Bridges to Now Where?

20 Apr

As a 27 year old campus minister who is starting from scratch this year, I don’t have many seniors to say goodbye to.  Instead, I have a lot of freshman who are simply beginning to understand what college really is all about.  Honestly, with the kind of tears I normally begin to shed at this time of year, I feel blessed.  But if I did have seniors my tears would be less about them leaving the campus ministry and more about their leaving the church.  Because we might call ourselves bridge-builders as those who span the great divide from high school to college, but our local church shorelines have a lot of work to do.

Is that our job as campus ministers?  Isn’t it the local churches job?  Well, the unfortunate think I believe is that it is ours.  We are the church laboratories, the places where the church comes to be transformed.  We are the places where the leaders of the churches are trained to go to the churches and change those communities for the better.  And it might sound like a chicken and egg principle, but we are the leaders and the clergy voices of this generation of college students so we have to prepare the churches so that they are ready to welcome those students.

So what is it I am asking us to do!?  I am asking us to take even more time that we don’t have and train the local churches to welcome students, to provide radical hospitality.  But I’m really asking us to take our students with us to show them of just telling them.  Because if we show the leadership of those students, the church will naturally understand the way to welcome them later.  Also, if we don’t do this, the seniors we work with will tell us this bridge we built only leaves them with a big question at the end of the college journey: Now Where?

And now where is just the question we as campus ministers are supposed to be trained and ready to answer.  Much of my complaint of the local church comes from the lack of communication our youth have prior to college with our campus ministries.  It’s like the high schooler’s are waved goodbye as they travel off to college, or better yet as they are confirmed, never to be seen again.  If I’m going to complain about that and yet do the same thing to my graduating seniors without helping them to answer that big question of now where, then I might as well call myself a hypocrite.  And sometimes the only way to give them anywhere to claim as the answer to the now where question is to help the churches prepare themselves with the help of some trusty college students.

What do you think?  Perhaps you’ll hate this thought, this idea that once again we as campus ministers have to go out of our way to do more to help the church survive and thrive.  But I believe the future of the church resides in the hope of campus ministry and chaplaincy.  We have to train the church, we have to help the church lead, and we have to give our time to make the church into a place that welcomes all those graduating seniors who might just be looking for something more.  If we don’t solve the question of, “now where,” the only answer will be, “no where.”


Cody Nielsen is the United Methodist campus minister at the University of Minnesota and in September will become the president of the National Campus Ministry Association. His work continues to evolve, and currently is beginning exploration of multifaith expression of campus ministry on public university campuses.  He is the editor of the ncmabloggers and greatly enjoys the ability to watch wonderful campus ministers and chaplains express their unique ideas of the field. He can be reached at anytime at

2 Responses to “Bridges to Now Where?”

  1. Christopher Eshelman April 20, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    I really like the direction you’re thinking here, Cody. I’m also starting from scratch and doing so on an urban, commuter, largely non-trad campus where even the various para-church groups struggle to have any sort of consistent “group” gatherings. While my Bishop envisions a traditional campus ministry centered around a group worship experience, I’m increasingly convinced that the key to success in my setting is to strengthen, encourage and create a connection with local churches – particularly since we are the sole remaining ecumenical ministry that the UMC in Kansas funds. So in my vision students participate in (and hopefully plan and own) events, some small groups, studies, fellowship, etc on campus, but do so as an extension of their growing roots in a particular local congregation. The campus base IS important, but with a very limited residential population, people will only be at campus worship and programing if it happens while they’re there, they aren’t, generally speaking, going to drive back over to attend. Makes it extremely difficult to gather a regular group, particularly with essentially no worship budget.
    Further, if we can figure this alternative model out, I also think it’s a key to the practical survival of ministry in my context, as in a time of tight budgets I think churches and denominations need to see fruit first hand and have a direct connection with the success of our campus ministry. So far I’ve got at least two stories I can point to of people joining a local congregation, influenced in large part by their encounter with our office or students I’ve worked with. I’m hopeful that the idea is starting to take root.

  2. paul walley April 22, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    As usual, provocative and spot on. I would only add that in order to “teach the church” (a tall order) you need to find an entry point. I would suggest forming a few clusters in several local churches and inviting them to come together to talk ~ maybe over breakfast at a local coffee or bagel shop. The folks you want and need are those who also want to re-form their local church so that it is more responsive to college students. If things go well, these clusters might in turn invite several students to join them in a series
    of conversations. It wouldn’t hurt if the congregational folks picked up the breakfast tab of the students!

    Just a few random thoughts on your journey to “now where” from your
    sidekick and soon to be out-going NCMA president (to our incoming prez).

    Paul Walley
    Current NCMA President

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