Why Campus Ministry Matters

When Harvard opened its doors in 1636, it did so intentionally as a way to train clergy.  Its humble beginnings in Cambridge, Massachusetts was simply a response to the general public’s need to have more trained Christian pastors.  When William and Mary, Princeton, Yale, and others opened their doors the story was similar.  And while the world of higher education has dramatically changed in the past 400 years, its relationship and connection to religious identity has never been more important.

Campus ministry was born near the end of the 19th Century at two distinct and important locations: the University of Pennylvania, where the Roman Catholic Church rooted itself, and The University of Michigan, when 1st Methodist Episcopal (now 1st United Methodist) became the first church in the America’s with a mission to support the campus.  Birthed in response to the growing student populations, these campus ministries were the catalysts for the Lutherans, Episcopals, Presbyterians, and others to dramatically grow. Within a period of just over 50 years, hundreds of campus ministries in several denominations stood across campuses, having built ‘church rows’ across the street from campuses and at times within the campus plan itself.

These campus ministries and their staff spent decades serving in highly integrated roles with the universities they served, at times offering space for classes, programs, and performances.  The staff were tasked by the university to serve certain populations, to relate closely with the creation of a new field of practice called student affairs, and to serve the campus at large.  During the civil rights and Vietnam era’s, campus ministries and their staff were often on the front lines of protests, movements, and were significant voices in the fight for women’s, LGBT, and other marginalized groups’ rights on campus.

The last forty years has seen a completely different tone.  It almost seems clear that once Vietnam ended, and once denominational offices began realizing that the general X’ers were not nearly as interested in the Church as before, the worries began.  This worry accelerated into the 1980s and 1990s as campus ministries were pushed further and further to create more clergy and help students find a “home away from home” before returning them to the local setting.  This model of ministry would ultimately fail as the generation of millennials entered college in the late 1990s and began rejecting the institutional models of the Church.  The response from the denominations as financial assets dried up was swift and was a devastating blow to the field of higher education ministry.

This response as we entered the 2000s, when I was a student, was that campus ministry was no longer a fiscally responsible endeavor.  Campus ministries began to be closed, and while we still don’t know how many we can trust that it has to be in the hundreds as we begin 2017.  Denominations started arguing that it was better to put their support behind the local church, thus ending the standalone models of campus ministries that had stood on those campuses for decades.  There have been many who argued that this was for the best, that in the end the ministries would thrive when integrated with a local church.  And while there are always new models, the field of campus ministry has lost its very essence: the presence to campus.

Campus ministry was born to be a missionary field to the college setting; to embed itself within the mission and vision of campus. Sure there are goals that are somewhat different, but in reality, the campus and the campus ministry should have the same vision: to provide students with the best experience they can during the most transformative moments of their lives.  Strip away the “make more (insert your denomination here), take away the wontedness for people to go back to their home tradition settings, and realize that higher education and campus ministry is about being present to support the very centrifuge through which our culture is shifting within.  We need realize once again that campus ministry is about campus, not just about students, not just about local congregations adding numbers and reducing average age.  Rather, campus ministry is about the institution that has been described as “the most important invention of the second millennium” (the academy).

For those that don’t know, higher education is in trouble.  Dramatically increasing rates of mental health issues, sexual assault concerns, Title IX work that needs our help, and a variety of other concerns now dominate the landscape.  Graduation rates and civic engagement rates amongst students are down, tuition rates are rising faster than anyone can keep up with, and higher education may be on the brink of a ‘bubble burst’ in which either elites become the only persons who can access the institution or rising student debt may cripple the next generation and prevent them from retiring 45 years after they graduate.  We, the campus ministries of the world, must equip ourselves to serve in this context.

But we matter.  We matter because our presence can monumentally play a role in these concerns.  We can support students during times of mental health, can educate our students ethically about their sexuality, can affect graduation rates and civic engagement in ways that have already been proven by research.  Campus ministry matters, but only if we see the work as being that of the whole campus.  If our concerns are simply about more Methodists or Presbyterians or whoever, then our work will be student ministry and not campus ministry.  Students have real issues that we need be in the midst of, but their concerns are intertwined within a complex institution of the university that must not be ignored.  Campus ministry matters, and if we can simply help ourselves to align with the needs and the overall story of the institution, serving as missionaries to the whole of the university, we will fulfill the mission that we were sent to do.

Overall, campus ministry matters only to the extent to which we see the campus as our field of play.  And if you were to discuss with a student affairs professional how you could better serve the campus through civic engagement, mental health, graduation rates, and so many other things, the willingness to partner with our campus ministries would grow exponentially.  But those that seek a student only ministry, focused entirely on the desperation to maintain our fledgling institutions will find that campus ministry really doesn’t matter and will in fact fade.  But it does matter.  We just need to understand where we came from, return to those missions and visions, and realize our importance in this our world: higher education.

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