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Campus Ministry in the Last Decade of the Century

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This paper was read to the annual national meeting of the United Methodist chaplains and campus ministers in Fairbanks, Alaska, in l993. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


It is now forty-two years since I became a campus minister. I was the Protestant Chaplain of Boston University and my title expressed something of the religious ethos of that period. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew still faced each other with a kind of curious tentativeness. Typically of great Protestant institutions, Boston University had more Catholics and Jews than Protestants.

The Student Christian Movement was in full bloom. Great ecumenical strategies were the principal vision of campus ministries. It does not now seem the same universe. In that period the issue that drove student Christians into action was ecumenism. The ministry on campus was principally ministry to students. Universities and colleges still had visible vestiges of denominational histories. Most of the constituents of our programs came from church backgrounds. We had come through a terrible depression and a World War and understood the value of solidarity in the Christian family beyond sectarianism.

The creative energies of that period powered the church for a generation. All of the founders of the World Council of Churches were veterans of the Student Christian Movement. The councilor movement in the United States was created by persons who had learned organizational behavior in the trenches of ecumenical student life. It just happened that this period was the culmination of the neo-realism movement in theology. Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Brunner were in full stride.

Realistic theology fit the temper of the times. This theology was "church dogmatics" - it had to do with the reiteration of the self-understanding of ecclesial existence. Already this dogmatic was seriously challenged by the existential critique of the Bultmannians. But journeyman pastors and campus ministers found the Christian realism a powerful vehicle for institutional life.

You may recall that in the immediate post-war period, evangelism in the mainline churches could be described as "institutional" evangelism. Missionary pastors, including myself, called persons into the fellowship of the church rather than to conversion. This was a heady time. Many young families were in retreat from certain kinds of church experience and the refreshing secularism of the new approach was welcome. It was also the case that there was an optimism in the air and moral and ethical problems were all being addressed by the familial context.

(Incidentally, I find it curious that the present emphasis on so-called family values is a harking back to the immediate post-war period which, in hindsight, was not really as stable as our mythologies allow. Remember the critiques? The Crack in the Picture Window, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Split-Level Culture?

This idyllic vision of ministry began to unravel in the late 1960s. Philosophically and theologically, the dogmatic complacency of the earlier period dissipated. John B. Cobb, Jr., once said that "Neo-orthodoxy was the lifeboat that temporarily saved the church adrift in a relativistic sea." Relativism overwhelmed. Campus ministers had to choose sides. It was not longer the gospel against the world, it was suddenly the gospel having to be restated in a free-for-all. Vietnam, sexism, racism, homosexuality, multiculturalism, bio-ethical decision-making, nuclear control are just a few of the major issues that overwhelmed the dogmatic posture of the neo-realists. (I remember with mixed emotions Reinhold Niebuhr's attacks on pacifism and his hesitancy about confronting racism.)

Some of you will remember the heroism of campus ministers during the deepest part of the crisis of that period. At the time of the riots in California campuses, the appearance of a campus minister on the floor of the Methodist conference was similar to the welcome of General Swartzkopf at an American Legion meeting. The campus ministers performed ministerial duties with great sensibility and passion for the unheard agenda of the students. In my annual conference, we successfully used this advantage to push through increased funding for the campus ministry. But therein lay an unresolved problem. The rank and file conference member was thinking of the church caring for its children while the campus minister understood clearly the radical nature of the revolution going on.

In my personal view, the concurrence of these two realities has shaped campus ministry to the present. The first was the end of the realistic period of theology and the second was the marginalization of ministry by its identification with the edges of the campus culture instead of is center. Church theology does not make much sense to the unwashed campus denizen and community ministry is not longer fashionable.

We have not recovered our momentum since that time. We responded in several ways. One way was to suggest that "presence" was the adequate definition of campus ministry. Whole theologies were worked out to confirm this style of ministry. The problem with this model was that its future was determined only to the extent of available funding. Without concrete data to substantiate the value of a "presence", judicatory support eroded.

