Stephen Rankin

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Name: Stephen Rankin
Date registered: September 27, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Rankin File: Begetting Children for the Murderer — December 8, 2014
  2. Rankin File: Unavoidable Orthodoxy — December 3, 2014
  3. Rankin File: Exposing Bad Thinking: An Illustration of Why Method Matters — October 4, 2014
  4. Rankin File: Methods: More than Sharing Stories and Naming Sources — October 1, 2014
  5. Rankin File: Why I Don’t Like Labels: A Personal Story — September 27, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Rankin File: Pressure Points on the Itinerancy — 1 comment
  2. Rankin File: What We Tolerate, What We Don’t — 1 comment

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Dec 08 2014

Rankin File: Begetting Children for the Murderer

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A very important opportunity is going to waste in talks about the campus rape culture.   Rolling Stone reported on a gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia and has recently admitted “discrepancies” in the victim’s account.   Today’s Inside Higher Ed analyzes this situation, with observation from various experts.  The attention always falls on familiar topics – Title IX, school policies and procedures, whether schools should get out of the investigations of sexual assault altogether, and the inevitable murkiness of “he said, she said.”  People are working hard to make sense of the whole mess.  In the UVa case, Inside Higher Ed also explored whether the victim “maliciously lied” or whether, because of the trauma, she simply didn’t remember all the details clearly.  And, of course, lawyers weigh in, because the possible consequences for everyone involved – personal and institutional – loom ominous.

Let me state the obvious: sexual assault is a heinous crime.  No one who goes to a college party should have to worry about being assaulted.  But what conditions are in place that help to create the perverse sense that such behavior at college parties is somehow OK?  How did college men ever get the idea that this behavior was OK?  This is a moral question that goes beyond laws, policies and police action.

I have an adult daughter who, after graduating from college, admitted to me that guys “hit on her” because she was the chaplain’s daughter.  Apparently, the idea of “scoring” with the chaplain’s daughter was some kind of cool thing to imagine.  “Hitting on” a girl is certainly not the same as sexual assault, but it stems from the same culture.  It’s a tiny illustration of a much larger problem.

I am constantly aware of and surprised by the fatalistic logic employed to help “explain” this problem and to assuage our feelings of helplessness.  “College students have always partied,” the saying goes.  Of course, they did, and do.  I was a college student.  I had a great fraternity experience.  I abstained from alcohol, but most of my fraternity brothers enjoyed, sometimes excessively.  We partied.  Yet, no one went to the hospital.  No one died.  No one was accused of rape.  (Yes, something could have happened that went unreported, but the environment was clearly different than the current debauchery.)  It’s true that college students have always partied, but not to the extreme and not with such devastating consequences in such large numbers.

Some people explain by dividing the problem.  College parties aren’t the problem.  Rape is the problem.  Yet the statistics abundantly show that alcohol is almost always a significant factor and the context in which most of these tragedies occur is the college party.  Dividing the problem in order to focus on rape only divides the problem.  In the middle of the usual references to attention on legal questions and enforcement practices, we find this telling comment from the Inside Higher Ed column:

Indeed…this year has seen devastating portraits of fraternity culture that involve dangerously excessive drinking, deadly hazing, reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment — and efforts to cover up all of the above.

“Devastating portraits of fraternity culture…”  One word covers a multitude of sins.  “Culture.”  A culture has an ethos, a character.  “Fraternity culture” is wedded to “campus culture” and campus culture is about ethos – the character of a place.  Fatalistic logic about students having always partied tacitly supports dangerous attitudes about what is permissible, what is de facto morally OK.  We tacitly admit that party behavior can be as extreme as students want it to be as long as no one gets hurt and no laws are broken.

I’ll give you an admittedly mild, but apt, example from a recent conversation I had with a student.  His questionable action involved filming an event that probably constituted hazing (alcohol was invovled), though nothing even remotely violent or ugly took place. The student put the  video on social media, which stirred up a lot of backlash.  My conversation with him was enlightening. In making and sharing the video, he had actually given it quite a bit of forethought.  He had gone down the list of  “risk management” questions that he thought he should ask.  He had followed “rules” he thought applicable.  He had not thought, however, to ask himself a basic question: “Is this a good idea?”  He had not considered the appropriateness of his action, even if he had carefully examined potential risks.   So far as I could see, he had no categories or terms for asking that basic question.

