It’s the beginning of another school year. My dad recently posted a picture on Facebook of me in my freshman year of college, 1996, noting that it had been twenty years since they left me at college “with heavy hearts”. I’m smiling in the picture, but I wasn’t always smiling that year.
A lot of people ask me how I got into campus ministry. Did I go into seminary with the intention of doing campus ministry? Was it something that “just happened”?
Back to 1996. I arrived on the campus of Concordia (then College, not University) in Seward, Nebraska. I had it in mind to be a preacher, and my classes had been chosen with this in mind – things like Greek and Philosophy dotted my schedule along with the education classes that I planned to take as my major (you didn’t “major” in Pre-Seminary Studies). But by the end of the first semester, I wasn’t sure this was a fit. Greek was hard, really hard, but mostly I didn’t feel like I was like the other pre-seminary guys. I’m sure there was some hubris in that perspective, but there was also some reality.
Pretty soon I dropped out of the pre-seminary thing and spent my time wandering the academic wasteland with an undeclared major, searching for what would be “my thing”. I found that I had a talent for getting myself into parties, sleeping half the day and being up for more than half the night (we’ll leave it at that). I started showing up to church hungover on a pretty regular basis. I found out I hated education classes, that I was decent at art, but not good enough to have it be my major, and that I had a seeming talent for unemployable English classes. I stopped showing up to church. I’m sure someone did, but I don’t remember anyone ever inviting me back.
I ended up running myself aground. With my parents’ help, I stopped school, started working on old houses, and took some time to consider what on earth God had redeemed me for. It didn’t come right away. At first, I thought maybe God had made a mistake, and I was sure that I had made plenty. But eventually, He guided me back with the spiritual equivalent of a smack over the head with a 2×4. (This is also a long story.) I was going to go back, finish my English degree and enroll at Concordia Seminary.
While at Concordia Seminary, I started dating a Roman Catholic girl who went to Washington University in St. Louis. I went to mass with her every now and then at the Roman Catholic campus ministry. I got to know her priest. I got to know their ministry. I wondered if I could ever do what he was doing, ministering to people in a place of life that had caused me so much difficulty.
One day at Concordia Seminary, they asked us if any of us wanted to go into “specialized ministry” – like being a military chaplain, or doing prison ministry, or hospital work, or …campus ministry. Something clicked. God hadn’t caused all of the pain during my undergraduate career, but this was a signal that He might be able to use it. My heart had broken time and time again in my undergraduate career, but He might be able to use the scar tissue to do something. I did my vicarage (internship) at First Lutheran Gainesville FL (UF), and I was ordained at University Lutheran (FSU).
I realize there are people, even some at my own church and in my own church body, who think that campus ministry is a waste on one level or another. There are people who think that if you raise college students right, they’ll eventually self-correct even if they get in some trouble like I did. There are people who assume that college students are “adults” and will make good life decisions without anyone to help guide them in wisdom. I wish I could believe that.
This is the start of my 10th academic year. I don’t know that I’m very good at this job, but somehow God has sustained me in it this far. I keep on looking for myself on this campus – that 18 year old kid whose world is about to get turned all sorts of around. If I can point out where Jesus is in the midst of the spins, then I get to rejoice with all of the angels. If I can cut through the crap that I knew so well and sold myself in undergrad, and point to where the Holy Spirit is working in a student’s life, then I get to die happy like St. Paul and Simeon. That’s why I have lived in or near academia for the past 20 years.
That’s why campus ministry.