A Ministry to Students

by A Symposium

This symposium appeared in the Christian Century October 17, 1979, p.1002. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


How is campus ministry changing? Is it still a vital institution? What characterizes today’s student generation? How is campus ministry being received by students? What does the future hold for ministries to college and university communities? These are some of the questions addressed by the five participants in our symposium. The writers represent a variety of religious traditions and styles of campus ministry.


Ministry to Jewish Students

Daniel I. Leifer

Rabbi Leifer is director of the B’nai  B’rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Chicago.

Though much has changed, much has remained the same since I came to work with Jewish students and faculty at the University of Chicago in 1964. Political activism and the use of hard drugs have disappeared. Students do not drop out and sometimes return, as they once did. The scourge of feeling out of joint with the world, directionless, rejecting career and family, which afflicted an entire college generation, has passed and is found now only in some of the survivors in their late 20s and early 30s.

Today students share with their parents the awareness of economic scarcity, restricted future and limited career options which has affected American and world society. Almost every student works and is in debt for his or her education. Students have less time and energy for extracurricular activities, whether political, religious or voluntary social service. What time is left from the pressures of schoolwork, now competitively focused into practical career-oriented majors, is spent relaxing and having fun, privately or with friends.

And yet, those who work with students meet generation after generation of young adults at the same stage of psychological and intellectual development. The “work” of separating oneself from one’s parents and the patterns of behavior and values of one’s childhood home; of breaking up and putting together anew the pieces of one’s personality; of questioning, rebelling, hungrily exploring the world’s cafeteria of ideas and behaviors; of finding emotional and physical companionship with peers; of ultimately finding a direction and a purpose in life -- all this has not changed. It is with these issues that campus ministers have worked and will always work, regardless of the political and economic fluctuations of our society. Our permanence on the campus rests in the fact that we make our entry into the lives of others at their most crucial moments of impermanence.

Jewish life on campus also has changed -- as it has for the Jewish people throughout the world since the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars and the 25-year delayed burst into public consciousness of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Jewish identification has been reinforced by the influence of the black power movement, the ethnic revival in America and the surfacing of national-cultural-religious separatist movements throughout the world. Like everyone else on this planet, the Jews have swung closer to the particularism and away from the universalism in their heritage.

Today even the secular, cosmopolitan, elite private universities are more comfortable places at which to be positively Jewish. More Kippot (traditional head covering) than ever before are seen on the heads of Jewish males walking across campus. One of Harvard’s dining halls serves kosher food, and for the first time in its history the University of Chicago rescheduled the first day of classes so as not to conflict with Yom Kippur. The change is more noticeable among faculty; not only the younger but even the older generation is more open and less embarrassed with its Jewishness. Proof of this change lies in the new or expanded departments of Jewish studies in over 100 major universities -- staffed by an American-born and -trained new generation of Jewish scholars.

The numbers of Jewish students participating in Hillel activities have increased, but like their parents, most observe only the High Holidays and Passover. As always, only a minority of the Jewish students on campus are actively involved, but it is a better educated, more sophisticated minority. Most have been to Israel by the time they arrive at college or go during their college years; it is the crucial Jewish identity experience. These days there are more observant Jews on campus and more Jews whose identity is focused on Jewish people issues, such as Israel and Soviet Jewry. This Jewish political activism is the meeting ground for all kinds of Jews.

Strong opposite forces are also at work. Assimilation and intermarriage among the third- and fourth-generation Jews, particularly on the elite campuses, has never been so high. Estimates of the intermarriage rate range between 40 and 60 per cent of all marriages involving Jews. Nevertheless, conversions to Judaism have risen significantly. Though motivated by marriage, they are genuine conversions -- as every Hillel director knows, because so much of one’s time is spent with these couples.

In my opinion, the most significant Jewish religious movement on the American scene is the Havurah movement, created on college campuses by political activists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though it has begun to revitalize synagogue life in America, it is still based at or loosely connected to university campuses, and its members are students, academics and professionals. It has created small, egalitarian, participatory fellowship groups for worship and celebration of festivals and life-cycle customs. Its significance for American Jewish life is indicated by the fact that this movement’s guide to Jewish observance and knowledge, The Jewish Catalog, has sold more copies than any other Jewish book in the history of the U.S. except for the Bible.