Students are taking calculated risks.  The party/rape culture is based on a moral vision.  Students want to have a good time and a good time is associated with a potentially very dangerous environment.  Some students take what they want without consideration of the personhood of the other.  The law clearly has something to say about this matter, but even before the behavior rises to the level that the law becomes applicable, much bad has already occurred.  Too many students believe that acting responsibly means managing risk.  After that, it’s Katie bar the door.

When I think of the tragedy playing out on college campuses across the country, I think of a trenchant observation John Wesley made for entirely different reasons, but which I find apropos to our present crisis.  In his Journal from 1763, he referred to the lack of gathering people into small groups for sustained doctrinal and moral formation as “begetting children for the murderer.”  I think of this statement often.  We’re forgetting a fundamental mission of higher education – to help awaken the heart to moral sensitivity, to the vision, character and virtues for personal flourishing and the common good.

It’s more than training.  A certain attitude must be awakened and certain dispositions practiced in students’ hearts to transform the rape culture.  It’s a huge challenge, but absolutely worth the effort.  The right kind of moral formation is extremely hard work, but some sort of formation will happen one way or another, even if we don’t notice.  No more fatalism.  Nor more fixation on a narrow range of utilitarian and legal problems.  No more begetting children for the murderer.



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Dec 03 2014

Rankin File: Unavoidable Orthodoxy

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“Orthodox” or “orthodoxy,” used not in reference to church bodies often known as “Eastern” Orthodox, but in the more formal sense of “adhering to right beliefs,” has been much on my mind lately.  Today, I posted on my Facebook timeline a Religion News piece (here) about Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church.  I did so, not because I want to criticize Bell.  I don’t.  Nor do I want to criticize his critics.  I don’t.  I have an entirely different concern.  I posted the news piece as evidence that it is impossible to avoid some form of “orthodox.”  And, yes, when I think of other posts I’ve written, I know that I’m more or less repeating myself.  And probably stating the obvious.  But it seems like I must.

I want to challenge a common narrative (and a misuse of John Wesley) regarding the attempt to uphold and explore the notion of United Methodist orthodoxy.  That is, we have doctrinal standards and those standards are connected to a set of normative practices that vivify Christian life and the church and bring good to the world.  Quickly, in engaging such a topic, I get two kinds of reactions, one agreeing that we have doctrinal standards (that there is a United Methodist orthodoxy) and wondering what the big deal is or saying that we just need to apply them.  The other, with which I am here concerned, is that doctrine is divisive and that those of us who want to talk about it are motivated by the desire to exclude people.   From this point of view, the word “orthodox” is little more than a tool to abuse power.

I want to try two basic answers, one direct and the other by way of an example from my own work, to show why orthodoxy of some sort is unavoidable.  This post will run a tad long, so hang with me.

First, here’s my answer to the claim that orthodoxy is simply a tool for excluding people.  In purely pragmatic terms, if you’re going to have a group that you can identify as a group (give it a name and a purpose), it requires that its members agree with its purpose, values and beliefs.  You cannot have a group without something that identifies it, even if that definition is as simple as the shared experience of college fraternity brothers.  If someone does not agree with the group’s purpose, beliefs or values, then, to be honest, that person should not join the group or if, having changed her/his mind to a point of disagreement, should depart the group.  What purpose is there in staying a member of a group, the purpose or values or beliefs of which you no longer accept?

I work in a university.  Every student who matriculates is responsible for the Student Code of Conduct.  That code includes values that students are to uphold in their daily lives and practices.  Behind those values are assumed theories about human nature and goods.  Ignorance is no excuse.  If a student offends the code of conduct, that student goes through a disciplinary process up to and including expulsion.  Every group has some provision for keeping the group on track with its mission.  This includes disciplining members of the group, with the possibility of expulsion.  Yes, exclusion.

