Ponds or Partners

10 Apr

To work on a college campus is to enter into a sacred trust with the University administration, faculty, staff, and even students. Much like a missionary who travels to a foreign country, integration and understanding of the culture is a nearly essential feature of success. But with time and resources stretched, often our ability and even vision of creating and nurturing a relationship with the university dissolves and our focus becomes our own student community rather than the larger mission field. I’m going to say it plainly: This is a dangerous and slippery road that we can not go down.

Consider for a moment the missionary once again. Should such a missionary be sent to a foreign land to be with the foreign people (not so different than the college campus and the college freshman if you think about it) and then the town is burned to a the ground by a band of hoodlums, but the Church you built and operate out of still stands, the missionary does not call this a success (at least I don’t believe he or she should). On the contrary, the missionary understands themselves as part of a system and a people who are interconnected. When one succeeds, they all succeed and vice versa.

We all know that there are campus ministry groups that come onto the campus and are simply there because the students are there. It’s no longer simply a political or theological bent, it’s an approach to what the campus represents. For these groups who see the university as hostile toward them or are plainly apathetic to the universities mission and vision, they are there because there is a pond from which to fish out of. You can imagine that the opposite of this is the campus ministry which sees itself a in partnership with the university. These are the groups that the university wants to work with, that are included in research around healthy forms of spirituality on campus, and are examples from which student affairs professionals might reference.

It’s time for us to remember what we are here to do as a campus ministry. Those who have declared an end to  engagements with the university campus and culture are missing the point of our work. Those who say they wish to be engaged in the work of campus ministry but do not have relationship with the university are falling short of the mission that was originally intended. To those who say that the work of the campus minister is to focus on students, I ask you to briefly survey any student affairs or equity and diversity administrator and professional and ask them why they are doing what they are doing. You will find a strikingly similar answer to your own views of what the campus minister is supposed to be doing.

Thus comes the great question of the campus ministry: are you there to partner with the university or are you there to go fishing for students who just happen to be matriculating through college. If you answer is the latter, you have badly missed an opportunity to further your work and even further have misunderstood the larger vision of this field.   This may seem like a harsh assessment of the field we are working in and for, but with so much research and focus beginning to come to fruition around spirituality on campus, it is imperative that we build up relationships with higher education professionals or risk further division and marginalization as higher education finds ways to satisfy student spiritual needs. But with those partnerships built, the likelihood of a major shift in the field is preparing to take place. So take those relationships you have seriously, building up your rapport on campus and learning to speak the language of higher education while placing yourselves at the forefront of partnerships all those professionals who are most certainly interested in the same thing you claim to be: students.


CodyRev. J. Cody Nielsen is the Executive Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Minnesota and President of the National Campus Ministry Association.  He is a 2013 recipient of the Louisville Foundation’s Pastoral Study Project and has been working to analyze “Multifaith on the Public University.”  Feel free to contact him via email j.cody.nielsen@gmail.com




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