Reclaiming a Vision Long Lost

This past week, I came across my dear colleague Mark Schaefer’s words regarding campus ministry from four years ago.  I would be misguided if I did not credit him with some of the inspiration for this post.  His words in his self titled blog post Missions Need A Missionary: Why Full Time Campus Ministry Matters are words from when the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church sought to cut funding for the ministry at the University of Maryland.  While the conference did succeed in some respects, the ministry is now growing again.

But growing is often the last words that are used in campus ministry work today.

Instead, much of the realm of campus ministry has been left obliterated, as bishops and bureaucracies across many denominations seek to curtail funding and sell off aging buildings as commodity to pay off debts within the larger structure in the Church.  In places where campus ministry does not exist, there have been intermittent attempts to put local churches in charge, almost all of which have failed due largely to the lack of full time dedicated staffing, as Mark so eloquently remarks.  But what about the other ministry sites, the ones that have survived and yet are struggling along.  And what about the places where there we are to birth new campus ministries or resurrect ones that have died off.  What has happened to the field?

To say that funding alone is the problem is to miss the mark on the larger issue.  Yes, funding has gone away, but perhaps the threat funding cuts and the desperation of campus ministry staff and boards to come up with ways to keep financially supporting the ministry have also given away some of the genuine vision that campus ministry once embodied.  When an organization moves out of stability and into desperation, it is truly one that cannot see beyond just a couple of years, as its very existence is threatened.  Almost every campus ministry I know of today is in this scenario.

When campus ministries stop be visionaries toward a future unknown, they become stagnant.  Once forerunners of change and justice work on campus, deeply embedded within the culture and at times the countercultural movements of the university, campus ministry has today drifted backwards towards irrelevancy.  In the public setting, where the majority of “campus ministries” exist, university staff and administration have taken over some of the jobs that campus ministers once offered to the University.  And with so few of our colleagues reaching out to universities to offer help and engage the campus, higher education professionals have crafted a rhetoric that indeed campus ministries and the staff no longer hold any value to the milieu that is higher education.

Whose fault is this?  Is it the University itself, an institution that barely understands the first amendment and is often too caught up in their worries regarding the establishment clause that they completely forget the free exercise clause.? Or is it the local bureaucracies , pushing to the limit campus ministers and the ministries in ways that they were never intended so as to satisfy metrics such as how many students are in your Sunday worship rather than seeing the larger picture of community and engagement of the students?  As much as I would like to argue both of those points, my experience leaves me to believe it is sometimes on the campus ministers themselves, who in their times of desperation and shortsightedness have completely negated the very core values on which campus ministry was born and grown.

In the beginning, campus ministry was an outreach to campus.  It was and is not called student ministry, but rather campus ministry.  Nowadays, as many evangelical Christian groups further accentuate the lack of concern for the University, many other ministries have followed suit, deviating from a focus on the whole of campus and its many concerns and issues to instead a sole focus on the creation of student community.  In so doing, we’ve lost the vision and forgotten where we came from.  We’ve abandoned our very name and definition.

To reclaim such an identity requires that we change the direction we are headed in.  Campus ministry could die, but it could also be reborn.  Funding is out there, as there are always people with money and resources.  But what is truly needed is a re-visioning and framing of what it is that we are supposed to do.  First and foremost, we must remember that however the university is struggling, that too is our struggle.  As 2012 erupted in issues of sexual assault on campus, we too should have been involved in those issues.  Currently, the Black Lives Matter concerns, as well as Title IX, are dominating higher education.  Yet I hear little of campus ministry involvement and investment in these areas.  And the ongoing concern of mental health, an issue that has been clearly documented by the UCLA study of spirituality in higher education as being mitigated by religious participation, has seen little in the way of campus ministry resource development.

The future requires that campus ministers foster relationships and get invested in the core issues that are around the university.  It is not just the “saving of souls” that is important, but rather the core foundations and concerns on which higher education itself is struggling.  Campus ministry then becomes a resource to the university in which a dedicated few, unhinged by university politics, can stand and support the needs to the body of students around the campus and can advocate on their behalf.  Campus ministry has a future, a place, and is needed. But only if it can see itself as being reshaped into something that is not really new, but actually quite old.

My hope for campus ministry is in re-framing.  But really is in reclaiming. Reclaiming the vision that once was cast.  Because if we can, we will once again return ourselves to relevancy, will once again find our place in the world of higher education, and will once and for all have a comprehensive vision through which we can financially support ourselves for decades to come.

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