The Good Life of a Campus Minister

 

By Ward Patterson

I’ve got a friend who keeps me humble. He thinks campus work is a breeze. He is always telling me that anybody looking from the outside would think a campus minister has it pretty soft. 

I keep telling him he ought to look on the inside.

THE PROBLEM OF TIME

“You really have it good,” he says.

“But there is this problem of time,” I respond. “The kids are tied up with something pretty awful—class, I think they call it. The only time they can get together seems to be after supper, at 7:00 say, or after midnight when they start waking up.”

“Well, you have all day in the office, don’t you?” he says, shifting the subject. “What do you do all day long there, arrange and rearrange the books on your shelves?”

“I’m glad you asked,” I reply, trying to think, Where does all that time go? Surely it can’t take me all those hours just doing what I do:

Those Facebook messages to kids setting up visitation teams to take out to the churches.

Those text messages to the kids finding out if they want to get together for a latte.

Those phone calls to other kids to see if they are interested in our spring break mission trip.

Those letters to the ministers who want us to come lead worship for their mission rallies.

Those e-mails to kids at the Bible colleges studying campus ministries.

Those Web orders to buy the latest Bible study materials and workbooks.

Those postcards to the kids who came to last week’s large group worship/Bible study.

Those calls to the university to locate the kids we hear of, who should know about us from last year’s visit at the church camp.

Those mass e-mails to our faithful prayer partners . . . whew!

Can those really chew up my hours? I ask myself. And those studies. That Bible study lesson for Thursday takes a half day, even when I’m perking. Then there is the general reading needed to keep abreast with what kids are thinking. There is the college newspaper to read to know what is going on over across the street. There is Rob Bell and Kierkegaard, Bultmann and Donald Miller, Nee and Nietzsche, and N.T. Wright and Francis Chan waiting to be plugged into my memory bank.

“Come on,” my friend continues. “You’re making yourself a martyr. Every preacher has the same kind of priorities of study and preparation. He’s got at least two sermons a week, a study or two, all those weddings and socials. And you don’t have many funerals to contend with.”

Now, a little frazzled, I counter, “But how about the counseling? These kids are always wandering into my office and asking me about the theory of evolution and intelligent design and what to do with a roommate who has her boyfriend spending three nights a week in their room. And there are the kids who are going to drop out of college or want a recommendation to get into mountain-climbing school.”

“Oh, come on now,” my friend says. “I know for a fact that you spend a lot of your time in public relations. You run around the country all the time, seeing the scenery and playing ‘big-man-behind-the-pulpit.’ You get to speak at banquets, take your displays to missions rallies all over the state, speak to men’s meetings, go to retreats, and fill in when preachers are on vacation.

“You are considered an expert on future trends, relationships, marriage, all contemporary issues, the emerging church, postmodern apologetics, technology and ministry, and the current state of the industrialized world. That’s why churches give you so much time to study so that you can be up on all these things.”

“And each of those things takes at least two or three days of preparation,” I respond, “even for an instant expert like me. And then there is travel time. That speed limit has to be a tool of the devil. And I’ve got to go out and tell the churches about all the great things I’m doing on campus, all that time I spend on the campus, just sitting and drinking coffee with the kids in the Student Union. (Did I do that this semester or last? Or maybe it was a year ago.) You know, the churches never raise their budgeted contribution unless you come around and hit them with a new need.”

 

THE PROBLEM OF SUPPORT

“And that raises another point,” my friend interjects. “Why do the churches have to support you anyway? You’ve got a congregation of your own, and the students ought to carry their own weight like everybody else.”

“But they are college students who are not wage earners. Most of them are living on borrowed money and working a part-time job just to pay their tuition, let alone support a church program. And our field is 30,000 students. We can’t do much to reach them unless we have personnel and money for advertising, facilities, postage—all that stuff. The kids give pretty well, but the facts of life are that few college ministries will be able to be self-supporting, even if they do train the natives to be givers.”

“Well,” my friend says, “I’ve got to run. Why don’t you join us for a picnic this weekend? We always go out to the lake on Saturday and Sunday.”

 

THE PROBLEM OF DETAILS

“Sorry,” I say, “I’ve got this retreat . . . I settle back in my chair behind the cluttered desk. The sticky notes on my computer screen remind me that I am not the world’s best administrator: 

“E-mail David and see if he has the PowerPoint worship file ready.”

“See if Andy can lead the spring break mission team meeting on Sunday night.”

“E-mail area ministers to see if they have any 20-somethings in their church who might like to join us for a Bible study.”

“Check with Rich at the Bible college to see if we can coordinate a prayer walk with some Bible college students.”

“The shower is leaking at the campus house, and a refrigerator is on the fritz.”

 

THE JOY OF MY MINISTRY

I think about what my friend has said. I really do have it pretty good. I have been given time by my dear brethren to read about issues that interest me. I have been permitted to give my attention to the warm, vital, and vibrant youth of this great university. I am in a place that abounds in concerts, lectures, and plays. The opportunity to be involved closely in the decision making of wonderfully gifted people is a daily experience for me.

I have been the recipient of the prayers of hundreds of people who value the campus work. Student leaders who, without pay, give countless hours to the Lord’s work here are my constant companions. I’m close friends with a shepherding board of concerned people who journey halfway across the state to help us reach this campus for the Lord.

I have been given the thrill of hugging a young Korean student in the baptistery as he surrenders to Jesus and leading another into a cold creek on a colorful fall day to bury him with his Lord. I have been able to pray with people who are standing alone in the fraternity and sorority houses and who teach me what it is to stand against the crowd for Jesus’ sake. I have been able to work with a tearful, 21-year-old engineering student as we assist missionaries faced with injustice and poverty in a Third World country.

I’ve been allowed to serve my Lord in one of the most exciting arenas of the mind that exists in our nation.

I guess I do have it pretty good!

 

 

 

Ward Patterson (1945–2006) served as associate campus minister at Indiana University from 1972 to 1973 and as campus minister there from 1974 to 1991.


Although this article was written decades ago, while Ward was serving on campus, the challenge and concerns he describes are still present today. We’re grateful to Greg Swinney who updated the article to reflect details of campus life today.

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