Collegiate ministry encompasses all areas of young adults’ lives. Campus chaplains invite students into practices of hospitality, exploration, community and service, and in so doing they welcome the work of the Holy Spirit to guide the process of faith formation. I am the executive director of the UKIRK Collegiate Ministries Association, the campus ministry initiative in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. UKIRK, short for University Kirk (the Scottish word for church, as a nod to our Presbyterian heritage), is a network of Presbyterian-related college ministries on over 200 campuses across the nation that are expressions of the whole church on campuses large and small. One of the great privileges of my job is to hear stories from campus ministers and chaplains that lead these “outposts of the church” on the frontier of where faith meets college. Just in the last few weeks, collegiate ministers have shared the following stories with me that I hope will give you a glimpse of the impact UKIRK is making in the lives of college students. Stories like:
- A campus minister was promoting her new UKIRK ministry at a student life fair (where college students learn about all the different groups they can join on campus). She noticed a young woman who was crying, went over and asked if she was OK. When the student shared that she was terribly homesick and thinking about leaving school, the minister shared words of comfort that not only helped that student that day, but started a relationship that eventually led that student into a leadership position in UKIRK the next year where she herself would take on the ministry of noticing, and offer hope and help to others who need it like she did.
- College chaplains, campus ministers and congregations are working around the country to support food pantries on campus because they noticed that many college students experience food insecurity. A 2016 study found that 50% of community college students and 47% of four-year college students reported food insecurity, and 64% of the students who were food-insecure were prone to housing insecurity as well, which is the struggle to pay rent, mortgages or utilities. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, campus ministers and chaplains at Presbyterian-related colleges have found ways to offer food to those who need it, as well as housing for those who had no place – or no safe place – to go after colleges shut down in the spring and when campus housing options were limited because of COVID-19 protocols this fall.
- Two students who are a part of a campus ministry at a large state school found themselves needing to be hospitalized because of mental health issues the week before Thanksgiving. Their campus minister found herself not only offering support and guidance to the students and their families during the crisis, but also to the other students in campus ministry who were worried about their friends. The students built a fire pit so they could gather outside masked and appropriately socially distanced to pray for their friends and offer support to one another. On a cold Saturday night, they learned again the power of community and how to lift their worries and anxieties up to God, while also learning to destigmatize mental illness and ask for help when they need it.
Each of these stories illustrates one of the key truths about collegiate ministry today, and that is it includes all areas of a student’s life, all levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. As a chaplain myself at a Presbyterian-related college for 14 years, there were many days when I would be with student leaders planning a fun fellowship event like a lock-in or movie night one minute, then be listening and praying with a student who was about to reconnect with her father for the first time in a decade as he was scheduled to get out of prison the coming week. Some days the pendulum that swung from the serious to the social and back again was not as dramatic, but many days it was.
How do young adults learn to pray, or find their place in a community of faith? How does a young person move beyond what James Fowler, in his book “Stages of Faith,” labeled “stage 3” faith – knowing about God and being involved in the church because her parents were – to “stage 4,” where she embraces faith in God for herself? Where do they find the freedom, support and encouragement to ask their questions and share their doubts about faith at all? Some might reflect: “I’ve been told to believe this stuff about God my whole life. To read my Bible and pray and God will provide. Now that I’m in college, that seems dumb, especially with everything else going on in the world! But is it dumb? Or is there something to it?” Where do they find guidance to navigate the disequilibrium of young adulthood, growing knowledge of themselves and of the larger, pluralistic world around them? Where do they find direction during both the chaos of college and of stage 4 development, which can as easily lead one away from any organized faith tradition, and into a deeper, more personal faith in Jesus Christ?
Each UKIRK network ministry is charged with “reaching, loving and teaching college students so they may be lifelong followers of Jesus Christ. That every person, without qualification, should have the opportunity for God’s amazing love to be made known to them” through our 200+ ministries. Yet, when I share what I do in ministry, a common refrain I hear is that 18-22-year-old college students do not really want or need spiritual formation in college, because this is a time for them to focus on their studies and “have fun” before adulthood. The assumption is they will return to the church when they get married or have children. The church just needs to wait for them to return. I often respond that we know this is not the case. Young adults often go off to college, face disequilibrium in some way and don’t return to the Presbyterian Church, either because they no longer consider themselves Christians or because they join a church of another denomination.
UKIRK national board member Evans McGowan, who serves at UKIRK at the University of Michigan and as assistant pastor of faith formation and campus ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, invites us all to revisit this assumption. Instead of churches waiting for students to come to them, what if we recommitted to journeying with college students on their campuses as both a continuation of the baptismal vows we take, and as a mission opportunity before us? He says: “Our job is not to wait for students or young adults to return to us after college, but to walk alongside them in their continuing faith journey through college. Young adulthood is a time of rich possibilities, challenging questions and serious decision-making as young adults figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. More importantly, it is a time when students become more deeply aware of the world around them, and want to talk about how they, as people of faith, can respond to the serious issues of the day like racial injustice, climate change and the increasing polarization of America. What better conversation partner than the church to have at this critical time in their lives and the life of the world, because we (the church) have a lot to share with them about these very things.”
Jim Mohr, chaplain at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, shares that the state of the world in 2020 in particular has led students to wrestle more deeply with difficult questions. It has been imperative for chaplains and campus ministers to come alongside them to listen, to guide, to respond and to pray with and for the students as they wrestle with questions like: Why are so many people suffering (even without the pandemic)? Why is there so much hatred? Why don’t we do more to care for people? Why don’t we care about the environment? How do we address racial injustice? Who are the adults in the world, and why can’t they get their act together? Is everyone corrupt and selfish? Why should I have allegiance to something at all? Can God actually be greater than the pandemic, and all that is wrong in the world?