But notice, exclusion is a by-product, not the aim.  It’s a consequence of someone standing out as not adhering to the group’s purpose, beliefs and values.  If you have no way of governing members of the group, formal or informal, you don’t have a group.  I know I’m oversimplifying here but I’m trying to focus on the inadequacy of the charge that desiring to be orthodox is really nothing more than a desire to exclude people.  It is simply a repetitively false and distracting charge.

Even informally, a group or a movement or a loose association of people related around common concerns will develop a form of orthodox (with respect to the values of their group) thinking and practicing.  They may not “exclude” you formally if you offend these values, but you will feel the heated disagreement or the cold shoulder of exclusion.  Something like this set of relations and responses is unavoidable unless the “purpose” of the group is so whimsical and irrelevant that nobody cares about offending the boundaries.  But, of course, what the church is about is far more serious than that.

Now, still working on the inevitability of some orthodoxy taking center stage, I turn to an example by way of some work I’ve tried to do in college student spiritual development.  Many people in ministry at some point or another either have read James Fowler’s Stages of Faith or were introduced to the concepts via some other means.  One of Fowler’s PhD students from the 1980s (I think) is Sharon Daloz Parks, author of, among other works, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.  Parks modifies and extends portions of Fowler’s stages of faith theory in light of her work with emerging adults.

One learns from these two theorists that a mature, grown-up faith goes beyond the conventional (“what I learned growing up”) to a more reflective (Fowler’s stage 4) awareness of the diversity of opinions and the need to come to grips with and answer some questions for oneself (what Parks calls “convictional knowing”).  One has to “own” one’s own faith and, along the way, it will be modified.  Think of the numerous references you’ve likely heard to the old “Sunday School faith” that must be jettisoned for a more grown-up version.  So, for example, a college freshman takes an Introduction to Religion course and learns that the Christian Bible went through a historical process of formation of its own.  Or that the writers of Genesis drew on a stock of stories known across cultures.  This new knowledge, according to our theorists challenges students to re-think their understanding of their Christian faith, working through the various tensions and anxieties to a more nuanced, therefore more “mature” understanding and expression.

We’ve entered some tricky twists and turns here, but a couple of observations.  Both Fowler and Parks have a dynamic view of faith.  Faith must move and change as it grows.  From a strictly formal view, the “what” (i.e. doctrines, beliefs) of one’s faith is not in question in the theory.  But(!) in the application, things start to look different.

If you read Parks’ Big Questions Worthy Dreams, you will see that she’s pretty hard on “dogma.”  In fact, her references would sit well with the “Doctrine divides” advocates.  She gives the impression that adherence to dogma does not support the dynamic view of faith that she and Fowler (and others) have observed and theorized.  Dogma is established.  Dogma doesn’t move (well, not much).  Dogma ossifies.  For faith to “grow,” it must respond dynamically to the experiences a person has.  It must hold loosely to dogma or it will stop growing.

Whether or not Parks’ comments about religious dogma are accurate or not is not critically important.  What does matter is that she had adopted a dogmatic point of view herself and it affects her view of religious dogma.  She operates from the epistemology of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and from the canons of empirical social science, through normative methods of observation, interview and data analysis.  From Kant: God’s true nature is ultimately unknowable, therefore all dogmas are human constructions.  They should thus be held loosely.  What really matters for faith, then, is movement, response to empirical experience.  The social science method also provides for Parks a certain view of human nature, one based in ideas that have developed in modernity.

Now, she may be right.  But my point is that did not free herself from dogma or from a view that is considered orthodox within the community of research and practice of which she is a stellar example.  She sees human nature according to a set of normative concepts.  She operates her practice of mentoring young people on that basis.  Her theories guide her understanding of the human condition and what helps people flourish (or not). In this way, her beliefs works just like orthodox teachings do within a church.

