No Campus For Old Men

18 May

I have a lot of wonderful colleagues, both inside and outside the field of higher education.  But one thing has bothered me about a couple of groups of them over the past few years: some of them don’t think that campus ministers and chaplains should be over a certain age.  This is problem for me.

About a year ago, I heard of a group of colleagues that went to a gathering of campus ministers of a specific denomination and found themselves out on the curb.  The group and presentation was led by younger campus ministers (the “hip young folks”) who left my colleagues feeling like their older voices were both unwelcome and unheard.

Then another colleague told me about a meeting with a group of colleagues where she felt she was looked at coldly because of her experience as if her views reflected something out of date.

And recently, I had a colleague who told me about how I was such a good candidate to launch a new campus ministry because of course students would look at me and respect me more than someone who was in their 40s or 50s.  And as flattering as they might sound, it was in no way shape or form respectful to me.

This field of ministry we are working so hard to preserve and build up includes a history.  A long history that is filled with campus ministers active and retired, alive and passed on who influence every single move I make.  I am in ministry because of a group of campus ministers, specifically one who is now in his 50s who changed my life forever as a 40 something year old man.  And I now converse and live in an organization of campus ministers who both celebrate the 60s and also understand that the 60s are over and that we must live into the 21st century of this field.

I want to make something clear as the president elect of a national and ecumenical organization of campus ministers and chaplains: I wholeheartedly believe that we have much to learn from each other and can not be ageist in any way in respect to this field.  Colleagues I know who are in their 40s or 50s would make great campus ministers and chaplains, and many who are currently in that age bracket and older still remain as tremendous influences of lives of students, albeit Lady Gaga may not make quite as much sense to them.  But I am ashamed every time I hear of young colleagues who revoke the wisdom of older colleagues because they think they don’t know what they are talking about or simply don’t care about what they have to say.

If you are working in this field, want to work in this field, have a vision for the future of the church on campus, it’s time to have a serious discussion around our need for unification.  I wrote a blog a few months ago entitled “an end to domination” regarding the frustration I have about denominational silos that are invading our identity, but this may be even worse.

If you have felt like you are not welcome in this field because of your age, or perhaps have been guilty of refusing to understand the history of either your personal setting or the field at large, I encourage us as a field of ministry and as a national organization to remember that for almost 50 years NCMA has stood as an important organization for moving this field forward.  We’re not going to get there by remaining in the past, but we certainly aren’t going to do it if we just have 20 or 30 something hot shots who don’t care about the past. The future is build upon the past, the field is built upon those who have been there throughout that past, and those around us who have more experience of life are extremely important in the lives of students.  No Campus For Old Men (and Women)?…whatever…

I would greatly appreciate to hear from you all about this important topic.


J. Cody Nielsen is the United Methodist Campus Minister at the University of Minnesota and the president elect of the National Campus Ministry Association.  He is the product of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Northern Iowa where his friend and colleague David Glenn-Burns is still the campus minister.  He worked at American University with Mark Schaefer and considers Mark Forrester, Katrina Jenkins, Lucy Forster-Smith, Thad Holcombe, David Jones, Linda Freeman, Paul Schultz, and MANY MANY others to be some of the most influential people in his life.  And never once has he thought that these people are too old to be wise or to be in ministry.  He is thankful for every day with these and other colleagues.


4 Responses to “No Campus For Old Men”

  1. ecmku May 18, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Cody, Thanks for your comments. I received my first call to Campus Ministry in 1967 at the U. of Tulsa and will be retiring next year (2013) at 73. I was very influenced as a student by two “older” Campus Ministers at Oklahoma State University and then my older CM colleagues were instrumental in shaping a ministry during my early years…and continue to do so. In addition, we increasingly find that YA’s appreciate inter-generational relations. We had a man/wife in their 50’s participate in our Alternative Spring, this particular one was to Tennessee, and had a great experience. The evaluations, both written and verbally, from the YA’s were very positive and hoped they would have more opportunities to meet and know older adults.

    Thad Holcombe, ECM@KU

  2. Maggie Gillespie May 18, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Cody, thank you! This is relevant not only to campus ministry, but also to parish ministry, where congregations chase the young pastors (especially if they have young children) as if they were the holy grail. This is a mindset lacking in depth and breadth of vision.

  3. Barbara Heck June 8, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    Well said, Cody. Thank you! I was a young whipper-snapper myself when the likes of ol’ Thad Holcombe taught me many a good lessons as I stepped out as a campus minister. Thad and a good number of other saints shaped my vision and filled me confidence. And God bless him, he gets to retire as a campus minister. THAT is a testimony of doing campus ministry very, very well.

    This mission field is a complicated one, and it needs the balance of energy and wisdom in order to remain visible to the larger church which funds this worthy enterprise. There ain’t no way the twenty and thirty somethings (already invisibile in the church, sadly) are going to make an impact with us all working together hand in hand.

    Thanks, Thad, for mentoring me as a young campus minister. And thank you, Cody, for driving us forward toward a more vital presence in the church. Through you, the glory of God is certainly revealed.


  4. Taryn Mattice July 12, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    Thanks Cody.

    Years ago I observed some older male campus ministers around me — and thought they’d aged and softened into grandfatherly-type figures — students loved them. But I didn’t have female role models who aged gracefully in the work. I’m still hard pressed to name any women who retired from campus ministry, though I may be one of them someday!

    I think this is a conversation across the church, as we all become more anxious about the availability of jobs, and the lack of young people across the life of the church. It seems natural to turn and blame older people, who are either the “cause” of our decline or are simply taking up space when we need some risk-takers with new ideas and energy.

    I think we can concede — that if us older types burn out, that’s a problem. If we can’t stop talking about the 60’s — or the 80’s — that’s a problem. But it would be just plain foolish to deny that one can actually improve at work that one does faithfully over time. I’m a way better minister than I was a fifteen years ago. Don’t we all expect to learn and grow over time?

    That said, I think there is room for all of us to live and work with humility. I have to fight to keep up with some things that come naturally to my younger colleagues–technology, specifically. But there is just no doubt I navigate some stuff better than I did in my ingenue days. Hundreds of weddings later, I’ve seen it all. Students in crisis, well, I just know more than I once did. Fortunately, I still have energy for this work, and while I think its helped to keep me young, I don’t pretend to be 30 anymore. I look across campus and see other student professionals my age who do wonderful work with students, and are beloved by them. Why can’t it be the same for campus ministers?

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