Thursday, January 25, 2007

Campus Ministry

Before doing what I do now (Director of Christian Education and Music for a congregation), I was a full-time lay minister for an ELCA campus ministry. As part of the application process, I had to write a "ministry statement..." one of the hoops the larger church makes you jump through in the campus ministry application process. It's really a good idea--it allows both the applicant and the ministry to gain valuable insight that might not ordinarily be breached in an interview.

I ran across my ministry statement the other day. There were sections at the end where I had to answer some specific questions that aren't all that interesting, but I found the first part both interesting and applicable not only to campus ministry, but to any sort of congregational setting. I'd be interested in hearing thoughts and responses:

My interest in campus ministry goes back to when I was in college myself. I attended a public university in a small town about five hours away from where my parents lived. My parents had brought me up in the Lutheran church--I had been baptized as a baby, confirmed as a teenager and had regularly attended worship services and Sunday School. The church we belonged to, however, did not have much of a youth program outside of high school Sunday School classes, and I consequently had a hunger for God’s Word that had not been completely fed. College, I knew, was going to be a time of growth and learning, and I looked forward to growing in and learning more about my faith as well.

When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I was excited to find out that there was a Lutheran church just a few blocks away from the dorms. It was a Missouri Synod congregation, but they used the green Lutheran Book of Worship that I had grown up with, so I felt at home with the liturgy. The problem was that I did not feel totally at home with the congregation. There was only one service on Sundays which was at 9:30, so there were not many college students that were there Sunday mornings. The pastor was also a professor on campus, but was much more comfortable with New Testament Greek and Christian History 101 than with relational ministry. I’m sure there were many more Lutheran students on campus like me, who were hungering for a church home-away-from-home, but this congregation did not seem very interested in the ministry opportunity so close to them.

Gradually, I stopped going to church altogether during the school year, and began to take a more academic approach to my faith life. Whenever I could, I signed up for religion courses as electives--in fact, by the time I graduated, I was one course shy of having a minor in Philosophy and Religion. It wasn’t until my junior year, when a friend invited me to a worship service led by a group called Campus Christian Fellowship, that I began to get involved in church again. CCF was a nondenominational group that held services every Wednesday night and Sunday morning in a gym on campus. They averaged about 300 students for Wednesday nights, and about 450 for Sunday mornings--this was at a public university with only 6,000 total students! While the style of worship was one that I wasn’t used to--there was a band up front and an overhead projector displayed the words to the praise songs we sang--there was a sense of community and of the Spirit that I immediately latched on to. It wasn’t long before I was invited to join a small-group Bible Study that met once a week in the dorm next to mine, and before long I was leading a Bible Study of my own. At the end of the year, I was asked if I was interested in being an intern minister for the following year. CCF had two full-time paid pastors, but they also had between 10 and 15 students--usually seniors--who served as interns and helped run the ministry.

We had an ongoing joke my senior year that I was the “token mainline Protestant” on the internship staff. Sure enough, my beliefs were often in opposition to the other interns, as well as the students I was ministering to. Despite these huge differences in doctrine, that internship year made a huge difference in my life because I belonged, and I was making a difference with my peers. I played keyboard in the Wednesday night worship band, led three different Bible Study groups, and delivered the sermon both at the on-campus services and at a couple of local churches that supported the ministry. I also had some fascinating discussions with my fellow interns, who in challenging me and my beliefs, strengthened my faith.

Looking back, it pains me to think of the opportunities that the Lutheran church in my college town missed, and that CCF was able to take advantage of, all because of a difference in ministry philosophy. First and foremost, campus ministry should be relational. College, for many people, is a time when one questions, searches, and tries to define who they are and what their place is in the world. Students want to belong, to be a part of a community, to have opportunities to interact and grow with their peers. That’s why, in my own experience, even though I had much more doctrinally in common with the local Lutheran church, I ended up clinging to my experience with CCF. There were a number of ways in which they excelled at this type of ministry. First of all, I was invited. I was invited over and over--to services, to the Bible Study, and finally to be an intern. With the local church, I had to look them up in the phone book, and was never invited to anything outside of Sunday morning. Secondly, CCF came to me where I was. The services were on campus. Wednesday nights were at 9:00, Sunday mornings were at 11:00. They recognized I was a college student and didn’t try to fight my natural schedule. It was convenient--Bible studies were in the dorms, worship was on campus, and the CCF “house” (the center of the ministry) was exactly one block off campus. Third, CCF had a variety of groups that I could be involved in. I was interested in music and Bible Study, but also could have done drama, helped with prison ministry, or gone on mission trips. I could have been a leader of any of these or just part of the group. The ministry as a whole was large, but they always found ways to break things into small groups. That was key–no matter what I did, I was part of a small community. Each of those people in those many small communities got to know me well, and I was able to get to know them too.

There are many para-church groups on campuses today who understand the student psyche like CCF. Unless there is an alternative, students will flock to them, even if they disagree or aren’t sure about their doctrine, much like my experience. I am lucky enough to now live in a city where there is an ELCA campus ministry that invites students, comes to them where they are, challenges them and gives them varied opportunities to minister and grow in small communities. It’s exactly what I had been looking for when I was a student myself, and I am excited at the possibility of helping that ministry continue to develop and thrive.

1 comment:

Aunt Jan said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I so enjoy reading your blog. As I reflect on what you have written about your religious experiences at college, I am saddened that many in our church miss the opportunity to embrace our youth and kindle their fire of faith until it explodes. I wonder how many of our college youth feel when attending a Lutheran college. I could wish that you attended another institution, however your experiences have definitely equipped you and shaped you into the wonderful church worker you are today. Your zeal may not have been as strong. I am thankful that God uses us and our experiences in a powerful way despite the shortcomings of others. May God forgive us when we fall short of the goals He sets for us. May He help us use the gifts He has given us to be an inspiring influence to all who walk along our path. Thank you for all you are doing to touch the lives of others with God's love and grace. I am so proud of you.
Love and God bless,
Your Godmother and aunt
PS Your "kiddo" is right up there with the cutest---but reminds me of some other cute kids in the 70's and 80's!!