You can’t avoid the formation of some set of beliefs and practices considered standard and normative; that is, orthodox.  Some version of orthodoxy will hold, or the group won’t continue to exist.  So, to those who insist on repeating that orthodoxy is really about exclusion and doctrines do little except divide people and cause difficulty (and should be held loosely or jettisoned), what you want cannot be done.




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Oct 04 2014

Rankin File: Exposing Bad Thinking: An Illustration of Why Method Matters

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My most recent post spoke to the importance of good method in having arguments.  I follow up here with a specific example to show why it matters in crucially practical ways.)

A recent flurry of blog posts and “sharing” among United Methodists reveals some of the problems we need to avoid if we’re going to make any progress toward resolution of our denominational struggles.  One blogger , for example, openly charged that others suggesting that General Conference 2016 be closed to all except delegates and other essential parties are all white straight males trying to protect their privilege.  A briar patch of problems we find here.  Statements have implications and when we begin to look at them, we see the problems.

First, if I say, “You call for action X in order to protect white privilege,” rather than (at least initially) accepting your statement at face value, I’ve taken it upon myself to change the subject altogether.  Immediately, we stop talking about what you actually said and switch to how I read your intentions behind what you said.  By implication, I’m effectively saying,

“You don’t really mean what you are saying.  You’re just saying so for something you want to protect.”

Fatally bad thinking abounds here.  First, I offer my statement as a description of the fact of the matter – the real issue is your bad motive, not something with General Conference.  I’ve made a claim about what is.  In that sense, I expect you to take my statement at face value, but, at the same time, I’m looking past yours.  By implication, I attribute honesty to myself as I claim to state the truth about your bad motive.  Second, while thereby accusing you of using language to exert power (protecting privilege), it turns out that my statement is a power move, too.   Why?  Because I changed the subject without explaining why I think the subject should change.  I have committed the very rhetorical sin that I identify in you.  A certain teaching about specks and logs in people’s eyes comes to mind.

Third, if I start by assuming bad motive in you, I am far more likely to misunderstand than to understand.  But understanding is one of the central goals of argument!  I should start with preliminary generosity or a kind of “innocent till proven guilty” principle not only out of respect for you, but also that I might have the best chance at understanding you!  Imagine if every time you tried to sort out a disagreement, the other party assumed you were using words in a certain way to cover your real intentions.  Nothing but misunderstanding, frustration and alienation can result.  On the contrary, if you and I are having an argument, I should always assume that you are speaking honestly and with good intent until you show me otherwise.  And in coming to the conclusion of bad intent on your part, I must always exercise extreme restraint.

(Side note: yes, motive matters.  In a court of law, it does, but even there culpable motive has to be demonstrated in order to be compelling.  It cannot just be asserted.  Yes, we are more than just thinkers.  We are motivated beings.  We still need to exercise extreme caution in assigning bad motive to our opponents.  Rather, we should be checking our own motives, not our opponents.)

Now, I can imagine one objection.  I know there are others, but this one comes quickly to mind.  By pointing out the problem of white male privilege, it does not necessarily mean that I’m attributing bad motive.  Maybe not, but if you read the blog that I’ve referenced (here) and notice the “want” in the title, not to mention how the whole post is constructed, it’s pretty hard to conclude that people’s motive are not being questioned.  So, yes, of course, one can make references to privilege as a principality to be resisted, but that’s not what I’m worried about.  I’m worried about how easily and often we use facile reference to structural evil as a way of “identifying” someone’s “real” intent.  That, too, is a mistake in thinking.  Structural evil exists often apart from bad intent and quite in spite of good intent.

The only way forward – the only hope of resolution of our deep denominational disagreements – is for us to listen generously, to think carefully and to argue clearly.  We should do so for a number of good reasons, but especially we need to remember who is listening.

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Oct 01 2014

Rankin File: Methods: More than Sharing Stories and Naming Sources

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In a couple of different ways and places, lately, I’ve expressed an opinion about what is wrong with current United Methodist debates and what is needed.  My recent post about labels shared a personal experience illustrating the frustration of having people look past what I say and assigning a label that they then use to justify ignoring what I just said.  I told a personal story.  Many people, from every angle in our current controversies, can tell similar stories.

