No Country For Old Campus Ministers

17 Oct

The title of this reflection is borrowed from a recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite writers whose minimalist style of prose is sort of a poetic narrative mediated through the rough vernacular of his protagonists and supporting characters. In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie adaptation of the book) surveys the looming conclusion of his career. Bell is dedicated and wise, working harder than ever to search out a sociopathic killer whose skill and stealth out pace him as the reader rips through the pages to the bitter end.  As the novel concludes, Sheriff Bell realizes that his experience, education and talent haven’t lessened so much as his profession has become defined by values and expectations that grate against his core sensibilities as an officer of the law. He calls it quits not because he can, or because he’s worn out and used up, but because the life-long perfecting of his practice has not made him in into a respected elder as much as an anachronism.
As many of you know, just recently I was offered the great privilege to serve as Vanderbilt University’s Chaplain and Director of Religious Life. Much to my delight, re-establishing the title of “chaplain” was considered, in part, because of my eighteen years as VU’s United Methodist campus minister. Although much of the administrative, programmatic and ministerial aspects of this job often take me far from the familiar land of campus ministry, I have become confident that this exciting new enterprise builds upon the more local and discreet student work that defined me for two decades.
Ironically, it was a secular university that helped establish this older campus minister’s sense of purpose while denominational disestablishment of campus ministry disputes, and sometimes punishes, longevity.  In the “good old days,” when I discerned my calling as a campus minister (1991), seasoned colleagues were sought out as mentors. These older women and men were repositories of tradition and practice, and they were rightly considered invaluable. Too often today this is no longer the institutional norm. Like Sheriff Bell, many of us older men (and women) are made to feel as though our collective wisdom and experience, though affirmed, is no longer worth its budgetary weight in gold.
I offer this reflection at an interesting time of my own vocational transition. I do so not as a malcontent, but as a proud United Methodist who owes my church nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to have served the world of higher education for two decades.  While, personally, I haven’t been disadvantaged by my mellowing middle age, I have seen other colleagues sidelined and shut out because they represent a growing demographic that is increasingly burdensome to the household of faith.
How, then, should we voice concern about ageism? One of the lions of a bygone era, William Sloane Coffin, offered timely advise by pointing out that there are three ways of relating to institutions: we can be uncritical lovers, loveless critics or, preferably, people caught up in a lover’s quarrel. Uncritical lovers glide along on giddy optimism, while loveless critics scorch the earth with heartless disdain. Uncritical lovers move up the career ladder by touting the party line, while loveless critics see their careers spiral downward as the result of self-sabotage feigned as martyrdom. The hard, honest work lies somewhere in the middle as lovers caught up in passionate disagreement with their ecclesial traditions make a compelling case that a campus minister’s vitality and effectiveness isn’t age specific, that just as God called Abraham and Sarah to be pioneers of a new nation of priests so, too, are new vistas of ministry in the future for many who near retirement age still at full throttle. The trick is to die young as late as possible.
In closing, I just returned from a well-attended memorial service for a faculty member who had been at Vanderbilt for thirty years. Last fall he was going strong as pancreatic cancer took him in less than a year after his diagnosis. Colleagues, former students and the chancellor himself remarked at how this scholar-gentleman was an “ageless” presence of kindness, compassion and inspiration for people at all stations within the university community. It then dawned on me that the university is a country for old men and women who continue to touch minds, hearts and lives!  May we quarrel, faithfully, with our ecclesial  counterparts to look beyond the years that have so far defined us, to the years ahead that can be the best yet to come.


Reverend Mark Forrester is the University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt University. Prior to this post, Mark was the Wesley Foundation Director at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN (1991-94), and the Wesley Foundation Director at Vanderbilt (1994 until September, 2012).


2 Responses to “No Country For Old Campus Ministers”

  1. Jan Rivero October 17, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    Wonderful reflection, Mark! Thank you! It occurs to me that there ought to be a time of naming when we have the privilege of naming those on whose shoulders we stood/stand. Perhaps a subsequent blog can afford us that opportunity.

    Best blessings to you in this transition and in your new position, albeit not exactly new work. The University made a wise choice in you and I am delighted that you have this opportunity.

    Jan Rivero

  2. Paul Walley October 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm #


    Your blog was insightful and encouraging. As a former campus pastor, I served for thirty-six years, retiring one year short of my seventieth birthday. After retiring, I was asked to serve as NCMA President ~ which I did. My term ended last summer with Cody as our current President. I will always be grateful for NCMA’s and CoCom’s belief and trust in me. I wholeheartedly agree that “the university is a country for old men and women who continue to touch minds, hearts and lives!” Thanks for sharing this and God’s blessing and guidance in your new position at Vanderbilt!

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