university chaplain

Review of The College Chaplain: A Practical Guide to Campus Ministry by Stephen L. White. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
By Nathan Day Wilson

Stephen L. White, chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Princeton University and priest associate at Trinity Church in Princeton, has written an excellent book that combines a vision of campus ministry with practical suggestions for building an effective ministry. I was impressed enough with the text that I emailed White to thank him for writing it. In his reply, he wrote, “The book is what I had been looking for, but could not find, when I first started. I hope it is both practical and theologically grounded.”[1] It is, and it is useful for experienced as well as new campus ministers.
After a context-setting and spirited introduction, the book is organized around eight key functions and sets of responsibilities for campus ministers: pastor, priest, rabbi, prophet, steward, herald, missionary, and pilgrim. By structuring his book around specified functions, White places his work in a recognized line of theological reflection on campus ministry. In 1969, Kenneth Underwood’s noteworthy Danforth Study on Campus Ministries identified the priestly, pastoral, governing and prophetic utilitarian modes of campus ministry.[2] Twenty years later, Barbara Brummett, while not discounting the helpful administrative aspects of Underwood’s thesis, suggested four primary roles for campus ministers in their relations with students, staff and facuty: pastor, priest, rabbi, and prophet.[3] White acknowledges the impact of both of these earlier sources and builds on them to develop his eight functional roles for campus ministers.[4]
In his introductory chapter, White describes characteristics of vital campus ministry. The first such characteristic is the proclamation of God’s Word and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This central act of worship and community-formation is vital, says White, to “our sense of who we are and to our relationship with God.”[5]
Second, campus ministry should be characterized by hospitality; that is, campus ministry needs to provide a physical space where students, staff and faculty can study, socialize and gather for important reasons or no reasons in order to “let down their guard and be themselves, especially when they are hurting or confused.”[6]
Third, campus ministry should be characterized by presence. This is one of the more poignant reminders of White’s characteristics. He writes that “campus ministry is about being around, being available, being seen by being present as a symbol of the presence of, and the immediate availability of, God in our lives.”[7]
Fourth, campus ministry should be characterized by caring for one another. With this characteristic, White moves beyond the fun and games of campus ministry to remind his readers that campus ministry is also about “helping a faculty member who fears appearing to be vulnerable in a competitive environment get through a family crisis.”[8]
Campus ministry should be characterized by service to others, by having fun, by knowing God, and by equipping the saints. This final characteristic is the place where, according to White, we encourage young adults to strengthen their own faith by sharing it with others. We give opportunities for students to preach, to lead worship, to teach Bible study, and involve them in local and national church conventions and other activities. A number of times at the recent Ivy Jungle Conference concern about the disconnect between campus ministry and local congregational ministry was voiced. It is helpful, then, to read of at least one campus minister making a conscious effort to involve students in local and national church activities.
The boldest sentence in White’s introduction is about funding. “Any approach to funding campus ministries other than through restricted endowments of a sufficient size to fund a fulltime chaplain and a meaningful program merely gives lip service to campus ministry and willfully neglects the future vitality of our church,” writes White.[9] He notes other successful models of campus ministry, such as those relying exclusively on volunteers, but insists that the best promise and potential for stable, secure, and successful campus ministry is through stable and secure funding.
Chapter one, “The Chaplain as Pastor,” is about the pastor who “constantly searches for ways to reach not only those students who may want to ‘do church,’ but also those who are alienated from or indifferent to religion. A good chaplain thinks of him or herself as pastor for everyone, not only those who show up for worship services.”[10] White helpfully stresses the need for patience in campus evangelism. This is a lesson many, including me, need to remember. One of the temptations I face in ministry is focusing too much on visible signs of growth and change; reminders that growth is sometimes invisible, or at least temporarily concealed, are needed.
White compares college students in campus ministry to clay pots made by a potter. The biblically aware reader will recognize this as an analogy born of Scripture, namely Jeremiah 18:2-4, which reads
‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Writes White, “(The potter) has to be patient and … live with the possibility that there might be some air bubble or a bit of moisture in the clay.”[11] Later White adds to his analogy when he writes that “college students are like pots … (t)hey have to go through fire in order to be strong and to grow and to show all their latent beauty.”[12]
Chapter two, “The Chaplain as Priest,” posits the campus minister’s “main public function is the leading of regular worship.”[13] White discusses the differences between denominational and nondenominational liturgical practices, Taizé worship, and the importance of finding a general style so that every worship service is not brand a mystery of form even to those who regularly participate in the worship services. His lessons apply similarly to congregations; in my present context, for instance, we are innovative with music and placement, and even my preaching style, but we also maintain enough order for worshippers not to feel uneasy. My experience is that when the worship designers change too much too often, it leaves worshippers feeling uneasy and concentrating more on what’s coming next than on worshipping God.
