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Campus ministers seek stronger church connections

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A web-only photo courtesy of Kelbe Hollrah

Katrina Banker (left) and Hillary Desmond are part of a campus ministry knitting group at Fontbonne University in St. Louis.
July 19, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Vicki Brown*

When William Johnston became president of Iowa Wesleyan College, one of his first actions was finding money to hire a full-time campus minister, something the college had not had in 17 years.

“I wanted us to provide an environment and have an individual on campus who supports church relations,” Johnston says. “I would hope that person supports the values of — and helps the college community support the values of — our church.”

Johnston believes hiring the Rev. Robert Koepcke, initially done in part with a $25,000 annual conference grant, has already paid off in the enrollment of more United Methodist students. “We had 40 or 50 United Methodists enrolled, and now we have about 75,” he says.

He attributes that partly to Koepcke’s practice of visiting area churches and taking students with him.

Such connections between campus ministries and churches need to be strengthened, says the Rev. Frank Wulf, campus minister at the University of California, Los Angeles, since 1997.

“We need to re-establish that sense of fellowship and sense of being together in the same ministry,” Wulf says. He is working with other campus ministers and United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry staff on endorsement proposals and best practices for campus ministry that will be presented to the 2008 General Conference, the denomination’s legislative assembly.

With those goals in mind, campus ministers will meet July 23-27 in Baltimore for workshops, training and discussion of endorsement requirements.

“We are doing our best to make sure campus ministers are the best-trained, and evaluating who is qualified and who can be an effective campus minister,” Wulf says.

The July conference will be a watershed event for United Methodist campus ministries, says the Rev. Luther Felder, assistant general secretary of the board’s Campus Ministry Section.

“Some of the heart and soul issues, fundamental principles on which campus ministry is based, will be explored and re-examined,” he says. “How can we turn the heart of the church back toward campus ministry?”

Felder hopes the conference will help clarify for the church what it means to be in campus ministry in the new millennium.

Wulf and the Rev. Melanie Briscoe, who serves four campuses in St. Louis, say the training and qualifications that will be required for endorsement are crucial.

“There seems to be a real ignorance among a lot of individuals as to what campus ministers do, how they do it and how to do it well,” Briscoe says.

“We need people who are called to be campus ministers, who have a passion for students and the growth of the church from the perspective of young adults,” Briscoe says.

Sometimes in the past, campus ministries were seen as a place to put a minister who had not been successful in the local church setting, she says. Today, a bishop and cabinet sometimes see a campus minister doing really well and immediately want to move the minister into a church.

“Churches can sustain themselves pretty well if they have turnover every four years, but it’s horribly handicapping in a campus ministry,” Briscoe says.

The endorsement process will equip campus ministers to do their job better, and it will enable boards to better evaluate the ministries, she says.

Campus ministers will also tackle the thorny issues of funding and lack of curriculum for young adults during their July meeting.

Most campus ministries struggle with funding, and many annual conferences see the ministries as a drain that will never pay off, Wulf says.

“But these are the young people who, when they leave college, will be the ones who are pledging or becoming ministers or chairing church committees,” Wulf says.

“I don’t see our being in conflict with local congregations. I see our training up young leaders who will go back into local churches when they leave college and be strong and committed United Methodists,” Wulf continued.

Finding curriculum is another struggle.

“The majority of curriculum is for adults or youth and children,” Briscoe says, adding that curriculum that does exist translates poorly to campus.

New federal privacy laws are another challenge, since campus ministers can no longer find out the religious affiliation of students. Wulf sends letters each year asking local pastors in the area if any of their youth are enrolling at UCLA, and only a couple respond.

The Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, pastor of Westwood United Methodist Church near UCLA, says when she led a church that was not near a campus, her congregation picked a campus ministry to support financially.

“We had a line item in our budget. It’s one more way to help the local church understand what it means to be part of the connectional church,” she says.

Kelbe Hollrah, a peer minister at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, one of Briscoe’s campuses, believes campus ministries are crucial for students, who are usually in a time of transition.

“I grew up in a very conservative, almost fundamentalist Baptist church ...,” she says. “I eventually realized in college that it wasn’t working out for me.” Friendship with a peer minister for the Wesley Foundation led her to get involved with campus ministry and become United Methodist.

“Your faith is brought into question in college,” she says. “If students don’t have someone to help, they might turn away from the church.”

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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