Sharon Daloz Parks, author of “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith,” says that for “emerging adults – and for all of us – there is much at stake in how they are heard, understood and met by the adult world in which they are seeking participation, meaning, purpose and a faith to live by.” Emerging adults are on a journey from the ages of 18 to 32 that, with committed adult mentors like campus ministers and chaplains, as well as the support of institutions such as the church, can lead to a more mature understanding not only of faith, but also the meaning and purpose of their lives. This journey “includes 1) becoming critically aware of one’s own composing of reality, 2) self-consciously participating in an ongoing dialogue toward truth, and 3) cultivating a capacity to respond – to act – in committed and satisfying ways.” Each UKIRK network ministry, although particular to their own local contexts, intentionally offers guidance and support for this journey to adult faith in four ways: hospitality, exploration, community and service.
The first task collegiate ministers have is to welcome each and every student no matter where they are on their faith journey. Some students begin college after years of church participation and formation in a Presbyterian church or another denomination. Some have no knowledge of Christianity at all. Some are carrying great suspicion or pain associated with Christianity or the church because of previous painful experiences, while others have all the answers about how to be a “good Christian” and are more than willing to share and invite others to follow Jesus their way. They all wonder (some secretly, some out loud) if the God of the universe can really love them. The answer, says chaplain John Williams of Austin College, is that “they do not have to change anything about themselves to be beloved by God.”
One way the truth of God’s steadfast love is communicated in college ministry is through both a ministry of presence and a posture of hospitality with students. As Abraham welcomed the three strangers in Genesis 18 and entertained the Lord, college ministers welcome students into one-on-one conversations as well as ministry programs, and spend time getting to know each student’s story. Sometimes, this leads a student to participate heavily in campus ministry all four years of college, but not always, says Mohr. “You have to journey with a student at their pace, and not your own. There are some students that never show up in one of my programs, but for all practical purposes consider me their ‘pastor,’ ” Mohr said. Additionally, inviting students to tell their own story offers them a way to become more aware of the belief system they brought with them to college, and how they have composed their reality up to this point in life.
Opportunities to worship and learn to read the Bible more closely abound on college campuses. What sets UKIRK ministries apart is that students are not given the “right answers” so much as guided in asking good questions. For example: What is the context of this passage? What did it say in that historical time period? What might God be saying to us through this passage about how to love God and love our neighbors today?
They are also encouraged to bring their questions to each group study and conversation, and to participate in dialogue not only with one another, but also their questions, experiences and doubts as they journey toward truth. “Even questions that don’t at first seem related to faith are, for all issues students are facing are in fact spiritual issues,” says Lindsey Groves, campus minister and executive director at UKIRK Nashville. “Helping students understand that discipleship is not a destination but a lifelong journey of growth and discovery that encompasses all areas of life is important. It’s a story you engage over and over again at different stages of your life, and it’s our job to give them the tools to do so.”
Parks’ third task on the emerging adult’s journey, “cultivating a capacity to respond – to act – in committed and satisfying ways,” is engaged in two ways: being a part of a community of faith and service to the world. Chris Henry, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, shares that one of the things that has stayed with him from his time at Duke University was the picture his campus minister presented to the students about what they were doing in campus ministry: “This is the first opportunity you have to create church by yourselves.” The Christian life is not just a solo adventure, but also a communal one where we all get to practice with each other living out the love, forgiveness and grace of Jesus. In other words, showing up for Thursday Bible study and having dinner with the volunteers from the local church who made it. Or celebrating weekly communion with bread made by others in the ministry. And it involves helping young adults embrace what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12: rejoice when others rejoice, and hurt when others hurt. Community is important because it is also the place students can discover their gifts, offer their energy and talents and learn to lead. This may help them discern a call into ministry like it did Henry, or it can inspire them to offer their energy and leadership in the church as elders, deacons and congregational leaders after college.
Henry went on to say that some of the most transformative moments for him in campus ministry were spring break work trips to Haiti and the Dominican Republic with students from other Presbyterian-related campus ministries. Serving alongside others from both the host country and the U.S. allowed him to hear other people’s stories and transformed the way he saw the world as a person of faith. Discipleship is not just a commitment to God and to our own faith communities at home, but also a commitment to work for and serve all God’s people around the world. By participating in opportunities like work trips over spring break, service projects throughout the semester, conversations and book discussions about racial justice and experiential learning trips abroad, young adults begin to understand that their faith in Jesus Christ also informs their ethics, the way they spend money and their interpretation of stories on the news and helps them serve the larger world around them in committed and satisfying ways.
Inviting students into the ongoing dance of the practices of hospitality, exploration, community and service will (we hope) begin to form in each student an understanding of who they are as God’s beloved and how they are called to live out their purpose in the world. More importantly, we hope that by the time they graduate, they have begun embracing faith as their own, and not just something someone told them. Sometimes, chaplains and campus ministers get to hear how students have embraced the Christian faith as their own through senior sermons or notes sent after graduation sharing the impact campus ministry had upon their lives. Sometimes, chaplains can only hope the seeds that they planted will be watered by the Holy Spirit and grow in due time. In collegiate ministry, there is no guarantee that students will leave college with a new profession of faith. That said, the hope is that they get a taste – a glimpse – through collegiate ministry that their story has a place in God’s great story of love for them, and for the whole world.
Gini Norris-Lane has been the executive director of UKIRK Collegiate Ministries Association since July 2019. She resides in Kerrville, Texas, with her husband, two sons and three dogs.
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