Campus Jewish life has moved closer to the center of concern of the organized American Jewish community. While funding and staffing increased in the ‘70s, these have begun to peak as competition grows (from the elderly, new immigrants, Israel) for the scarcer dollar. Jewish campus work will always be inadequately funded and staffed in comparison with synagogues and community centers. A cruel asymmetry exists in that the people we serve do not pay for the services they receive; they are not even organized into a lobby to push for their share of the Jewish community dollar. Hillel directors must interest the older adults of B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Federations in providing funds to serve Jewish students. It is a difficult task and one that will grow harder as the number of Jewish college students decreases in the next decade because of low birthrate, intermarriage and assimilation.

Twenty years from now the Jewish college generation, like the Jewish community in America, will be smaller. But numbers have never been the most significant factor in Jewish life. Those who remain will be more knowledgeable, more committed Jews in their private and public lives. It will be a vital, creative and pluralistic community writing a wholly new and significant chapter in the history of the Jewish people.


Long-Distance Loneliness and Communities of Hope

Robert L. Johnson

Mr. Johnson was United Methodist campus minister at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 18 years. He is presently national program director for the National Institute for Campus Ministries.

To focus on the pastoral opportunity before us in campus ministry, I turn not to Clark Kerr or David Riesman for clues to the spiritual condition of academe, but rather to two of the most popular bards of this generation, Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

Indeed, whoever listens carefully to the lyrics of Browne and Taylor will be initiated into the feelings with which a large number of today’s students resonate -- feelings of loss, lassitude, uncertainty, despair. All that the academy describes cognitively as the character of our predicament is rendered poetically and with feeling in the music of Browne and Taylor. The power of death, the immensity of space, the certainty of entropy, the “long-distance loneliness,” the fragility of community, our political paralysis -- all are themes of the minstrels’ art.

Jackson Browne’s song “The Fuse” points to a self that can still hope, for a part of that self is “alive in eternity/that nothing can kill” And James Taylor in a recent interview describes his “Secret o’ Life” as “a spiritual song.” Like the Venerable Bede before him, he considers life as a brief passage out of darkness into light and then back into darkness. Taylor bids us to show the fear we feel but also calls attention to the possibility of being graced along the way: “And since we’re only here for a while/Might as well show some style -- /Give us a smile.”

As these songs echo through dorms and coliseums shrouded in blue smoke this fall, those of us with the sensibilities of biblical faith need to attend to the pastoral dimensions of this moment. The music will remind us of the powerful presence of the “Savage God” of death in our midst and the attendant symptoms of alcoholism, suicide, vocational despair, institutional fatigue. How in such a setting can we sing the Lord’s song?

Certainly not as a solo. We need community, a sense of “the great cloud of witnesses.” We need to nourish our sense of historical connectedness as well as set forth a hope that breaks the paralyzing force of death. We need to set the claims of the Kingdom over against the culture of narcissism.

There are heartening signs that campus ministries in myriad ways are addressing this malaise. Vital liturgy seems to be a key part, especially when the music and action join honest fears and valid hopes. Bible study has become another “place” where real community occurs, demons are exorcised and communal action is initiated. And that much-abused term “fellowship” is again being reclaimed in forms that encourage students and faculty to come together apart from the pressures of academic legitimation simply to own their humanity, celebrate friendship and support one another in the building of a life. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, maybe only in the church will friendship survive as an arena of true freedom.

As campus ministers, we cannot separate ourselves from the cognitive dissonance mirrored in academic institutions. Knowing our limitations, the deceit of superficiality, the terrors of fatigue, we can yet help nurture liberated zones in a cultural wasteland -- places where students and faculty can come together and face the encompassing dark as faithful and empowered persons. In such communities, we can never seek grounds for hallowing our ignorance or sheltering our comrades from the vastness of life and the ambiguities of our choices. But we shall not engage persons in the prophetic and political tasks before us until we engage the power of death with all the resources of faithful community.


A Game of Survival

Davida Foy Crabtree

Ms. Crabtree is minister and director of Greater Hartford (Connecticut) Campus Ministry, serving four institutions and more than 16,000 people.