The campus minister, suggests White, is to model the prayer life he or she advises. This practice further helps the campus minister be sure he or she is centering worship and work on God, not on self-celebration or even self-fulfillment. An active prayer life is also important for any minister who is regularly called on to lead spontaneous prayers. In my own experience, I know how hard it can be to draw water from a well that has dried up.
White urges campus ministers to “consider it a part of the office of chaplain to encourage young people to pursue a life of ministry, whether as a layperson or through ordination.”[14] I’m glad he included this exhortation, and I certainly agree with the importance of all Christians – lay and ordained – seeing themselves as ministers, but I wish White’s wording was stronger. We in the church must explicitly invite and encourage students to consider ordained ministry. I affirm that vocation is larger than occupation; nevertheless, we must put squarely before our young people the possibility that their vocational calling to love God and neighbor might mean a life in the ordained ministry.
Chapter three, “The Chaplain as Rabbi,” is, of course, the campus minister’s call to teach and equip. The teaching of campus ministers, unlike faculty members, is always theocentric, always “searching for ways to proclaim the gospel, to make God known, to point to the connection of the reality of God with all other fields of knowledge.”[15] Campus ministers should seize every opportunity possible to explain, elaborate and challenge. I suspect there are precious few camp counselors, youth leaders and Sunday school teachers who do not know the truth of that statement. Often the most teachable moments are not when everyone is sitting quietly around a table, but rather in the middle of some ridiculous game or while riding in the church van, or walking from one place in the church to another. Then the real questions come forth and the true feelings are stated. It falls in line with a statement I used to make when training youth workers: the only predictable thing about middle school-aged youth is that they are unpredictable! Good campus ministers seize those unpredictable moments to bring forth a word of the gospel.
White is careful (and correct) to emphasize that campus ministers are to teach students and others how to think theologically for themselves. This has been my mantra for some time. In fact, I believe one of the reasons campus ministry has lost its appeal for many students is that they want to move beyond the messy games and energetic music for real substance that will help them make sense of their world now and equip them to make sense of, and make moral decisions in, their world later. Campus ministers can provide moral and ethical frameworks so that as the issues change, the responses can be made in view of the standards and methods needed to make sense of the relationship between self, world and Christian faith.
In chapter four, “The Chaplain as Prophet,” White notes a number of Christian prophets, ranging from biblical examples to Bonhoeffer to King to Romero. He cites William Sloane Coffin as the best known prophetic campus minister. This is the other half of my mantra. In the midst of an academic community, campus ministers are ideally positioned to prod others to deeper engagement of issues that matter; they can, and should, encourage, even challenge, others to ask more honestly how we should respond to the world in which we live. Campus ministers should always complement the cogito ergo sum of a college with amo ergo sum, challenging the community to love as well as think. When that happens, campus ministry will be a place where we have the courage and freedom to ask the biggest questions and imagine the existence of those beyond our own tribe. This courage, freedom and imagination might just give rise to compassion, which might, in turn, help us truly love our neighbors as ourselves.
“Prophecy,” writes White, “can be thought of as a public exposition of a theological position and of telling the truth publicly.”[16] In this light, it is incumbent to carefully discern that about which campus ministers individually or in behalf of their ministry are prophetic. Campus ministers are not, in my view, called to advance the agendas of a political party.
Chapter five, “The Chaplain as Steward,” addresses issues surrounding the campus minister’s use of quantifiable resources, including student leadership, and money. White suggests establishing a strong and active governing body that cooperatively works with but is not chaired by the campus minister. Campus ministries that fail to do this, according to White, are in danger of losing focus on their intended core mission and using their resources unwisely. White gives the example of one campus ministry that deteriorated beyond this to the point of having a campus minister who had “retired on the job.”[17]
White further addresses the stewardship of student leadership, facilities and alumni information. Then, in good Episcopalian fashion, White delves heavily into a conversation os endowment management and fundraising! This section of this chapter is hands down the best money management and fundraising discussion I have ever read in a college ministry related work. White highlights endowment issues and delineates specific fundraising steps.
