Ministry in Higher Education in Pandemic times

 Every year come Labor Day I hear the school bells ringing and like the fabled horse in the fire station, I get all excited. I suppose ten years in campus ministry and five as Coordinator of Ministry in Higher Education at the Church Center is there to haunt or taunt me forever. 


Those years were an exercise in being Church without church. In those years, about a third of my ministry, I had no established altar, no sanctuary, no parish family. More importantly my work was with people who were not a congregation.  Ministry in higher education requires attention to institutions and people who are organized around agendas that are decidedly not like those of the institution we call church. 


Ministry in higher education is distinctly missionary, in that it involves being stranger in a strange land. Even church related colleges and universities know this missionary tension, for the language of intellectual and faith discourse are as different as the languages of different nations.  I loved being present as a translator, a practitioner of the art of being present with and for people of another nation.  And I believe campus ministry is to the whole of the institution, not only to students. So over the years I practiced and encouraged engagement with all sorts of groups on campus as they tried to do justice and practice loving kindness and walking humbly in their faith. I loved it.


This year when I hear the school bells ring, I think of those doing ministry in higher education and wonder what that work will look like now.


All across the United States colleges and universities are beginning a new academic year. Of course this year, in the midst of an out of control pandemic, renewed confrontation with systemic racism, sexism, privilege, and with the crisis in government,  it’s hard to know what that will entail, except to say that most of the trappings of higher education that make up campus life will be missing. 


With many classes being held on-line, with social distancing, health monitoring, strange mixes of virtual and in-person classes, staggered realtime presence on campus, and no large gatherings, the campus experience will be radically reconfigured, as will any semblance to “brand loyalty” among students. With renewed critique of institutional blindness to racial prejudice, privileged access, patriarchy, and even internal economic and social justice, colleges and universities are under attack even as the need for intellectually competent people is greater than ever.


In past years campus ministers came to their work in very incarnational ways – by being present with the people affiliated with institutions of higher education.  As students were checking in to campus, the chaplain could be seen checking in with returning students, with teachers, administrators and staff, inviting them to join in the campus ministry activities – religious services, study groups, activities in service to others. Some also would be checking in with administrators about policy issues, or with employees about economic concerns. All of this grew easily from being a person-about-campus. In my years on campus the daily “walk about” was a central part of my work life.


But how will that be done when the campus is virtual as much as visceral?  


I don’t know the answer to that one, and given that I am no longer a practicing campus minister I suppose I have very little to say that is helpful concerning practice.


But I am very concerned for the future of ministry in higher education.  The same forces that make the pandemic and social dis-ease so deadly to common life make it easier to practice a kind of economic triage, dropping ministries that seem external to the primarily task of keeping parishes alive.  When dioceses have to cut budgets because parishes are not thriving it becomes easy to discontinue missionary activities like campus ministry.  And that is all the more the case when pandemic hits and criticism of privileged institutions rises.  


So now is the time to signal the importance of ministry in higher education, aka campus ministry. Here are some beginning thoughts:


(i)              Campus ministry concerns community, and universities and colleges in a time of pandemic are suffering a disconnect between campus community and classroom experience. Hopefully campus ministries can assist in reforming what it means to be community.

(ii)            Campus ministry can, and often does, encourage the search for meaning, justice, and loving kindness. When teachers, administrators and staff are faced with massive changes in how they make education work, chaplains can contribute prophetic and pastoral concern for the life of the institution and the lives of all within it.

(iii)           Campus ministry is already a practice of “virtual” church, in which networking replaces settled congregational life.  In a time when internet networking has replaced face-to-face connections some of the networking skills of the campus minister can be useful not only to new campus life, but also to new parish life. Having a vocation that is not bound to physical space can be helpful when physical space is not available or practical. 

(iv)           Campus ministry concerns finding values in a world where knowledge is power, and in which what the powerful know prevails.  Privilege, white male  power, racism, and social injustice are being confronted by people in higher education institutions all the time. Those in campus ministry know it is not enough to be intellectually brilliant, it is important to bend that intelligence towards the common good, towards justice, towards the celebration of beauty and a life of self-giving.  Campus ministry can be an ally to those addressing social injustice in all its forms.

(v)            Campus ministry in a time when there is no campus but rather a virtual campus is about finding a body where there is no body. It is very much a practice of resurrection, as if the old has died and the new has come. Campus ministry of all sorts, not just Christian, are filled with experiences of the rebirth of wonder. Most congregations lose and gain members over time and over an extended period the whole congregation will be new, but the congregation as institution continues.  There is wonder in that, that there is a continuing witness to faith, even as there is turnover of membership. In campus ministry we are fortunate if even half our network lasts more than a year. Campus ministry is practiced at the art of death and resurrection. Something of the arts and skills of continuing presence, even as the old dies away, may be of great value to the institutions of Church and Higher Education as they face into the end of campus and sanctuary and the emergence of more tenuous, but perhaps more supple network based communities.


Well, at least there are some thoughts.  But this I am quite sure of: We need to support campus ministry in this time because Universities and Colleges are undergoing a transformation to a more network based community, and campus ministers can be allies and contributors to a network that encourages value as well as knowledge, justice as well as power, love for others as well as love of self.  Not to be there is a huge missionary mistake, for the Gospel has its greatest presence where death gives way to new creation.



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Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.