Economic realities and the consequent unpredictability of the future combine to create ambiguity and anxiety for all of us. Higher education, as a future-oriented industry, experiences these in concentration. Students seek credentials for immediate employability, and thus shrink from involvement in social issues. Institutions market courses to attract a high volume of students. The turn away from liberal arts is exacerbated by increasing dependency on major corporations for grants, contracts and clientele. Public campuses begin to compromise programs to ensure enrollment so they won’t be reorganized out of existence by the state. The name of the game is survival. And that same game plagues campus ministries.

In the game of survival, it is the elite private institutions that are most likely to make it. In our country the sons and daughters of the elite not only are insulated from the economic vagaries but also receive the major share of the church’s ministry. Meanwhile, other sons and daughters in public (and nonelite private) higher education have no insulation and little ministry. It is as though the church’s ministry is meant only for the elite and thus for those educated for future leadership, not at all for those who study for immediate employability. Campus ministry is a justice issue.

In part because of declining budgets, and in part because of a deep commitment to the church, many persons involved in campus ministries are convinced that local churches must be engaged in carrying out this ministry in higher education. We develop new approaches to encourage congregations to send People and money. We cajole, entice, exhort and pray -- because we have a vision to share: higher education and the church can be key partners in the humanizing and developing of our communities, especially cities. We spend hours preaching and speaking in churches to educate parishioners and clergy about the new shape of higher education, helping them to see it as resource for, not just recipient of, mission. We bring laity and clergy to campuses, building relationships, encouraging cooperation, sharing God’s word.

Despite poor funding and often low morale, creative work is happening in ministries in public higher education. Caught amid church pressure for liturgical ministries, church/state separation issues, and students’ lack of interest in organized religion, deeply religious ministries are nonetheless being carried on. And despite the slow pace of progress in engaging congregations in ministry, we are yet hopeful because the vision is beginning to be shared.

Yet there are some dangers for our future growing out of this new movement to involve parishes in campus ministry. In seeking to enable parish based ministries (rather than do ministry in the parish’s behalf), we may end up managing and not leading, enablers of an uncreative status quo. Such a danger comes from undue focus on method to the exclusion of direction or content. If we only generate a flurry of activity without direction, then better we had not begun at all.

A second danger is that we will meet the needs of campus ministry and of churches but not the needs of students and of higher education. A perpetual problem of any mission of the church, this need for activity and product can speed us up when we should go slowly, and can distort our sense of purpose.

Finally, some will argue that campus ministries are not needed in a day of commuter students and parish-based ministries. In reality, it is often just because campus ministers are there that local churches are involved. Our function is to coordinate, lead, ensure an ecumenical presence, and speak the prophetic word as well as to enable individual congregations to minister.

Overall, ecumenical campus ministry in public higher education -- in the northeast at least -- has some well-defined needs, the most critical being a constituency in each denomination that will support it, especially  in terms of budgetary increases. For, on occasion, ministry does come down to money.


The Right Staff

Thomas Phelan

Dr. Phelan is dean of the school of humanities and social sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and pastor of the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice, Troy, New York.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is a technological university. The student who comes here is usually clearly oriented toward a goal, willing to work hard, ambitious for success, but not very sophisticated socially. She or he is also quite traditional in religious matters. The Roman Catholics, with whom I am especially familiar, go to church, have some appreciation of their theological underpinnings and are hoping to find a slightly different style of worship, teaching and activity from what they had experienced in their home parishes. The big problem is to get students to involve themselves in ongoing Christian service. There is no problem, however, with getting them to make ad hoc and limited-time commitments.

I believe that the churches need once again to provide adequate staff for campus ministry, and that this can happen only when local campus ministries assume responsibility for their own support. The church’s ministration is basically one of caring for its people and enabling them to lead the gospel life and thus to move the world on toward salvation. A basic problem today is that there is so little staff to facilitate this work. And in my experience, local parishes have seldom supplied either ethos or continuing support for the few students they have been able to attract away from the hermetically sealed campuses.

