Campus ministry: The unpublished stories

This week I’m preoccupied by conference planning. I’m the host for the bi-national Christian Reformed Campus Ministry Association conference, which happens every spring after the school term ends. We gather on a campus for a few days to commiserate and celebrate the end of another year of a good work. This year’s focus is on mental health and wellness, a much-discussed subject on all our campuses these past few years, and a vital consideration for the sort of work we do.

No doubt many Courier readers are at least a bit familiar with the campus ministry thing; you may have fond memories of a ministry from your university days, you may have heard a fine sermon from a campus minister in your church, or you may have supported us via the collection plate. But you may not know a whole lot of what it’s like to be a campus minister.

So, given the focus of the conference, I thought I might offer a tiny reflection here on the tougher aspects of the job, the sorts of things that don’t make it into the year-end newsletter.

Sidelined
Campus ministers can feel stuck out on the margins, or caught somewhere in between two major institutions. This is a lonely place to be. Universities are not always sure where to stick us, administratively. Depending on the school’s openness to religious and spiritual matters, we may be closely tied in with a particular administrative body – counselling services, say, or a Student Success Office. At Laurier, my Multi-faith Resource Team is part of the Diversity and Equity Office, which helps us feel tied in. At Waterloo – a school with a much more ardently secular identity – we don’t really have a formal tie, other than some office space given to us by a past president. This means we’re often overlooked or forgotten about for important events in the life of the university.

Our relationship with the church can feel similar. Most of us don’t have a parish with steady membership, or a council and committees to help shape the life of the ministry. There’s a certain freedom to this, of course – we can be nimble and change things much more swiftly than typical church culture allows – but that sort of freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve often found myself longing for the sort of close collaboration that can happen with folks who are in it for the long haul. Student communities are so transient; just when you start to think you’re getting to know them, it seems they’re in a cap and gown, receiving their diploma.

Whiplash
We also often feel caught between two institutions intellectually. One of the wonderful things about university life is the depth, breadth and precision of thought that happens on campus. Universities can train you to think deeply about important matters, and sometimes it feels the church is lagging behind on this score. I’ve especially noticed this on matters of faith and science, and sexuality, too. Sometimes, going between church and campus can feel like a strange form of intellectual whiplash.

I don’t want that to sound snooty though! Believe me, universities have their own blind spots, especially as they become ever more preoccupied with status and research dollars and technology. The old vision of the university as a place that forms human beings for a life of virtue and citizenship is a waning one. Yet that means the church, with its Gospel-shaped understanding of what sort of creatures we are, has much to offer! Practicing that, though, without being reactionary or excessively moralistic, requires an artful touch.

Lastly (though there’s much, much more to say), campus ministers love students. That means we want to foster a nurturing community for them as they stretch their minds and (hopefully) grow in wisdom. There are challenges to this, though: from a culture of superficial connections, from co-op terms that take students away for eight months, from other religious groups, from the temptation of doubt and unbelief. On a few occasions, I’ve gotten to know bright young Christian students, who, seemingly within a few months, have just chucked it all. That always feels like a great loss; no matter how many sheep are in the pen, you spend a lot of time thinking about the ones who’ve gotten out.

If you’re the praying type – and I suspect you are – please do send up a prayer for your campus ministers! A word of encouragement, too, should the opportunity arise. It’ll mean the world to the folks who’ve been called to this good work.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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