This is why simply sharing our experience is insufficient for making progress in our denominational struggle.  We are tempted to think that our experience trumps somebody else’s.  It is so easy to lapse into a kind of “can you top this” competition in our telling our stories.  To be sure, sharing experiences has its value.  It is a way of getting to know each other and, hopefully, in so doing we can empathize and recognize common humanity, even if we ultimately disagree.  It surely would give us more opportunity to exercise Christian love.  But beyond sharing our stories, we have to do the hard spade work of understanding each other’s methods.  It takes a lot of listening.  And some restraint, intellectual humility and charity.

So, let me try my hand at explaining how method works in our discussions.  I claim no particular expertise.  To use the language of the trades, I consider myself a journeyman in the craft.  Every craft, trade, science, whatever, has methods for skillfully doing the work.  In our case, we are talking about methods used in thinking about theological and ethical questions for the sake of living faithfully and effectively as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Within this framework, then, what is a method?  A method is a patterned set of steps employed to understand statements, propositions, claims and arguments.  (An argument is a sustained account or explanation aimed at showing the validity, strength, relevance and truth of a stated set of beliefs.)  Good methods are tried and tested by a community of people who learn how to use the methods and can help each other hone skills.  In this case, a community shares a set of beliefs and practices that gives them a starting point for method to interpret and to apply.

The goal of good method is to render meaning and truth.  “Truth,” of course, is a contested term, but delving into that subject goes beyond my purpose here.  Of course, some methods aim at simply helping us figure out what works.  If I have ants infesting my lawn, I can try a number of differing methods for getting rid of the pests.  The good one is the one that works.  In Christian debates about true and false, good and evil, however, we need more than pragmatism.  We certainly need much more than appeals to emotion, personal attacks and innuendo and inflammatory statements.  We need careful thought.  In other words, a good method avoids the temptation to skip argumentation and go for some shortcut, like labels or casting doubt on someone’s motive.  (For a good set of examples of these problematic shortcuts, google “informal fallacies” and you’ll see why bad thinking does not – apart from blind, dumb luck – render good policies and practices.  It will also help you understand what’s wrong with so many United Methodist debates.)

Behind and underneath the patterned steps we find assumptions or background beliefs.  Assumptions can range from “close by” and fairly simple to deeper and broader views about reality.  Assumptions help to determine the limits of what we conclude can be true and applicable.  Here is another tricky point: ideological opponents can use the same steps of a method, but if they have different assumptions, their conclusions can vary wildly.

Furthermore, all of us draw on and combine sources and we recognize or assign weight (force, authority) in our attempts to understand.  The Bible is a source, obviously.  Depending on the question, an article on a scientific point might be a source, or a theological or philosophical treatise, or a piece of fiction or a song.  Some people like some authors or teachers and others, others.  When we use sources, we need to know what we’re doing.  We need to know how this source supports what we’re trying to argue.  And we need to be able to tell if we’re using sources in a honest, rational (i.e. legitimate) way.  And yes, here’s another tricky point: we are tempted to stick with sources we find “trustworthy.”  Sometimes this means that they reinforce what we already believe.  But good method requires that I also look at sources that disagree with what I already believe.  I must practice reading what is distasteful or difficult or disagreeable to my views in order to know (and be truly confident) in what I think.

Thus, to summarize: statements or claims (“X is true”) need to be supported by arguments (rational, logically consistent explanations or accounts).  Assumptions need to be made visible to anyone interested in understanding our claims.  In making our arguments, we need to show how we use sources and what kind of authority or weight they have.

And all of this is open for scrutiny by people who disagree with us and by people who agree, but who think we should sharpen our thinking.   They can point out flaws in our thinking.  They can tell us that they don’t share our assumptions.  One of the most common difficulties in our present United Methodist debates on homosexuality, for example, is that opponents start with differing assumptions and simply talk past each other without attending to their divergent starting points.  Can we see how futile conversations are if we don’t recognize this problem?

