Archive | February, 2014

A Vanishing Presence

27 Feb

My colleague and I walked together back to a session after a break.  We were two of over forty ministers  attending an annual clergy convocation at a place that invited reflection and contemplation.  In response to my asking how it was going, she shared with me what was happening with her ministry on a college campus.   In response, she said that her hours had been cut to what was less than half time.   She found less and less resources available to do programming.  Perhaps most shocking and sad, was their decision to liquidate the one real property asset that they had, their campus ministry house right next to campus.  The reasoning was two-fold.  One was that she was finding more and more of her time spent in just maintaining the facility, mowing the lawn, vacuuming, and the like, and that seemed counterproductive to trying to provide effective ministry.  Two, the sale of the property would provide resources for them to continue a bit longer with their ministry, until those funds were also depleted.  This news saddened me, because I remember when my colleagues on this campus celebrated the acquisition of this property, the campaign to fund the purchase and restore the property, the availability of a safe, welcoming and inclusive ministry on their campus, and the opportunities it afforded  to their ministry and their efforts on campus.

     I was less than fifteen years ago that my friends in this community were celebrating a bright new chapter in their ministry, the acquisition of their first campus ministry center.   It also struck me as short sighted and a decision that they might regret.  However, I realized who was I to judge a decision they believe was necessary to fund their ministry, if even for only a few years longer?  Perhaps what saddened me the most was the familiarity of this story: another vital campus ministry worn down by years of funding reductions and what I call the withdrawal of the mainline Protestant denominations from the mission field of campus ministry.

I know that many denominational  officials may claim that this is not the case, but I would assert that the reality is mainline denominations have left the arena, at least in terms of direct funding for campus ministry.  I know that some have created national or state level positions for higher education and campus ministries, but such centralized positions are hard pressed to replace the presence of a dynamic and effective campus ministry directly operating on our campuses.  At the same time, more evangelical and Para church organizations, to their credit, have increased the resources devoted to campus ministry. 

Denominational officials have also asserted they want to focus more on strengthening denominational and sectarian ministries in attempt to stem the tide of decline of our mainline denominations, and de-emphasizing ecumenical and multi-faith ministries such as our own.  While I understand the practical aspects of this, and the harsh realities that would lead to this type of perspective, it seems the exact opposite of where the young people that I interact with every day seem to be heading in their spiritual journey.

I have also heard officials say that effective ministry is more than just money, and I would agree.  However, that is a bit like telling folks who use our food pantry that a healthy life is more than just good food.  They may agree, but as long as they are hungry and in deep poverty, their lack of resources and access to basic goods and services makes it difficult for them to flourish and thrive.   As they journalist and activist Coleman McCarthy has said, “if you want to see what a people value, you follow the money.”

When this wonderful NCMA blog was created a few years ago, we were cautioned not to write about the lack of funding, and that seemed to make sense at the time.  But effective, creative, vital and life changing campus ministries are being affected every day by the decline in resources, and it seems wrong to ignore this.  I read and listen to how important young people are to the future of our denominations and progressive Christian tradition, but then see scant resources devoted to ministries operating on our campuses.  At best, these types of proclamations seem inconsistent and short sighted.

Our own ministry faced severe funding reductions from mainline sources throughout the first decade of the 21st century, and we staggered a bit.  Thanks to creative vision from our Board of Directors, and our scrambling to replace lost revenue from denominations with individual donors, local churches, special events, and creative fundraising, we have survived and are perhaps stronger than we ever thought we could be.  We have healed from the pain and bitterness of our denominational partners walking away from the funding table, often without so much as a personal letter saying “we are sorry, but we have to focus in other areas because of our own funding pressures.  But we wish you well, keep you in our prayers, and hold you in love to that time when perhaps we can provide more support.”  We are moving on, and rancor and hard feelings will only hinder our ability to grow and change in the years to come.

Not every campus ministry has been as fortunate or as resilient as we have, though.  Every time I reach out to a ministry that once existed and find that they are no longer in existence or their presence has been reduced to a shadow of what they once were, the sadness returns, at least for a little while.  But so does the determination and passion to continue to stay and hold strong, because our young people deserve better than this.  They need and deserve open and inclusive campus ministries that try to model the beloved community and whom will welcome all, “no matter where they may be on life’s journey. “

I wish you all well as you face the tide of resource challenges among the other pressures of your ministry.  You each are in my prayers, and have my gratitude for the deep and abiding work that you do.  I’ll leave you with a favorite poem that we use from time to time here at the Waysmeet Center:

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children.

Stay together

Learn the flowers

Go light.

 

Gary Snyder

From “Turtle Island”

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Larry Fair tradeReverend Larry Brickner-Wood is the Chaplain and Executive Director of the United Campus MInistry to the University of New Hampshire.  The UCM, aka the Waysmeet Center, is an ecumenical and inter-faith ministry that has existed at UNH for over 60 years.  Larry is an ordained minister in the United Chruch of Christ (UCC) and is in his 15th year at UCM.  He served previously as the Assistant Pastor at First Church Congregational, UCC, in Rochester, NH, and spent twenty years in another calling in local government, serving as a municipal manager for most of that time.  He has a Bachelors degree in Public Administration from James Madison University in Virginia, a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Vermont, and a Master in Divinity from Andover Newton Theolgical School.  He is married and has two sons, who are in college in New Hampshire and Arizona.  He loves his work!

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