The office related to three constituencies — chaplains at Presbyterian and other colleges, campus ministers at public universities, and persons in congregations engaged in ministry with college students. The office was combined with the Office of Youth Ministries, the staff of which will now be responsible for resourcing ministry with young people from middle school through college.
The people now responsible for collegiate ministry are extremely competent; their accomplishments in youth ministry attest to that fact. But clearly they had enough work to keep them busy before taking on this added responsibility. How will they resource collegiate ministry in addition to what they were already doing? The answer, no doubt, will emerge in the coming months.
Higher education is the oldest form of Presbyterian Church mission beyond the congregation. It grew naturally out of the Reformed belief in the priesthood of all believers and Jesus’ commandment to love God with our hearts, souls and minds. It has been a mission in decline for more than 40 years (about as long as the church has been losing members). The Office of Collegiate Ministries was an easy target in the latest downsizing. The office had been treated as something of a stepchild in recent times. In the past six years it was lodged in four different places within the GAMC. More recently it has been part of the Evangelism and Church Growth area, where the new Office of Youth and Collegiate Ministries will reside. There is a certain irony to that, given that college is when so many young people leave the church. Other denominations and para-church groups seem to recognize more than our own the importance of ministry to this age group.
The college years are arguably the most critical time in a young person’s spiritual development, as they make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It is a time of discernment, as they reflect upon their Christian vocation. For too long the Presbyterian Church has cared about its young people through high school — affording them opportunities to grow and develop their faith through the Presbyterian Youth Connection, the Presbyterian Youth Triennium and the Montreat Youth Conferences — and again if they decided to enroll in seminary, but not during the critical years in-between. The new Office of Youth and Collegiate Ministries has an opportunity to change that.
The biggest challenge, and the place where the new office can be most helpful, is keeping young people from falling off the radar screen as they move from high school to college. Many congregations do an excellent job of keeping in touch with their college-age members, but most students, when they go away to college, experience a physical and emotional separation from their home congregation. The campus community becomes their “congregation.” The ones who maintain an active spiritual life during college are more likely to do so through chapel and fellowship groups than at a Presbyterian congregation in town. I say that not to discount the excellent ministry to college students being provided by many of our congregations, but simply to acknowledge that they don’t engage the majority of Presbyterian college students.
Chaplains and campus ministers are essential to keeping young people connected to the church, to helping them understand the role faith plays in making career decisions, and to giving them tools and experiences to help them engage life’s challenging questions with mature faith. One thing the Office of Youth and Collegiate Ministries can do is help identify Presbyterian students as they go off to college, connecting them with chaplains and campus ministers, and connecting the chaplains and campus ministers with a student’s home congregation. A resolution asking congregations to share the names of graduating high school students with colleges and universities failed to get out of committee at the 2006 General Assembly. The new Office of Youth and Collegiate Ministries, with networks of both youth leaders and campus ministers, can help to make that happen.
Ministers who work on college campuses keep odd hours and too often work in isolation without visible support from either the college or their denomination. The new office needs to find ways to maintain and nurture the network of more than 700 congregations, 350 campus-based ministries and nearly 100 college chaplains who serve approximately 60,000 Presbyterian college students at more than 1,100 institutions. [These figures are from the PC(USA) Web site.]
We can hope that the Office of Youth and Collegiate Ministries will also find ways of connecting colleges — especially our Presbyterian-related colleges — with the larger church, its congregations, governing bodies, and national offices. The church and its colleges can and should be resources to one another. They share a common purpose of creating people who want to make the world better.
Finally, the new office can be a conduit for making sure the church hears the voices of its young people. As one college chaplain put it, the most important thing the General Assembly Mission Council can do is listen to its college students, carefully and deliberately; listen to what they have to say about God, about worship, about mission opportunities, about finding meaning and purpose in life. “Perhaps if we listen,” she says, “we will find ways to focus our energies on matters that will build the church.”
Gary Luhr is executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, Louisville, Ky.