Revisiting Presbyterian collegiate ministry

In my role as the national director of UKirk collegiate ministries, I often hear the question, “So how’s collegiate ministry these days?” It’s a good question. It shows there is genuine interest across our denomination about the state of Presbyterian collegiate ministry. My response is usually a soft chuckle, followed by a question playfully asked: “How much time do you have?” Questions of clarification follow, with eager hopes for a reply: Is it thriving or dying? Is it funded well? How diverse is it? What are you seeing? And, on and on.

Though I always offer my thoughts with joy and a little heartache, I never have enough time to really share how our collegiate ministries are doing. Hopefully, the words below offer a more comprehensive look at one of the most critical forms of ministry in the church today. Keep in mind, I don’t offer these observations as absolute or universal, as I’m sure there will be many ministries that don’t fit this portrait. Rather, I offer them from a general view of collegiate ministry in the PC(USA). As a way to answer the overarching question, I’d like to offer fill-in-the-blank responses to this prompt: PC(USA) collegiate ministry is _______.

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… UKirk.
UKirk, meaning “university church,” is the official name of our denomination’s collegiate ministries. It launched in 2012 as a result of a 2010 General Assembly task force. While not all of our ministries brand as UKirk, every ministry that works with PC(USA) college students are considered part of the UKirk Network.

To date, we have well over 1,000 ministries journeying alongside college students around the United States and Puerto Rico. Additionally, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church officially joined the UKirk Network in 2016. Bear in mind, though the UKirk Network is housed in the Office of Collegiate and Young Adult Ministries, each ministry operates independently and through a variety of ministry connections. Even though the network is supported by the national office, UKirk also has its own board made up of collegiate ministers and chaplains.


PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… one of the most diverse forms of ministry in the church.
If I had to name one aspect of collegiate ministry that amazed me the most, it would be the vast diversity in the field. This is a ministry that claims college chaplains, congregation-based college pastors, campus ministers (some governed by boards, others by presbyteries or synods), ecumenical ministers (responsible to several other denominations) and an assortment of other incarnations of the vocation. Each of these differences presents a variety of challenges and blessings.

Consider these examples: Although chaplains and church-based college pastors are typically fully funded by their respective organizations, the vast majority of our collegiate ministers have to raise part of their yearly budget. Campus ministers often have the most direct contact time with their students, whereas chaplains are responsible for cultivating the broader religious and interfaith environment on college campuses. Many church-based college pastors find themselves in a balancing act between their campus ministry and their responsibilities as part of the pastoral staff of a congregation.

Some of our collegiate ministries are based in houses on campus, while others minister out of a church or a rented location. Some even meet in homes. We’ve got collegiate ministries in state universities, private liberal arts colleges, community colleges and many in churches that are simply trying to care for their own young adults who are away at college. With that much diversity, there is still one very important aspect that sits at the center: a deep burden and passion to walk alongside college-aged students as they navigate one of the most formative periods of their lives. It should come as no surprise that UKirk’s mission is just that: Journeying with young adults as we follow Christ.

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… incarnational at its core.
If I were to ground the work of collegiate ministry in one doctrine (an exercise harkening back to my seminary days), I’d place it in the doctrine of the incarnation. At its essence, collegiate ministry is about coming alongside young adults as they figure out what it means to follow Christ in an increasingly secularized, pluralistic and often anti-religious culture. Young adult formation in a collegiate environment means encountering others who have different life experiences, perspectives, beliefs and identities. Truth be told, it’s no easy task to figure out who you are and what you believe during those years. Our Presbyterian collegiate ministries strive to make faith formation a major part of that discernment.

As a result, collegiate ministries function as incarnational ministries through which passionate folk literally dwell among students, similar to how Christ dwelt in community. Christ came to relate to us and to be in relationship with us. College ministry is relational ministry at its fullest, because collegiate ministers are invited to participate in their students’ lives in more tangible ways and often to do so on a daily basis. Our college ministers don’t just function as pastors, they are counselors, spiritual guides, confidants, surrogate parents and traveling companions to those under their care.

UKIRK Nashville

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… exploring new avenues of ministry.
One of the privileges of my job is that I get the opportunity to see the various ways our collegiate ministries are redefining what it means to do campus ministry. What was once a stereotypically programmatic weekly gathering has blossomed into an eclectic potpourri of Christian communities that are embracing spiritual formation in new ways.

Take UPerk, UKirk’s first ministry to launch a full-scale, nonprofit coffeehouse situated in the first floor of a student apartment complex at the University of Alabama. UPerk’s space functions both as a communal gathering place for all university students and as a sacred space for those whose lives intersect with “Bama UKirk.”

Or, consider the ministry of Community College Outreach just north of Seattle, which reaches over 3,000 commuter students each year. With the rising cost of undergraduate education, community colleges are seeing a surge in enrollment. CCO is not only ministering where there is tremendous opportunity, it’s also one of our 1001 New Worshipping Communities.

