I think I’m beginning to get it. This thing we call “campus ministry” is amorphous, protean, perplexing, ephemeral, and many other five-dollar words. But at the end of my first quarter as a campus minister at the University of Cincinnati, I think I’m beginning to get it.
Like a lot of folk, I wrestle with whether I’m doing enough, doing it right, doing what God wants from me. On a college campus with upwards of 35,000 students, the challenge can seem insurmountable. Is campus ministry supposed to draw hundreds of students? Is it supposed to make a big splash on the campus? Is it supposed to result in lots of baptisms? Is it supposed to be quantifiable such that my funding will be renewed? Maybe, but all of this makes me tired. What gets me energized is on-the-fly conversations with students about theology, about the struggles they are facing, about how they got to where they are. What makes me happy is a student’s tentative exploration of the Christian story or her excitement for a service project. What shows me God’s action is the faithfulness of students in returning to us and in being willing to step out of their self-made boxes. These are not things that can be easily reported and they’re not things that happen every day. Success, as many folk in the campus ministry blogosphere have recently pointed out, is not what you think. Success, as Henri Nouwen points out in his book Lifesigns, is fruitfulness rather than productivity.
I have been spending time contacting students and professors over the quarter, taking them to lunch, inviting them to the campus house at the corner of Clifton and Martin Luther King, meeting them on campus and engaging in conversation. I’ve called them, emailed them, Facebooked them, Tweeted them, texted them. I’ve put up fliers. I’ve prayed. And slowly, I’ve developed a “clump” of students interested in what we’re doing, interested in pursuing some portion of the spiritual life.
The weekend before exams, I had one of those days which makes it all worth it, a fruitful day. A student came by to talk about her passion for an anti-suicide awareness campaign called To Write Love on Her Arms–we made concrete plans to engage the campus in conversation. After a conversation about the small group of homeless folk who have been making camp in the woods nearby, a couple students and I walked down and emptied their overflowing trash can. A professor dropped by to go over details for a DAAP art project at the campus house–we’d been conversing and dreaming for the entire quarter about what this collaboration might look like. In the evening, we celebrated the Advent season with a rollicking gospel worship service, fried-chicken dinner, and service project for the First Step Home with at least 30 people–more than we’ve ever had at a single event (besides orientation activities).
Each of these moments is the slow-growing fruit of a longer conversation. They are stories not results. They have developed out of relationship rather than expectation or schedule. They are success. I get it. For the moment.