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Thoughts on the future of campus ministry

Thoughts on the future of campus ministry

by Karl Stevens

Part 1 of 2

Campus ministry used to be easy. In the beginning, no such thing had to exist, because most colleges and universities in America were founded by specific denominations, and populated by members of those denominations. Then, in the late 19th century, students at state institutions began forming denominational groups. Some of those denominations called ordained chaplains to minister to them directly. The Episcopal Church didn’t, with some notable exceptions, preferring to establish parishes near campuses and work with student chaplains. And it was pretty clear who those chaplains and parishes were meant to serve – four year residential undergraduates, and graduate students who might stay for longer but certainly lived within the vicinity of the campus and the church.

That model began to break down in the 1960s, as campus unrest led many nearby parishes to disengage. But there was also a larger social trend going on. The mainline denominations began losing members, and the denominational students on campus, who had once created ministries to serve themselves, were now no longer interested in those ministries. The impetus for forming Episcopal communities on campus shifted from the students to church institutions, and this marked the beginning of a decline.

For the past fifty years, the Episcopal Church has tried to keep a presence on campus by hiring campus ministers and chaplains, who sometimes step in to serve healthy and existing communities, but often are charged with creating such communities out of thin air. This has made for challenging work, and the challenge is increasing due to one simple fact: four year residential undergraduates are no longer the majority of American college students.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute only 40.6% of students who enter as full-time undergraduates complete their education in four years. So there goes the idea of a four year education. Couple this with the fact that a growing number of students are part-time or taking online courses, and the percentage of “traditional” students falls to 20%. Yet these are the students that higher education institutions were set-up to cater to, and these are the students that campus ministries have relied on to remain viable. But if they’re not on campus, they can’t be expected to be in campus churches. And for those who are on campus, they don’t value denominational identity in the way that their 19th century forbears did. For the most part, they’re not looking for other Episcopal students to bond with over their shared Episcopalianism.

This obviously presents some very strong challenges to Episcopal campus ministry and to the church in general. But in some ways Episcopalians are more fortunate than our sisters and brothers in other denominations. Because we never separated the idea of campus ministry from parish life, we still have the basic scaffolding that allows outreach to students. While many denominations have closed down the dorms they once owned and sold off their campus ministry houses, we still have viable parishes near campuses that are mostly supported by their own membership, rather than by funding from a diocese or the national church.

Of course, this very blessing requires something of us. Much of what I’ve said about the history of campus ministry in the Episcopal Church comes from a thesis by the Rev. Brian Turner. Brian points out that the clergy who served parishes near campuses in the 19th and 20th centuries were expected to have some scholarship, and to understand “the needs and aspirations and perplexities of youth.” Now that students are of multiple ages and, if they’re taking online classes, are sitting in the pews of churches that are nowhere near a campus, this 19th and 20th century demand that parishes and priests understand students and learn how to speak to them has become universal.

The “needs and aspirations and perplexities” of students are different now then they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The vast majority of students (87.9%) believe that going to college will help them get a better job. They’re focused on their future earnings potential, but they have good reason to be anxious about this potential, since almost a third of recent college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. They’re not finding opportunities to use the education that they paid so much for (the cost of higher education increases by 7.8% per year, which is higher than medical costs and more than double the rise in consumer prices). They’re worried about their future, and they didn’t necessarily take the time in college to wallow in great books and great thoughts. This should come as a relief to priests and parishioners who are worried that they might have to have PhDs to communicate with students. But it also means that these students probably haven’t been introduced to the great intellectual traditions of Christianity, nor have they had the opportunity to think about their faith’s relationship to the classes they took, the life they want to lead, and the ways in which new academic discoveries are shaping the world.

What can parishes do for them? And how can those of us who specialize in campus ministry help parishes engage with the students in their midsts? (read part 2 next)

The Rev. Karl Stevens writes at Praxis. He is an Episcopal Priest and a writer and illustrator. He is exceedingly fortunate to be the Missioner for Campus Ministry with the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He also got lucky when he married the lovely Amy Stevens, with whom he has one glorious child. Early in the summer of 2013 he and a bunch of parishioners from Saint James’s in Columbus set themselves on fire to demonstrate the properties of propane mixed with bubbly water and, of course, the power of the Holy Spirit. Everyone else got fantastic flames up and down their arms. Karl found that he had to cosset his flame like a small bird. He’s trying not to read too much into that.


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David O'Rourke

I look forward to reading part 2! I wonder if the development of ministries in the virtual and social media spaces can be focused on students who are pursuing their education online and are therefore already in the virtual space.

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