Perish the Parish

12 Dec

Two months ago, I was excited about the prospects for vitality and new programming in this new academic year for our student ministry.  Today, with the first semester only two-thirds over, I’m instead wading through annual stewardship campaign follow-up, preparation for a forum preceding budget votes, arranging a visit with an 80-year-old, and facilitating the start-up of a governance change process.  The new weekly faith conversation gathering that had me jazzed at the beginning of the semester has since been canceled for lack of attendance.  I announced to leadership back in the spring that I wanted to convene a leadership think-tank meeting around student ministry; I haven’t had the time.

Such can be—note I say can be, not must be—the life of ministry in a parish-based campus ministry setting.

My own introduction to campus ministry—when I was an undergraduate at Michigan State, 1998 to 2002—was in the UCC-&-Presbyterian parish-based campus ministry at The Peoples Church of East Lansing.  While I was involved some with the college-specific programming there, and had a great and formative relationship with then-campus-minister the Rev. Kelly N. Sprinkle, it was as much my involvement with the life of the congregation that kept me connected and which I remember fondly now.  Weekly worship life, my participation with the Sanctuary Choir, and so on… I cherished the opportunity these gave me, among other things, to be in relationship with people outside the student bubble.

This same thing that can make parish-based models such powerful and broadening experiences for students can be some of the same things that it all the more difficult.  Carol Howard Merritt writes eloquently about the roadblocks that we run up against in trying to integrate new generations into the typical local congregation.  These challenges are exacerbated for the campus congregation hoping to be in vital ministry among student populations, given the combined impact of long-term congregants’ knowledge that any particular student is only temporary, with a typical student perception of the church-at-college as only “home away from home,” and never real “home”.

And then there’s the matter of divided attention… In my current setting, we do not have a designated “campus minister” as part of our staff.  I am not even able yet to stipend peer ministers as part of the church’s staff to vitalize student ministry and better integrate it with overall parish life.  Staff attention comes primarily from myself, amidst myriad other responsibilities as senior pastor of the congregation, and occasionally from our associate pastor.

Our student ministry group that was already in place when I arrived operates primarily as one of the university’s registered student organizations rather than a ministry of the congregation.  They do great work with planning and completing an alternative spring break service-mission trip, but broadening the group and its activities to include students not going on the trip has been a challenge—even though we typically have numerous other students in our pews for the congregation’s regular Sunday worship.

Even with the challenges, I still want to believe in the potential for parish-based campus ministries.  I believe that students have much to gain from the regular worship life of a congregation, and much to contribute.  I know from my own days as a student what a gift intergenerational relationships can be.

Moreover, in our time of significant numbers of religiously unaffiliated students, we in campus ministry have a great opportunity to engage in evangelism, Christian formation, and disciple-making, living out Christ’s “Great Commission.”  We in the progressive/mainline traditions must take up that calling, I believe, lest the only real opportunity to be intentionally introduced to Christian faith (and not just service) come from those on the far right.  And what better place to introduce someone to the Christian journey and begin their formation than within the body of the Church—and specifically, a local gathered congregation, the embodiment of Christ’s church in each place?  Through our vital engagement with this work, might not we who work in campus ministry contexts be then able to offer a desperately needed gift back to the wider church, whose ministries of evangelism and Christian formation have been so impoverished for so long?

I offer all these thoughts tentatively, knowing that my own thinking on these questions is just beginning.  What about you?  Those of you in parish-based settings, what has your journey been like?  Those of you in non-parish-based ministries, what knowledge do you have to share around student engagement with the church?

And for us all… Is there a place for conventional local congregations in the lives of college students?  And is there a place for college students as an integrated part of the life of our local congregation?

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Matt EmeryThe Rev. Matthew Emery is senior minister of the Storrs Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, which is located on the main campus of the University of Connecticut.  A graduate of the Chicago Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2006), Matt served for nearly 4 ½ years as an associate pastor in Rockford IL before beginning his ministry at Storrs Congregational at the beginning of 2011.

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