“Greying” the Journey

12 Apr

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a campus minister never actually knows what a day’s work will entail.   I can plan my days down to 5 minute increments, but invariably, my schedule will be cast-aside by a crisis, a break-up, a question about composting, a recommendation “that’s due at 5 pm, so sorry, don’t mean to impose, you are the only person I can think of that will do this for me at 4:14 pm” – you get the picture.  Like ministers everywhere, campus ministers are called to respond to crises, both real and imagined.  This was the case on a particular day, a few years ago.  I had just settled down at my desk with a cup of coffee, when I got a phone call from a first-year student who was very ill and needed help to get to the campus health center.  I walked over to her dorm room, wrapped her up in some winter-weather appropriate clothing, and half-carried/half-dragged her across campus to the health center.  We waited together, and when the nurse called her name, she turned to me and said “Can you please go in with me?  I don’t want to be alone.”  So in we went, with the nurse-practitioner casting a wary eye on me, and finally asking the student, “So, who did you bring with you today?”  The student responded, “Oh!  That’s my campus minister, which, actually, is kind of ironic, since I don’t believe in God.”  An eyebrow raised over the wary eye, but I was allowed to stay and offer support, and the strep-throat riddled student was given antibiotics, and the day progressed, as unpredictable and random as my days generally are.

I think of this day often – not so much because of the events that unfolded, but because of the description that student gave of who I was in her life.  I am the campus minister of an ecumenical and interfaith campus ministry dedicated to peace and justice, which happens to be located in the heart of the Bible belt.  If there IS such a thing as a traditional campus ministry, we are not it.  Because of our commitment to ecumenism and interfaith understanding, we aren’t dogmatic, so as to allow for a variety of belief to co-exist in our community.  Because of our commitment to peace and justice, we often attract students who don’t necessarily identify religiously, but want to be a part of a community dedicated to justice pursuits.

In an area where many people are very intentionally black and white in their religious belief – we definitely reside in the grey.  In the words of my former student, I am a campus minister to many people who don’t believe in God, AND THAT’S OKAY.

The questions that inevitably follows, is “If you don’t organize around a particular faith tradition, or creed, or denomination, how do you articulate who you are?”  I think this is a fair question, but I also think it highlights the shifting paradigms we see in our religious landscape.  While I have found great joy and challenge in the particular denomination of which I am a part, I find that I am probably a part of a shrinking population.  When I look at the students involved in our campus ministry, most of them are organizing around engagement rather than doctrine.  Their allegiance isn’t to specific denominations, but to a community of mutual support and respect.    When they do identify with a particular faith tradition, they are less interested in being a good __________ (fill in the blank with your denomination of choice) and more interested in leading an ethical and purposeful life that mirrors their understanding of the divine at work in the world.

So how do we articulate who we are?   I suppose the answer to that is “Carefully.”  Like many in this field, I am indebted to those who have gone before, and I personally rely pretty heavily on the advice and experience of Rev. Thad Holcombe of ECM at The University of Kansas.  When having this discussion with Thad many years ago, he referred me to the Center for Progressive Christianity (tcpc.org) and their guiding principles, which we have adapted to help prospective students understand the framework in which we operate.  To that end, the following is what you will find on the door of our campus ministry building.

United Campus Ministry (UCM) at The University of Tulsa  involves a diverse group of people on the TU campus and the greater Tulsa Community. UCM represents a stream of the Christian and Unitarian Universalist faith traditions that try to be intellectually honest, liberating, and sensitive to the needs of people wherever they are on life’s journey. UCM is part of an international network of faith communities and campus ministries that affirm the following:

  • Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
  • Invite all people to participate in our community without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to): believers and agnostics, convential Christians and questioning skeptics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all races and cultures, those of all classes and abilities, those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope;
  • Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in the dogmatic certainty –more value in the questioning than in the absolutes;
  • Form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creating, and bringing hope to those marginalized in our world. 
  • Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe.
  • Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

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Nancy Eggen is a United Church of Christ minister who has served since 2002 as campus minister at United Campus Ministry at The University of Tulsa, an ecumenical and interfaith ministry committed to the pursuit of peace and justice.   She lives and works in Tulsa with her husband, 8 year old daughter, and an ever-revolving cast of quirky, committed, passionate, empathetic, strong, tender, enthusiastic, and inspiring college students and alumni.

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One Response to ““Greying” the Journey”

  1. Dawn Adamy April 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I, too, find these “identity” questions both challenging and invigorating! I have been working on how best to rebrand the 30-year-old “Protestant Campus Ministry” at Rider into something that better expresses who we are. Very few of the students i encounter even know what a ‘Protestant’ is (Hard to believe, but true!) Plus the old labels that used to distinguish us from one another seem archaic in today’s “engagement” (as you so aptly put it) -oriented world. Thanks for a very relevant and revealing post!

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