In chapter six, “The Chaplain as Herald,” White addresses how a campus ministry makes itself known to the campus at large. White turns first to the task of preaching: “Preaching anywhere, but especially in a university setting, is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel if the preacher can manage to avoid two major pitfalls: the temptation to make yourself the hero, or at least the major figure, of most of your sermons; and the temptation to be too clever.”[18] White reminds his readers that sermons on a college campus, as in a congregation, need solid biblical exegesis, sound theology and inspired social concern.
Web sites and internet use, posters and banners, campus paper ads and community announcements, email and instant messaging, brochures and newsletters are all discussed by White as ways to spread the word about the campus ministry’s availability and openness to new people. Finally, White advises weekly meetings with the core student leadership that empowers them to herald the campus ministry story as well.
Chapter seven is titled “The Chaplain as Missionary.” “The university,” writes White, “is a rich mission field, and campus ministry is an expression of the church’s eagerness to be a part of the lives of all those involved with the university.”[19] The campus minister should be passionate about being a missionary to the college and passionate about equipping, educating and engaging others to do the same. This missionary impulse is evident through our words and actions, noting the admonition of Francis to “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”
Bible studies, Habitat service projects, volunteering at local soup kitchens and homeless shelters, inviting dorm mates to church services, and more are ways White suggests campus ministers encourage their students to be missionaries. When we are missionaries, “we will alert first ourselves, and then others, to the universal reign of God.”[20]
The final chapter concerning the campus minister’s functions, “The Chaplain as Pilgrim,” examines how the campus minister is sustained and sustains others on the lifelong journey of faith. In this chapter White goes from preaching to meddling with me! He writes, “The life of a university chaplain can be a model of a balanced life for others. Instead of modeling super achievement, the chaplain as pilgrim can be a person on a deliberate, purposeful spiritual journey….”[21] These, and the ones that follow them, are great words. These are needed words. One more line from White: “If the chaplain’s attempt to live a balanced life is not genuine, not party of the true self and of daily practice, then it quickly will be detected as fraudulent.”[22]
Campus ministers can and should be companions with staff, faculty and students on a spiritual pilgrimage. The markers for this pilgrimage are daily prayer, regular retreats, seeking and providing spiritual direction, maintaining relationships with the church beyond the university, maintaining boundaries with students, staff and faculty, and taking of oneself physically and emotionally. As pilgrims, campus ministers know that the spiritual journey is made in the company of others.
The journey metaphor seems to me an appropriate one to conclude White’s book. It is a metaphor appropriate to my own life. The geography of my life has been varied. At some points weeds grew tall and unruly; at other points everything appeared well manicured. Some valleys and some mountain tops looked like they would never end, but both did. Scary curves and broad hills concealed what was next. Straight roads and flat plains allowed me to go too fast. While the terrain changes in sometimes frustrating ways, I am often reminded that being Christian is less a destination than a journey, so I’ll keep traveling.

Nathan Day Wilson’s email address is
[1] Personal email correspondence dated 8 December 2005 between White and me.
[2] Kenneth Underwood, ed. The Church, the University and Social Policy: The Danforth Study on Campus Ministries (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).
[3] Barbara Brummett. The Spiritual Campus: The Chaplain and the College Community (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1990).
[4] White never mentions William Willimon’s Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, but given that Willimon also organizes his book around functions of the ordained minister, the similarities are striking. In fact, reading the two together would be rich for seminarians – and for pastors!
[5] Stephen L. White. The College Chaplain: A Practical Guide to Campus Ministry (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), 14.
[6] Ibid, 15.
[7] Ibid, 15.
[8] Ibid, 15.
[9] Ibid, 19.
[10] Ibid, 23.
[11] Ibid, 39.
[12] Ibid, 39.
[13] Ibid, 45.
[14] Ibid, 61.
[15] Ibid, 63.
[16] Ibid, 87.
[17] Ibid, 95.
[18] Ibid, 117.
[19] Ibid, 135.
[20] Ibid, 141.
[21] Ibid, 143.
[22] Ibid, 143.

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