationships and experiences make upon you is inestimable. Through the Chapel we were able to sponsor hundreds of students for mission. Many others were sponsored for spiritual renewal through youth conferences and pilgrimages to places like Mepkin Abbey and the Monastery of Christ in the Desert.
As a worship leader at Duke Chapel, I got to know students, faculty members, choir members, and people from the community who participated in one of the most vibrant university chapels in the country with weekly worship attendance from 1000-1700. Planning and participating in more than 60 worship services a year at Duke Chapel, I was blessed to hear some of the best preaching in the world (including Peter Gomes, Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas Long, Samuel Proctor, Walter Bruggemann, Elizabeth Achtemeier, Fred Craddock, James Earl Massey and of course, William H. Willimon, my boss). Being a part of such exceptional weekly worship gave me the opportunity to hone my worship and preaching skills.
There were also many university services. Opening Convocation for freshmen featured Maya Angelou (she encouraged and challenged Duke students for 24 consecutive years, beginning in 1989). The annual Founder’s Day was full of pomp and circumstance and distinguished guests. Baccalaureate services were so well attended that even with limited tickets, it required three services. I was part of the historic inauguration service for Nannerl Keohane, the first woman president of Duke. Other memorable services included the funeral of Terry Sanford and memorial services for Doris Duke and Princess Diana. Weekly Choral Vespers and Taize prayer services deepened the life of the spirit and provided consecrated moments for prayer in the beautiful Chapel worship spaces. In addition to these “university functions,” I was often called upon to exercise the roles of ministry by officiating at weddings, funerals and baptisms, and counseling students and adults.
Outside of worship, there were numerous opportunities to connect with students and the extended Duke Chapel community. In the summer of 1996, I led a group of students and community members on a 10-day spiritual pilgrimage to Taize in France. I was blessed to go on three international Duke Chapel Choir tours – to Poland and the Czech Republic in 1993, to England in 1995 (where the choir sang the Messiah at St. Martin in the Fields) and a ground-breaking trip to China with 200 members of the Chapel Choir in 1997.
One of my passions since seminary has been women’s spirituality. At Duke, I found a kindred spirit in Martha Simmons, the founding director of the Duke Women’s Center. Beginning in 1993, Martha and I led women’s spirituality classes called “Exploring Women’s SpiritualityThrough Literature” for graduate and undergraduate women. We led these classes/groups for five consecutive semesters and utilized many resources to tap into women’s experiences of the sacred. Some of the women continued to participate over several years and we added new women each semester. From 1994-97, we offered the same course for twelve women through Duke’s continuing education program. The women who attended the community classes ranged in age from 30 to 60+, and in these women, we found a hunger for depth and connection to God and each other. The 1994 class formed an ongoing women’s spirituality group that has met monthly for twenty years! Martha and I are a part of the group, and in the way of women’s spirituality, the leadership is shared. My life has been immeasurably enriched through these experiences of the sacred in and through women.
In 1997, I was invited to serve on a steering committee with Chris Gellings, Lori Pistor, Jeannette Stokes and Carol Voisin, the Director of the Center for Theological Education at Duke Divinity School. We were charged with identifying thirty women to commit to meet for 10 months in the Women’s Spirituality Project to develop a women’s spirituality curriculum. Dennis Campbell, the Dean of the Divinity School, provided funding for the project. The women were from many denominations, clergy and lay people, with one Jewish participant. There was a two day opening retreat, followed by monthly gatherings and a closing two day retreat. Many different readings and spiritual practices were explored and each section was evaluated. Unfortunately, there was a change of leadership at the Divinity School and the curriculum was never repeated. However, a group called Spirited Women formed at the end of this project and continues to meet twice a month for shared spiritual practice with rotating leadership. I participate in both these ongoing women’s spirituality groups, and the groups meet once a year for a weekend retreat.
Subsequently, some of us participated in a year-long women’s spirituality course at Duke Divinity School with Teresa Berger, who taught an undergraduate class titled “Women’s Vocations: Leadership, Power, and Constraint in the Christian Tradition.” This rich experience provided some of the inspiration for Dr. Berger’s 2005 book, Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women.
In 1995, I was part of a delegation of 10 clergy and laity from Durham, North Carolina for a trip to our sister city, Kostroma, Russia. We were joined there by clergy and laity from our sister city, Durham, England. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen the ties between our cities and churches. We explored ways that the western church responds to the needs of our communities through mission outreach. As the Russian Orthodox Church emerged from decades of being “forbidden,” their priests were faced with the tremendous task of rebuilding churches and meeting the dire needs of their congregations. Many continuing relationships between the three sister cities were established. Some of those Russian church leaders later made visits to Durham, North Carolina and our churches have helped support their work.
I have had other wonderful experiences in ministry at Duke beyond these years on staff at Duke Chapel. I worked at the Kenan Ethics Institute, taught classes through Duke Divinity School’s Course of Study program, and worked with the Lilly Endowment for Vocational Discernment and the PathWays program at Duke Chapel. Through all my work in college and university settings, I have found that campus ministry is primarily relational. Just as Christ ate with people and drank with them and touched them and sat down with them around campfires, so do campus ministers. We share countless meals and stories; we build trust, often through our vulnerability to one another; and we are transformed, even as we seek to transform. The best worship experiences arise out of our connectedness to each other and to God. I could not have found better work in ministry.
The needs of my family led me to leave full-time ministry. Being a working mother with one child was manageable, but after I had twins in my early forties, I felt I could not do justice to my family and my job and stay whole. Many women in ministry face this dilemma, and I was fortunate that we could live on my husband’s salary, augmented with my part-time ministry work.
The intense physical caregiving required for infant twins and a three-year old made it clear that I had to find a way to nurture myself. When I discovered yoga, it felt like a drink of cool water in the desert. From the first class, I wanted more! In addition to several classes a week, I did a six-month Anusara immersion program in my first year of practice. Then, as soon as I was eligible, I signed up for an EmbodiYoga teacher training for a year, then the advanced training for a year, then two years assisting. (All of this training meant one weekend a month away from relentless caregiving demands and gave my husband a chance to be closer to our children). I also did a yearlong Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine. It was never my intent to teach yoga and mindfulness, only to get more of it for myself, but it was so life-giving that I had to share it! I have now been teaching restorative yoga and mindfulness for seven years. The contemplative practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation have deepened my spirituality and influenced how I do ministry.
Now that my children are older, I am returning to full-time ministry with a new venture called “Minister for All Occasions.” (DebraBrazzel.com) I offer a variety of ministry services, including designing rituals for special events especially targeted to those outside the local church. I teach yoga and mindfulness to groups and individuals, lead retreats and workshops, and reflect with others on their journeys. Despite the challenge of re-entering the professional world, I do not regret my choices. I have new skills and understandings I would not have gotten otherwise, and my own children are as stimulating and provocative as college students—and I will get to see how they turn out!