Another solution was to argue that ministry was aimed at the whole campus, not merely students. I myself strongly supported this theory in my earlier writing. The weakness of this model is dear. It simply does not work efficiently in a mega-university. There is a finite limit of the number of students and staff that may be reached in significant ways by a university ministry.

A third solution was to choose sides. This led some to identification with radical campus movements (which ultimately risked profound alienation from judicatories) or to identification with the central administration (which obviously translated the campus minister into a member of the university administration).

While not many of us would acknowledge it, the movement toward interdenominational structures generally had the disadvantage of comity agreements elsewhere, but severely strained denominational accountability and support. When I assumed responsibilities for the United Methodist Church's higher education systems, including campus ministry, I was stunned to realize that the five members of my staff assigned to campus ministry were related to me only by virtue of their payrolls. I found this distressing and dysfunctional when I was struggling to persuade a large denomination to take seriously their responsibility for university ministry.

But the most serious problem we face in this period of university ministry is not necessarily the recasting of historical models. The most serious issue is the matter of the Church's interest and care for learning and learning's institutions.

The facts seem to be that the Church has all but given up its historic sense that the life of the spirit is nurtured by the life of the mind. This is not a recent development, although the disintegration of an intellectual life in the churches is accelerating today. Ministry has taken on the models of advocacy, nurture, and escapism. There does not appear to be a consistent interest in probing the philosophical and scientific structures of Christian understanding.

I recently addressed the presidents of the Southern Baptist College and Universities in their annual meeting. They are a brave group of educators. A leading Southern pastor spoke to them, holding out a "palm branch" of reconciliation. His suggestion was that the presidents agree with him that the Bible was literally inerrant, that Adam and Eve were historical persons, and that the age of the earth was about 6,000 years. Here was the pastor of a great church whose membership included hundreds of persons who make their living in oil. No one seemed to notice the anachronisms. We live in a period in which thought does not figure as an essential ingredient of Christian belief.

Contrary to the overly-confident predictions of an earlier period, the public university has not proved to be a congenial place for the study of religion and the nurture of students. The vast majority of our clergy today come from that background. When I was entering on university studies, the majority of young persons entering the clergy were persons shaped by campus ministry or by church colleges and their chaplaincies. This is not longer true. The most devastating effect of this sea-change has been the loss of support, indeed the abandonment of the institutions of ministry in the university world. namely the campus minister and the church-related college.

In the United Methodist Church, the decision makers in the General Conference and the agencies, having had little or no contact with our ministries, consistently vote patterns of support that weaken these institutions. Dollars now follow students as scholarship and tuition support rather than support university ministries and church colleges. The shift is as dramatic as it is desperate.

Let us be clear. No public university is going to support ministry. No public university is going to support religious studies beyond carefully proscribed limits. No public university is going to do research and planning in behalf of the churches. Constitutional questions aside, the will to do these things is not there and will not be.

Only the institutional forms of campus ministry and the church-related college will provide such ministry in behalf of the whole church. To treat these institutions as disposable is historically tragic. Yet the low status of our work is such that one will find very few in the denomination structures that thinks of higher education otherwise than as indifferent information. There is no reference to the liberating value of the liberal arts, the humanizing value of the humanities, and the coherent imperatives of the sciences.

My mentor, Ernest Cadman Colwell, once said: "If I had to choose between the university and the Church, I will let go of the university and I will keep the Church. For the Church would have the intelligence to build the university again, for they did it once. But the university would have neither the intelligence or the spirit to build the Church."

Colwell was right. My fear is that we are very close to the edge here. We need to be ministers of reconstruction toward our own churches, emphasizing the importance of institutions in proclaiming the Gospel, and the urgency for Christian women and men in this period to re-state the Christian view of existence, history and personal commitment.

The theme of this conference is "Tending the Garden." The entrance of our ministry into the environmental theaters and debates is appropriate. But we are being continually marginalized in our own denominational gardens when we attend to the current public fascination, like environmentalism, without contemplating the context of our work. If I may venture to use a slogan widely popular in the 1940s and 1950s, I would suggest that our banner should display the phrase, "Toward the Conversion of the Church."


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