Doing the spadework of method is not very sexy or exciting.  But it’s absolutely crucial.  And you, perceptive reader, can sense the moral dimension of what I’ve just described.  If I want to participate in productive conversation; if I want to help The United Methodist Church work toward unity of vision and mission; if I want to help calm the churning waters of angry dissent, then I am obligated to act in good faith by doing this hard work.

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Sep 27 2014

Rankin File: Why I Don’t Like Labels: A Personal Story

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I try to balance staying aware with not getting sucked into social media debates.  This week I failed.  On three separate UM groups, I saw these words:

“extreme conservative evangelical”


“white male” just concerned with protecting “white male” privilege.”

Before you protest that I’m just another white male conservative angry about being called out, let me nip that protest in the bud.  I recognize and admit without hesitation the fact of male privilege, of white privilege, of wealth privilege.  (I also think there’s much more going on than the concerns these labels illustrate.)  I recognize systemic evil.  I don’t like labels of any kind.  I know labels can be helpful, but often – especially now – they are not.  I don’t like it when anybody of any ideological bent uses a label for the purpose of de-legitimizing somebody’s ideas without having to make their case with their own ideas.

I think it’s fair to say that it near-infuriates me when labels are used that way.  Why?  Here’s my story.

Probably in the neighborhood of ten or eleven years ago, I was asked to spend half a day with an annual conference study group on the issue of homosexuality.  This group was tasked with presenting a resolution to their upcoming annual conference meeting.  The group met several times over several months and invited various resource people to address them.  I was one such “resource.”   I was asked to share with them most likely because I hold traditional convictions on core matters of theology, thus I’m sometimes identified as “conservative.”

I’m also an academic.  As is the case with most academics, it is very important to me to present positions as accurately, honestly and fairly as possible and to criticize positions, not the position-holders’ motives or character.  I also believe very strongly that, if I’m going to teach or serve as a resource for groups trying to decide contentious matters, it is my strong responsibility to read widely and to have reasonably good working knowledge of the issues involved.

That is exactly how I prepared for the session with the annual conference group.  I had my own opinions about the matter, but I was not there to make a case for my opinions.  I was there to elucidate the range of issues to help the group do their work well.   This is why this memory is particularly galling for me.  After spending the morning attempting to do exactly what I just expressed as my aim, I ended with a published editorial, written by a physician who is very supportive of L/G/B/T rights.  In other words, I used a source with whom most people in the group already agreed on the matter at hand.  This author pleaded with his readers not to deploy the “naturalistic fallacy” to support advocacy for same-sex marriage, etc.  What he meant by this term is actually more like the “is-ought” problem: if a phenomenon is counted as natural, then it ought to be counted as good.   But, of course, we all know that not everything that we call natural can be counted as good, so this view turns out to be a very inadequate foundation for any kind of rights advocacy.

It turns out, they did exactly what the physician/author (and I) begged them not to do.  When I learned of the outcome, I quizzed one of the members of the group who told me (and I have reason to accept this person as a reliable witness) that the majority of the group said, “Well, you know, Steve Rankin is just pretty conservative, so we didn’t think what he had to say counted all that much.”

There you have it.  One word – “conservative” – was all that mattered to sweep away my input.  It was a classic case of made-up minds in advance and all they needed was to “know” that I was “pretty conservative.”  They didn’t need to listen.  They just needed the label.  Of course, the irony of the whole thing was that I used one of their allies to caution them against adopting a mistaken stratagem, the very one they adopted.

A label is a poor substitute for the hard work of explaining how one draws one’s conclusions.  A label, even if accurate, is not an argument, not a reason to adopt a position.  It’s just a label.  Journalists can use labels to meet their word limits when trying to describe someone in an article.  We should not use labels as shortcuts for arguments.

We United Methodists have a 100% chance of failure to resolve our deep differences if labels continue to dominate in our discussions.  A 100% chance of failure.