Marginality has sometimes been a problem for campus ministry staff persons. They are usually away from supportive church structures and not quite part of the university structure. The solution is to find staff persons who regard marginality as a distinct advantage, offering a freedom and mobility that one rarely finds in any position in our society. Of course, this solution requires campus ministry personnel who have deep faith and a sense of personal responsibility. It also requires persons who can reach out to the constituency, and not wait for the constituency to come to them.

Campus ministry must also be ecumenical in its outlook. Young people readily cross denominational lines. To understand, appreciate and respect other religious traditions is essential. This statement in no way suggests, however, that one can be soft on one’s own tradition. In fact, campus ministry personnel must be steeped and secure in their own.

There is still the problem of the quantity of persons to be dealt with on campus. Staff, where it exists, is certainly not adequate, nor is it likely to be adequate in the foreseeable future. Skilled and talented persons must maximize their effectiveness and engage as many members of the university community as possible in the ministry. Roman Catholics sometimes accomplish this aim through liturgy. But we can also work with key groups. And one must be concerned to build an environment on campus in which religious ideas and values can flourish, so that every member of the campus community is touched. Finally, the staff can act as enablers, activating and preparing as many members of the community as possible to serve the rest. This means the revival of church organizations -- a difficult but not impossible task. There are the tools of programs and sometimes buildings which can be employed in all of this, but in my estimation it all comes down to having the right staff.

I have chosen to speak almost exclusively about staff because I am convinced that we must start again at this point. The stakes are enormously high. Future leadership will be different leadership without the influence of the church, and the loss would spell out a serious failure in the church’s mission.


A Parish-Based Ministry

Joseph C. Williamson

Mr. Williamson is pastor of the Church of the Covenant, Boston.

From 1969 to 1972 I worked with the staff collective of the Boston-Cambridge Ministry in Higher Education. Those were heady and frequently apocalyptic days, both for the student movement and for campus ministry. We had been released by our supporting religious denominations from the encumbrances of liturgical and institutional forms to go with the “movement” for racial justice and for peace. The “action” was the critical factor in which the vitalities of the Spirit could be both discerned and experienced with power.

By the fall of 1972 it seemed appropriate for me to accept a call to return to a parish-based ministry. The call was extended by the Church of the Covenant, a federated United Church of Christ and United Presbyterian congregation located in the downtown Back Bay area of Boston. Since that time I, along with the Covenant staff and congregation, have continued to engage in ministry with students from a parish rather than a campus base. I have learned much during these past seven years.

First, I would affirm the viability of ministry with students from a locus outside the immediate social and political context of the university or college. I remember clearly the rationale developed to justify campus-based ministry with students: it called the church “to serve” the university within the context of the educational institution. The problem with such a theological rationale is that it was not sufficiently mindful of the church’s mandate “to serve Jesus Christ by “serving” human need. The priorities and the politics of the university were complicit with the social forces that were most frequently serving those in power rather than those who were powerless. When the base for ministry with students is moved from the campus to an extracampus location, it becomes possible to see the church in its own integrity “outside” the university rather than “inside” the structure of the educational institutions.

The second thing I have learned is that the student constituency most receptive to the church’s ministry tends to be graduates rather than undergraduates. There are a variety of psychosocial factors that inform this observation. Certainly undergraduates tend to be more intrigued by the “liberal” movement outside the more-or-less conservative institutions of family and religion. Furthermore, they are frequently becoming aware intellectually of the relativity that characterizes the intellectual milieu of the university. Graduate students, on the other hand, are beginning to reappropriate the “conservative” values of meaning, rootedness and community. They know that there is something in the religious reality which addresses those issues. In the midst of the relativity they are aware of a need for both focus and commitment.

Third, I have learned from ministry with this student constituency the necessary coinherence of the mystical and the political. The mystical touches the dynamism of myth and ritual, of song and dance. The political links that dynamism with the struggle against those social factors that destroy the myth and inhibit the dance. Mysticism without politics becomes mystification. Politics without awe of the holy becomes cynical and tired. At the Church of the Covenant we have attempted to keep the tension alive. We seek to engage the social forces that oppress people without power. But we also seek to engage the ancient story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and to attend to the sacramental means of grace.

Ministry with students will always be proleptical. It will be ministry for the future as much as for the present -- ministry that gambles on what is possible as much as on what is actual. It is exactly this eschatological anticipation that sustains us in our task.