Cutting Edge Issues for Religious Leaders: Why University Ministry is Important
By The Reverend Nathan D. Wilson
Thank you for inviting me to join this dialogue about cutting edge issues for religious leaders.
First, a brief housekeeping matter. To have honest interfaith dialogue, each participant needs to identify the faith or ideological perspective from which he or she speaks. I speak as a Christian, ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), theologically ecumenical, evangelical and progressive, engaged in interfaith dialogue and practice, in love with learning, and committed in action to issues of peace, justice and equality. My hope and prayer is that the words I say will resonate even with those who do not share my language and loyalties.
As some of you know, I frequently talk about three characteristics that communities of faith should embody: true community, deep spirituality and a passion for justice. Now I know that this dialogue is about university ministry, but these three characteristics have become my mantra, and, more importantly, they add to this conversation – so allow me to briefly recap them.
Communities of faith must be about forming and exhibiting true community; that is, we must be about providing opportunities to discuss, deliberate and debate, to explore, engage and empower, to hope, heal and even ask for help – and these opportunities must be in safe spaces where participants are both candid and considerate.
Communities of faith must be about deep spirituality. There are many patterns of spiritual formation and exploration, and for today I’m not planning to review them or advocate for one. (I do have formative models and disciplines to suggest that I’m happy to discuss afterward, especially if, say, you treated me to a cup of coffee …) Today I am simply going to say that deep spirituality includes both reflection about one’s faith and attention to how one’s life is being lived. This includes asking who we are, who God is, how we can be shaped by our faith, and how we can put our faith into practice. Spirituality leads to healing and wholeness of oneself, of one’s community, of God’s world.
Communities of faith must be passionate about justice. Similar perhaps to spirituality, we could spend much time defining justice according to various religious, philosophic and legal traditions. My own definition is rooted in the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths, which is to say, in brief, that justice has both personal and social components. Justice is both about what we do to ourselves and each other and it is about what the systems in which we live and operate do to us all. Rather than spend time defining justice (though, again, a cup of java or one of those nice looking éclairs might persuade me later), the point for us now is that communities of faith are to teach, sensitize, motivate and challenge their members to engage contemporary realities in acts of service and witness.
That is my summary of the three aspects that communities of faith should exemplify. Besides being like a politician who sticks to his message points regardless of the question asked (or a windup doll maybe), I went through that summary because the aspects give shape to how we do effective university ministry. So now I’ll change directions a bit and address the importance of ministry during one of the typically most influential and formative periods of life.
During the college years, there is a distinct openness to new ideas, and to the exploration of faith. This openness, especially when combined with the influence universities have on society’s values, makes the task of serving as university minister simultaneously daunting and exciting.
First, university ministers should soothe some and stir up others searching to connect their spiritual hunger, social commitments and academic pursuits. Sincere and systematic engagement of the moral challenges surrounding one’s chosen field is often absent from higher education. In the college setting, many choices and challenges are raised – be they moral, spiritual, physical, intellectual, economic or other – which should be held in dialogical tension to create a healthy and whole person.
Second, university ministry should provide the tools to live a faithful and informed life. It is unfair for university ministers to create false security, a sheltered environment where every question is answered, and all needs are met. The more appropriate approach is to invite students and staff to be honest with questions about faith, to take a critical look at their inherited faith, and then begin the task of clarifying what is helpful and what is not. There may be periods when the ground of one’s faith is shaky; into that uncertainty, however, can come recognition that life is uncertain, and that faith is grounded in a reality that embraces such times and tells us the truth about those times. What seems to be endless wilderness may be an opportunity to go farther and deeper with one’s faith.
Third, university ministers have important opportunities to exercise the roles of minister as pastor and priest. In times of crisis, whether personal, institutional, national or worldwide, university ministers should bring words of hope and peace. University ministers are blessed with opportunities for pastoral counseling: the great privilege of being invited into the sanctuary of someone else’s soul.
Fourth, university ministers have important opportunities as prophets. In the midst of an academic community, university ministers can prod others to deeper engagement of issues that matter; they can encourage, even challenge, others to ask more honestly how we should respond to the world in which we live. University ministers should always complement cogito ergo sum with amo ergo sum, challenging the community to love as well as think.
Fifth, when done well, university worship informs and inspires. What is worship that is done well? It is worship that is genuinely ecumenical; emphasizing that God’s grace is wide enough to receive us all. It is worship that allows room for the Holy Spirit to affirm our gifts, challenge our frailties, and enlarge our perceptions. It is worship that reminds us that the strength of love reaches us wherever we are and brings us together. It is worship with order and flow, but is not stale or stiff. It is worship filled with songs and images from all over the world, with prayers and proclamation, with drama and dance, with art and flowers. Most of all, it is worship filled with the gifts of the gathered community.
Finally for now, university ministry can simply be fun! It should be. The university years should be challenging; they should be formative; they should be a bit confusing, at least from time to time. Amidst all that, college should be this exhilirating time of trying on ideas and perspectives, learning everything possible, figuring out how to save the world, playing hard and working hard.
Any metabolizing minister could not but love to be in that mix.
Nathan D. Wilson is the minister of a Disciples congregation in central Kentucky.
The Mirror: Views and Voices of Young Progressives