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Sep 23 2014

Rankin File: The Annual Conference is Still the Basic Unit and Why It Really Matters

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To date, I have taken a pass on signing on to any of the various proposals offered to resolve some of the woes of our United Methodist Church.  One of the main reasons I have not – which I’ve publicly expressed – is that I don’t know how any future organization of the denomination will involve extension ministries.  More to the point, what happens to ministry to college students?  I realize that, already, many campus ministries have to spend a significant amount of time raising funds for support, since our general church funding apparatus does not meet all requirements.  Still, I want to note the significant implications for a shift in polity, if the feared future unfolds.

Since I make a living in a church related university (and before here in a church related college), I want to make clear that this post has nothing to do with job security.  I’m under the bishop’s appointment and I will serve wherever the bishop sends me.

So, where lies my reserve with current proposals?  It lies with our polity.  The basic unit of The United Methodist Church is still the annual conference.  This point has been softened, however, by other BoD language something on the order of, “The primary location (or point of contact) for our mission is the local church.”  I don’t have my Book of Discipline available at this moment, so someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is the gist of it. If we separate amicably, what happens to extension ministries, especially church related colleges and universities?  If we go with what some people call the local option, then what implications does that option have for extensions ministry?

My main concern here is with college students.  The National Center for Education Statistics (here) puts this fall semester’s number at 21 million, 18 million of whom are undergraduates.  However, keep in mind that this number does not include all the people “in the process” of going to college.  Some people otherwise enrolled may not be enrolled this semester.  They “stop out” temporarily for a number of reasons, so the actual number of people in the process of going to college is several million higher.  Furthermore, not all those 18 million are of the traditional age range (18-24).  About 8 million are over the age of 25.  And a bunch of them go to two-year schools, where, for the most part, we don’t even try to reach them.  Anybody hanging around a “junior college,” to use old and somewhat pejorative language, knows how difficult developing a community of disciples in that environment can be.  But it’s true of college in general.  Campus ministries compete for the attention of bright, ambitious young people with about a million other opportunities.

When you think about the roughly 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, one wonders how many United Methodist ministries we find.  Not nearly enough.  Of the United Methodist related schools, about 400,000 students attend them.  That’s a significant number itself, but add in the Wesley Foundations and other campus ministries at non-United Methodist schools and you see a network of mission stations aimed at directly effecting the future!

What would happen to this network in the proposed structural changes?

Unfortunately, it is the exceedingly rare local congregation who has a good sense about its calling to reach college students.  Once the kids “graduate” from our youth programs, it’s hit and miss when they get to college.  Therefore, unless and until our local churches – particularly those geographically near college campuses, but definitely not limited to them – decide to get serious about campus ministry, I will continue to insist that the annual conference is still the basic unit of the church.  And we’d better by golly pay it some attention in all our talking about splitting.

While I’m on the topic, let me admit some obvious and hard realities.  College students don’t “pay for themselves.”  College ministries cost money and there’s no quick or obvious return on investment.  Second, college students are notoriously fickle.  If they get involved in a church at all while they’re in college, they shop around and church hop, depending on where their friends are going.  That’s if they’re traditional, residential college students.  It could also be that they’re having to work like dogs while they’re in school and they’re working on Sunday mornings.  Either way, as a segment of the population, they’re generally not very reliable for helping to maintain the local church’s institutional machinery.  Third, even if they do get involved in a church while they’re in college, they likely won’t stay in the area upon graduation (unless they’re in a big metropolitan setting), so some other congregation will get the benefit of the investment, not the college years congregation.

In short, college ministry is long on effort and short on short-term returns.  But that’s the point.  The cost-benefit metric is not the right measure.  We need a long term vision of college ministry.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we don’t really know how effective we’ve been in ministry until we look fifteen or twenty years down the road from the time we had direct involvement.  This is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true.

So, until someone shows me a plan for how whatever the denomination(s) will look like in the future addresses extension ministries, especially college ministries, I’m going to withhold judgment on proposals for structural change.  Not because the proposals are not attractive.  In certain cases, I think they are.  I just don’t see sufficient awareness of the need for ministry to/with college students.  And I think that’s a really, really big deal.


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