Original post at http://umclead.com/forum-friday-campus-ministry-after-25-years/
I sat down with Tom Wall the campus minister at the Wesley Foundation at the University of South Carolina also known as the Methodist Student Network (MSN). Tom was my campus minister while I was at USC and he is about to enter into his 25th year with MSN. I was curious to hear his perspective on campus ministry and if/how it was changed over the last 25 years.
You’re going in to your 25th year of ministry at the Methodist Student Network. In that time what have been some of the major changes?
It’s interesting trying to think about when I first came here and what was going on. A big difference is that when I came it was the partnership among Lutherans and Methodists (PALM) and that’s no longer going on. I think you find less ecumenical ministries now than about 20 years ago. In one sense we are stronger being a single denomination in terms of numbers and program. The Lutherans wanted to separate and have their own identity and liturgy.
The ecumenical spirit is not as strong as it once was. Even in terms of our council of chaplains, we still meet but we don’t do as much together. Over the last 20-25 years ecumenism has been lost a little bit. At orientation you seem to see a lot more students claim “nondenominational.” They say that denominations have given themselves a bad name. I try to explain that even though many organizations say they are nondenominational they still have their own polity, theology, worship, organization, etc and there you go, you’ve got your denomination! I think the idea of nondenominational is mostly fictitious.
There are still a number of students that are faithful to their denominations but probably these days less faithful. Students go where they find an interest, where their friends go or for a particular “political climate” of a campus ministry. Students don’t feel pressured to go to church.
Where do you believe this lack of faith in a particular denomination stems from?
They’re more inquisitive. They have the internet and there’s much more diversity on campus. They’re asking questions about faith that they simply weren’t asking 20-25 years ago because internet and diversity has opened up the conversation.
Even with the conversation opening up, it’s also made spirituality more private than 20-25 years ago. They have experience with their computer or a book and they believe they don’t need the group as much.
I also notice students are not as committed to campus ministry as before. When I started here campus ministry was a focal point for many students. Now students have a lot of different things going on like some of the honor students that believe spirituality is just another component. It’s something they have to do to be more well-rounded, to have something else on the resume. They have a sense that it is important but not the most important thing. It is placed alongside other stuff.
I don’t think this is much different from the rest of society. Campus ministry mirrors society. The same changes you see on campus are the same as the culture at large. They’re taught to have lots of eggs in the basket.
How has campus ministry changed in light of these societal changes?
It’s changed our programing. We now have 4 retreats a year instead of 2 because we realized students are very busy. It gives them more choice. Even if they didn’t have plans before they’re likely to jump ship at the last minute if something better comes along. They aren’t willing to give up a whole 48 hours of a weekend but instead may come late or leave early.
Mission trips have also taken off over the last 10 years. When I came here we only had 1 mission trip a year but now we have 4 or 5 trips every year. It shows the students are wanting to do more and more mission work. Service has always been important but now we do more than before. Students like the practicality and immediate gratification. Additionally everybody has service now. The university itself has taken on service learning and at our awards day for the university there aren’t just one or two awards for service but every department and organization seems to have an award to acknowledge service. Students are introduced to service in many ways. No longer does campus ministry have a monopoly on service work.
Also, the university has a great counseling service so I don’t do as much counseling. Generally speaking students nowadays come with greater problems than 20-25 years ago. Serious problems like sexual abuse, substance abuse, problems at homes, many issues that we were not seeing as much before.
What are some examples of the issues you didn’t see before?
Sexual abuse, abuse at home, substance abuse. They have more personal and psychological issues than they seemed to have before. Maybe they are just more likely to talk about it but I sense there are bigger and deeper problems. The level of stress on campus has gone way up. Before stress would come out around midterms but now it is seen immediately on campus from pressures on themselves and pressure from their parents. They’re much more susceptible to stress.
What is MSN’s role in light of these greater problems?
