Fish or Fowl?

23 Oct

I remember early in my first year of this appointment to a Wesley Foundation, attending a Campus Ministry 101 training event on the Vanderbilt Campus in Nashville.  16 school years later, I find myself remembering 2 concepts that I first heard there.

The first was by the retiring Chaplain of Vanderbilt who described campus ministry as “neither fish nor fowl”.  He went on to say that sometimes we seem more fish than fowl and sometimes more fowl than fish, and in that tension was the gift and curse of campus ministry.

I am repeatedly struck by how no matter how much time I spend trying to stay connected to my local church colleagues and structure (more fish) the tension to fit into the campus/academic life (more fowl) pulls.  When I spend more time immersed in academic/campus life (more fowl), I feel the pull of the church (more fish).

What I have come to understand and accept is that often I don’t fit either place completely, and that’s a gift.  Were I to only be able to operate as an extension of the church world or only as an extension of the academy I think I would struggle.  I’ve watched colleagues work this dilemma.

I take my role as a fish to the fowl and a fowl to the fish seriously.  I count it as a privilege to be able to share from the university with the church.  I count it equally a privilege to bring the presence of the church to the university.  Sometimes the presence, either way, is welcomed; as earlier this year when a beloved local residence life administrator was killed in hiking accident the campus invited me to lead some of the memorializing.

At other times, the fish and fowl tension is not so welcome.  This is also the 2nd idea to which I again refer from that Nashville training session.  One of the workshops talked about the developmental theory process of campus ministry.  The presenter described the relationship between stages of human development that are so much a part of the student experience and the stages of faith development that can richly enhance the student experience.

What I recall is the discussion we had when someone asked “What happens when we provide opportunities for the students to develop a stage 4 or 5 (in the Fowler/Parks stages of faith development progression) faith and they graduate and then try to find a place in a local church which is predominately stage 2 or 3.

I love being involved in this process of growth and discovery that can happen so beautifully through campus ministry community, events and culture.  But I feel a responsibility to not just encourage the growth, but to also consider the best way to send the students on after graduation.  Do I want them to be able to worship only in a community like we have?  Do I want them to get involved in a local church community only to get frustrated that it’s not like Wesley or chapel?  For those staying around our campus, can I help them integrate into a local congregation or should we form a community for them here?

Again, I find that I’m neither fish nor fowl. In this 17th year of campus ministry I still feel like this is such a strange and sacred context to do ministry, and that’s fine.

How have you experienced this?  How do you deal with it?  What do you do to stay nourished and pliable in order to serve as neither fish nor fowl?


David plays bass trombone in the Cedar Valley Big Band, is past chairperson of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Board and has served as the Campus Minister and Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Northern Iowa for 16 years.  After graduating with a  BS in Education from Bowling Green and a MDiv from G-ETS, he has served  UMC congregations in the Iowa Conference since 1985.  Meeting his wife Jaymee in seminary, together they are parents of daughters Allyn and Magee.  Despite growing up in a campus ministry family, both have been involved in the campus ministry/religious life of their respective college and universities.


One Response to “Fish or Fowl?”

  1. ncmabloggers October 23, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I remember that conference, which occurred shortly after I arrived as the Wesley Foundation director at Vanderbilt. And I remember the “neither fish nor fowl” assessment of campus ministry given by retiring chaplain Bev Asbury. I agree that this is often the creative tension that gives us a unique vantage point, but sometimes this tension makes for a solitary life in which the eclectic nature of our work sets us apart from colleagues and friends who are more settled in the world of the church or the world of the academy. Toward which camp do I more often lean? This is a question of identity that each of us will answer differently. My answer is derived from the choice I always make when asked whether I prefer to be introduced as Reverend or Doctor Forrester. First, I have no pretense about being a scholar. Mine is a terminal degree (D.Min.). Still, I earned this title and you’d think that working in the academy would warrant some level of ownership. In a way, it does. But when the question comes up I prefer Reverend, I feel drawn to the vows I took at my ordination and feel more true to myself every time I admit this to myself. Still, when I visit the so-called “local church” I don’t see myself as only a fish. Maybe the fish/fowl dilemma makes me a flying fish?

    Mark Forrester, University Chaplain at Vanderbilt.

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