Apr 11, 2016
There Is No God-Forsaken Campus
Jamey Gilliland, BCM director for LSU at Alexandria, writes about the benefits of ministering on small campuses and points out that there is no God-forsaken campus.
Sitting across from Bill, I couldn’t help but take in the frailty of the aged campus minister. As he adjusted his colostomy bag under his shirt as he smiled and said, “I’ll be with you in a moment.” The cancer had long been killed but it was the cure that had scarred him internally. The experimental treatment had burned his organs and it would take many months before he could return to work. That’s why I was there. I was the interim director of campus ministry in Jacksonville, Florida who was supposed to keep things going for the next year until Reverend Stroup was back on his feet. I was inexperienced and ill educated for the task at hand. I was a young, single temp who was trying to figure out the next step. I agreed to meet with Bill weekly because I thought it was the respectful thing to do. He had spent around thirty years building the ministry that cancer made him hand over to me. The truth was that he began to teach me things about ministry that only a seasoned veteran would know.
Bill sat back and breathed a sigh of relief, “Even the simplest things can take the energy right out of you.” He was a scrawny fellow with white hair, shallow ball cap and Bermuda shorts. He wore boat shoes with socks pulled clear up to his knees. His eyes focused in on me through his thick glasses and asked, “So, what’s next for you?”
“I’m not sure. I think I need to go to seminary.” I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to be back in the classroom for another three years. However, students were asking questions I couldn’t answer. Worse than that, I didn’t even know where to look.
“Any ideas as to where?”
“Fort Worth is the biggest, but I’m not sure. I just know that I don’t want to go to New Orleans. I don’t know why anyone would want to go to that God-forsaken place.”
That’s when Bill said something that would stick with me for the rest of my life. He leaned forward and whispered, “There’s no such thing as a God-forsaken place. God will not allow it.”
That statement was ministerial gold and is one of many precious lessons that I carry with me every day. My small campus in my small town is largely commuter with a heavy online component. The academic community is close and struggles to maintain high standards in the midst of diminishing budgets. I know the custodians by name and the Chancellor by nod. I walk through the halls getting prayer requests from staff and faculty on my way to the athletic offices. A quick turn through the student center and cafeteria where the bulk of students congregate and then I’m back at my desk. Indeed, there is no dark, God forsaken corner of campus. God will not allow it.
I prefer the smaller campus because of the opportunity for ministerial saturation. I’ve worked on larger campuses where the numbers and percentages of students were greater and attendance at large group meetings were higher. These ministries are valuable and I wouldn’t dare diminish the good work happening at flagship schools. However, my experience is that penetration into collegiate culture is more restricted on larger campuses because they are more governed by administrative policy than relationships. Policy must paint all religious organizations and student activities with the same stroke. While not all organizations are created equal, they must be treated equal. On smaller campuses there is a greater need for faculty to lead a classroom, student organizations to lead extracurricular activities. Campus ministers are able to be integrated into the larger scope of education and therefore develop advocacy in the academic community. When a new administrator arrives and asks the question, “Why are they here?” You don’t have to defend yourself, others will do that for you because you have earned the right to stay and be heard.
I’m blessed to be married to a wife who is trained in psychology. Together we have taught marriage enrichment classes for nearly weds and newly weds. One of the seminars is about the value of constraint. We would tell couples, “There may come a time when things get tough and the internal bonds of matrimony are not strong. The external constraints of family, church and children are what keep a couple together until their relationship is repaired.” Constraint is a good thing. On the college campus the constraints of shrinking budgets, lack of qualified staff and faculty as well as community investment can open up opportunities, which traditionally may have been resistant to religious leaders. Campus ministers can add adjunct professor to their curriculum vitae because budget cuts cause administrators to look for qualified personnel in nontraditional places.
I don’t want to pine away for ministries that have not been entrusted to me by God. Small community campuses are gold mines of ministry. However, if you find yourself dreaming about a larger campus with a larger stage, I leave you with one final quote from Reverend Stroup. As he gazed out the window to his neglected Florida garden he had once taken much pride in he said, “Once upon a time I prayed that God would fill my cup. These days, I’m just thankful to be a cup.”
We need to be faithfully about our Father’s work wherever he places us.