One of my young campus ministry colleagues posted something to Facebook recently and I was reminded of this article that I wrote more than a decade ago for publication in the September 2003 issue of the monthly publication I edited back then for the CCO, The Ministry Exchange: an exchange of ideas & resources by & for CCO staff. Maybe it will resonate with someone today?
I’ve been a little bit emotional lately. Between returning to Allegheny for homecoming and missing that place and those people — especially missing the feelings of being known, recognized and loved, and being totally familiar with my environment — and the uncertainties about my position here, things have been a bit rocky inside.
I recently read this passage in one of my old journals. It documents the spring I graduated from college, the summer I participated in CCO Summer Training, and the autumn I arrived at Geneva College as a full-fledged campus minister. It reads like a coming-of-age novel…or maybe a poorly-edited coming-of-age memoir. The above reflection was recorded on October 11, 1988, a little over a month into my time at Geneva.
A few months earlier, on June 8th, just before graduating from Allegheny College, I had made this notation:
A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.
These words were printed on a poster which hung on a friend’s bedroom wall. I’d seen it several times before, but reading these words just days before my college graduation added a fresh poignancy.
The transition from college student to working woman was predictably uncomfortable. Even my relative familiarity of the CCO couldn’t cushion the very real fact that my carefree undergraduate days were now a thing of the past. Even if your first job out of college is to work closely with college students, the fact remains: you are not in college anymore.
Going into New Staff Training, I believed that I was well-prepared to minister to college students. After all, I had been an active participant in the CCO-advised Allegheny Christian Outreach all four of my college years, attending large-group fellowship meetings and leading Bible studies and discipleship groups. The summer before my senior year, I immersed myself in the Ocean City Beach Project, and it was at OCBP that I discovered that I just might have what it takes to do campus ministry. A year later, I found myself with 17 other new CCO recruits at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, preparing to fulfill a four-year commitment to this ministry which had changed my life.
And then I arrived at Geneva College.
I was an intern at Geneva, which, at that time in CCO history, meant that I would move on to spend three years working at a different campus after completing my first year on staff. It also meant that I had a very fluid and flexible job description to allow for extra meetings and the study to which I had committed through the intern program. Ultimately, it meant that many Geneva students never quite figured out who I was or why I was there.
Was I a resident director? Not exactly — although I did end up filling an abruptly-vacated RA position shortly into my first semester at Geneva. I also supervised a group of upperclass students who served as mentors to the entire freshman class via small groups. (The irony here was that I was piloting a brand new freshman orientation program while basically feeling like a freshman myself.) When the mentoring program wrapped up at the end of the fall semester, I transitioned into my new duties — assisting the Assistant Chaplain (CCO associate staff member, Brad Frey) in administrating Geneva’s arts and lecture series.
And through all of this, I was learning how much I had to learn about doing campus ministry.
Beaver Falls may only be 75 miles from Meadville, Pennsylvania, but as far as I was concerned, Geneva and Allegheny Colleges may as well have been different planets. At Allegheny, I freely visited friends of both genders in their residence hall rooms at any hour of the day or night. At Geneva, I was expected to patrol the halls, making sure dorm room doors were propped open during the occasional (two or three per semester) open houses, when men were allowed to visit women in their rooms. Drinking and dancing were regular practices among Allegheny students, and strictly forbidden at Geneva. And then there was the whole Geneva College Sabbath-observance thing — no sports, no studying, no doing laundry on Sundays. (Is it even necessary to suggest that this would not compute at Allegheny?)
The external differences between my alma mater and my first-year ministry setting were merely symptoms of the biggest challenge of all. My experience as a college student had taught me that being an evangelical Christian meant being in a distinct minority, a member of “the remnant,” part of a fellowship which was merely tolerated as a recognized student activity, not encouraged. At Geneva, RAs were trained to lead Bible studies, close to 300 students showed up for the first Sunday Night Fellowship meeting, and we took turns leading devotionals at student development staff meetings.
At Geneva, even if a student did not necessarily embrace the Gospel message, she knew enough to “talk the talk” — whether or not she chose to “walk the walk” as one of Jesus’ disciples. How to minister to her?
And that illustrates one of biggest lessons I learned as I left the harbor of my undergraduate experience for the uncharted waters of campus ministry.
I learned that ministry is not about formulas or programs or doing-it-the-way-I’ve-always-seen-it-done. Ministry is about real people — individuals created in God’s image. Ministry is about God’s power working through my humility.
Ministry is about leaving the harbor and taking the risk of sailing into choppy waters — and trusting that the One who can walk on water will be right there, keeping me safe and doing the real work of ministry — softening hearts and changing lives.