Sometimes, the new way of doing ministry is rediscovering something that’s old or forgotten. In that light, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing movement toward liturgy in many of our collegiate ministries. In 2015, weekly celebration of the Eucharist was reported as the ministry practice students valued the most. To respond to this movement, the national office produced UWorship, a lectionary resource designed for the campus ministry setting. It gives me great hope to witness ministries embracing the roots of our reformed worship.

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… the last frontier of developmental Christian formation.
It’s no secret that we’re seeing an unfortunate trend in the spiritual lives of young adults today. It appears that for many teenagers, graduation from high school is akin to being done with the church as well. Many of our young people are abandoning the denominations of their upbringing and joining the “nones,” claiming general spirituality over religious affiliation. As this ethos ebbs its way to becoming the norm, our collegiate ministries become a critical opportunity to walk with many of our young adults. In fact, I would argue that, in our current place in society, Presbyterian collegiate ministry is needed now more than ever. College-age young adults are often, for the first time in their lives, making serious decisions about who they are and how they will live as an individual in the world. It’s imperative that we journey with them.

PC(USA) collegiate ministries are truly the last frontier before our young people enter the non-peer-oriented world of adulthood. This is why we can’t forget our baptismal covenants just because our young people move away for college. We vowed to raise those baptized in the Christian faith. Considering the formative nature of the collegiate environment, I’d assert that we’re not talking about collegiate ministry enough.

While many of our collegiate ministers feel generally supported, the vast majority struggles to connect churches in their presbyteries to their ministries with students. It’s not that congregations don’t care about collegiate ministry, rather most parishioners just don’t know how to get involved. Whether they are your own college-aged students or students attending an institution near you, it’s imperative that we grasp the significance of this ministry and begin to get more involved.

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… underfunded.
Okay, time to name the elephant in the room. No one really wants to talk about it, but if you’re interested in learning about Presbyterian collegiate ministry, you need the full picture. Our college ministries are grossly underfunded. One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen over the past few years is budget cutting in collegiate ministry. When synods, presbyteries and churches need to tighten the belt buckle, it’s often at the expense of their ministries with college students (with camps and conference ministries being a close second). To be clear, I don’t think this budgetary decision is based on perceived value of collegiate ministry, I think it’s more focused on a desire for outcome-based results.

Take a moment to consider how we evaluate the “success” of ministry efforts. If we’re honest, we judge our work largely by quantitative measures. How many people did we have? How much has our weekly offering grown? How many people did we add to the membership roll? While these questions do have some correlation with how our ministry efforts are received by the church and culture, they are not helpful when it comes to collegiate ministries. The lion’s share of our ministries won’t break 50 in average attendance in a year and most of those students won’t ever show up on a Sunday morning to their local Presbyterian church, let alone contribute to the offering plate or join the membership. At this point, you might be asking, then why should we support the collegiate ministries in our presbyteries? So glad you asked.

UKIRK Nashville

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… mission (not program).
The biggest challenge PC(USA) collegiate ministries face these days stems from a misunderstanding in how we categorize what they do. For decades, we’ve viewed collegiate ministry and ministry to college-aged young adults as part of the programmatic emphasis of our church. It was kind of like youth group, only with older youth and lasagna (the more sophisticated version of pizza). If you search most Presbyterian church websites that have a college ministry, you’ll typically find it under “ministries” or “programs.” The problem with this categorization is that it miscommunicates the end result of doing collegiate ministry.

The rationale for ministry programs in our churches is ultimately to strengthen the spiritual life of the congregation. It’s internally focused. Don’t get me wrong, this is a much needed emphasis and one that we ought to take very seriously. The difference, however, is that collegiate ministry doesn’t aim for the same outcomes. The work of the college pastor or campus minister is more similar to the work of our global mission workers. That’s because, college ministry isn’t essentially programmatic, it’s mission. When we demonstrate radical hospitality to our college communities, we participate in mission work.

Consider this: When we send money to the Philippines to support our mission workers there, we don’t have any real expectation that the ministry will lead to growth in our Sunday attendance, increases in our weekly giving or add more names on the membership roll. That would be an unreasonable expectation. Then why do we expect those results for our collegiate ministries? In other words, when we shift our thinking about collegiate ministry into the category of mission, we remove expectations and open up space for new possibilities, many of which are calling us to task.

PC(USA) collegiate ministry is… a ministry in which everyone can get involved.
Here’s the best part: Collegiate ministry isn’t just another mission field for us to support financially by writing a check (even though that’s helpful as well), it’s a type of localized mission that everyone can join. College ministry is one of the most peer-oriented times of a student’s life. Our college students need intergenerational interaction more than they realize.

Some of the most notable collegiate ministries in the denomination are intentionally intergenerational. For far too long we’ve bought into the myth that you can’t have grey hair or young kids and still work with college students. In my experience, having all generations involved in collegiate ministry cultivates a deeper connection to the broader church. This is the sheer beauty of this relationally-oriented, mission minded, incarnational ministry. In the end, it’s important to realize that everyone can journey with young adults as we all follow Christ.

Jason Brian Santos is the mission coordinator for Christian formation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the national director of UKirk. He is an ordained teaching elder in the PC(USA) and is the author of “A Community Called Taizé.