Collaborate or Die

23 Aug

You don’t do ministry, you only participate in the ministry God is already doing.”

11 years ago a seminary professor opened a lecture with those words.  He went on to elaborate, “Everybody waltzes around this place talking about ‘my’ ministry.  But you don’t have a ministry! You’re only invited to participate in God’s ministry!”

To be clear, the professors words weren’t an invitation to be irresponsible or imprudent.  Rather, they were an invitation to rely on God, rather than myself.  They were an important reminder that even when I fail, God is faithful still.  Moreover, they were a word of caution against the idol of individualism and cultural myth of self-reliance.

When I heard those words, it was an “aha” moment.  I realized I wasn’t being pressured into ministry because God needed me, but I was invited into ministry because God wanted me.  That was huge.  That was liberating.  That was some remarkably good news.

But to be honest, I often forget the wise words of my professor.

I forget, at least in part, because of the questions.  You know — the questions all campus ministers get.  They’re (usually) well-meaning questions regularly asked by board members, family, friends, and colleagues.  Questions like, “So, how’s your ministry going?” or “How many students do you have in your ministry?”

My ministry?  My students?  I wish it was that clear cut — that black and white.  But life in general, and certainly the life of campus ministry, is much more complicated.  At least in my experience.

Sure, there’s a core group of students with whom I regularly meet.  But as far as I can tell, they don’t belong to me.  And they certainly don’t come exclusively to the programs I coordinate.

College students are told, instructed even, to soak up all they can during this season of life.  By and large, they are spiritual nomads, seeking out many different communities of faith, sometimes in the very same day!  As sociologist Christian Smith observes, “exploration” is one of the distinctive markers of emerging adulthood.  No question this translates into the spiritual journeys of many young adults we encounter.

So, how are we to faithfully respond when asked those well-meaning questions about “our” students?  Do we respond with a headcount?  Numbers are slippery things, especially in campus ministry.  It’s not that numbers are entirely unimportant — it’s just that its very difficult to know how, or whom, to count.  Do we count only those students who come exclusively to “our” programs?  Do we count every student we interact with on campus?  Do we count those who come to us for pastoral care? Do we count those who are professing Christians?  Do we count students from other faith traditions who also come to us for dialogue and pastoral care?

I can hear the critics already.  At least the ones inside my own head.  Some say, “Numbers do matter. Remember how scripture said Jesus fed 5,000!”  Or, “What will you say in your fundraising letter if you don’t have big numbers to report?”  Or, “Okay, technically you don’t have your own ministry, but come on.  You work your behind off and that’s gotta count for something! Right?  Besides, how else can you talk about ‘your’ ministry?”

And though I will give those voices space and time to heard, I will eventually rebuke them.  Because they miss the point.

The point is, we live in a spiritually enigmatic, sociologically complex and ministerially funky time.  Christendom is over.  Mainline denominations are shrinking, and so are mainline campus ministries.

But maybe the challenges we face can also provide new opportunities for growth and renewal.  Maybe the end of Christendom will prompt us to again experiment with new ways of doing ministry; new ways to invite others to follow Jesus; new ways to accompany college students on their journey toward the heart of God.

Maybe we can even be emboldened to think and speak differently about campus ministry, and our role in the Missio Dei – the mission of God.

Maybe if we put our minds to it and guts in it, we can muster up fresh and faithful language that describes the missional, incarnational, collaborative, partner-oriented movement of God that’s happening on our college campuses.

It won’t be easy.  Or simple.  Or comfortable.  It will demand a lot of self emptying.

But I’m giving it a shot.  I’m going to try to live like I really believe my professors words.  I’m going to surrender “my” ministry, and seek to live into the ministry of God.

So here’s the plan.  Over the course of this next year, I invite you to join me in the following:

  1.  Resist referring to “my” students, and instead talk about “the students I work with.”
  2.  Refrain from comparing ministry & program to others.
  3.  Before creating “my own” programs, first make sure someone else isn’t already doing  something similar.  If able and appropriate, collaborate.
  4.  Diligently look for places where God’s Spirit, and God’s people, are already moving — and seek ways to participate in that movement.
  5.  Instead of “reporting” about what “I’m” doing on “my own,” joyfully share how God is moving through collaborative programming, innovative partnerships, and shared initiatives.

It’s my hope that as we combine forces, resources, experience, and imagination, God’s Spirit will move in unexpected and powerful ways.

Will you join me?


Tara Woodard-Lehman is an ordained PC USA minister. Since 1998 she has ministered to and with university students. Prior to coming to Princeton, Tara served as the William C. Bennett Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Religion at Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Over the past four years Tara has served as the Executive Director of Westminster Foundation and Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University.  Tara also serves on the pastoral staff of Nassau Presbyterian Church

One Response to “Collaborate or Die”

  1. Fr. Dave August 24, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Thank you for this Tara. We do say that Christ fed the 5000 – and yet he chose to involve the Apostles, “You give them something to eat.” It’s one of those awesome tensions, those dual poles in between which we find something shining out brilliantly true in our faith (God + Man, 1 God + 3 persons, cooperating with grace + in need of forgiveness, weeds + wheat)
    Christ fed the hungry and chose, in freedom, to involve others – indeed to even build a Church. He is, not only, the sole Mediator between God and man, he is THE good sheperd .. and we’re all just helping (doesn’t the noun “minister” come from the latin ministrator – inferior, servant, assistant? my Latin’s not what it used to be. . ).
    To be included, chosen, called to participate in this great work is humbling and,as you point out, freeing. It also reminds us that as Christ called the Apostles to feed his sheep, he also believed in them – in their ability to do so. I know Augustine said something about praying as if everything depended upon God and working as if everything depended upon you. . .I had a professor (Jesuit) in the Seminary who said it’d be good to flip that: Pray as if everything depeneds upon you. Work as if everything depends upon God. I hear some of this in your reflection. Here’s to being open to the challenge.

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