We offer a lot of the same things but in light of the situation it should be seen as more important. The number of kids who are lonely on campus and have trouble with relationships, a lot of what we’re about is teaching students how to be friends, friends with each other and friends with God. We want to give them a place of belonging. That’s why we have so many retreats, so that students can have an opportunity to connect. I find it ironic that although we have more ways to connect like twitter and facebook, they aren’t really connecting in a life giving way.
Worship, small groups, retreats, all speak to students at a new and deeper level. I try to share a message about community, acceptance, love of others, and love of self. These are the basic things that students are struggling with even more now than 20-25 years ago. Small Groups seem to be more important now than they used to be. We hope to have more small groups at the beginning of the year than we have before. Rather than seeing worship as the place to recruit small group people, we want to see people being proactive and outreaching for the small groups for that to be the base. I believe that helps people have a sense of belonging.
I answered my call to ordained ministry while at MSN. When I did I learned that for at least four years before me and the three years that followed at least one person answered the same call while at MSN. Is that fairly new? Where do you think this comes from?
It happened more when we became MSN. We changed a good bit when we separated from the Lutherans and created our own identity. This is a place where many people wrestle with their vocation. Not just ordained ministry but other life callings. I think students take more ownership in campus ministry now than they used to. They want to take ownership and be in charge to a degree. That has helped people because they can do ministry more and not just show up for things. Students are organizing more and so they have a better sense of call. It’s been a good vehicle for attracting people to ordained ministry and all forms of ministry.
How do Wesley Foundations fit in the larger picture of the United Methodist Church?
I feel we’re often on the periphery of things. There’s both a freedom in that and a dilemma. Often people don’t see the impact of the ministry. Campus Ministry can be a saving grace for the church not just for raising leaders but also in how we do ministry. We have a lot we can teach the local church in the present context and culture. We don’t have a lot of resources in terms of ministry and we have to be adaptable to change quickly. We have to incorporate people quickly. You have a lot of turnover and so you may show up one semester and the next semester you are the president. Your gifts can be utilized immediately. I can’t speak for all campus ministries but we don’t have the bureaucracy you often find in the local churches. Ministry can just happen.
Sometimes the church structure blocks ministry from happening. In some churches it takes 8-10 meetings just to approve something simple like the use of a parking lot! There’s simply no need for that. In Campus Ministry we’ve learned to listen to students and when something emerges in terms of their desires to be in ministry we empower them to go out and do that. Often that doesn’t happen in the local churches. Sometimes the church can stifle ministry instead of facilitating it. I think the church as a whole could learn from Campus Ministry but it often doesn’t much pay attention to it because the Campus Ministries don’t contribute much to the budget.
What’s it like with all the turnover? You’ve been here for almost 25 years. In that same timeframe other pastors may have served 5 or 6 other churches, changing every 4-6 years yet your whole congregation changes every 4-6 years without you moving.
There is a lot of grieving. Especially over these last 4 or 5 years I’ve grieved more. George Duffie, who preceded me, had this image of Campus Ministry. He told me, “If you like building sand castles you’ll like working in Campus Ministry.” I asked what he meant and he said. “Well you build a sand castle. It’s lovely and beautiful, but then the tide comes and washes it all away and you start over.” It’s tough, but it’s also good in a way because if your house has termites, it’s nice to start over.
It makes you think all the time about how to be welcoming and how to offer hospitality. It’s is so important to the church. How can you welcome people and get them involved and empower them very quickly. Students just like churches can get comfortable and form little cliques that keep people out or sends a bad message. I am constantly reminding students, “remember how you were and felt when you first came in.” If you can somehow capture and preserve that feeling then you know how it feels. I think this helps you become more hospitable.
Any Final Thoughts?
Every year is different. It forces you to change. Campus Ministry changes more often and faster in a sense than churches at the local level. Being on a University Campus is a fun and exciting place to be. It’s also an unreal place to be to some degree. I don’t deal with death a lot. I don’t do many funerals or babies’ baptisms but I do a lot of weddings. In Campus Ministry you’re talking about a particular population. It’s still very much the real world, it’s just a different world.