Campus Ministry: Learning to navigate a mission field filed with mines

by the Rev. Shirley Bowen
Campus Missioner for the Diocese of Maine

Although reports cannot be confirmed due to privacy reasons, the press has reported that two or three students died by their own hand in the 2011 fall semester at the University of Southern Maine.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that at least 1,350 college students commit suicide each year, making suicide the second leading cause of death among college students after accidents. Research reports that for every completed suicide, 20 attempts have been made.

It is nationally reported by Counseling Centers that increasing numbers of students are coming to campus with significant mental health diagnoses who do not have foundational safety nets or resiliency skills. Scholars who study religion, society, and the media have commented that the increasing interest in vampires and zombies among our youth and young adults is reflecting their internal emptiness and loss of hope.

The year 2010 also found an increase of hate crimes on campuses across the country. Additionally, studies have tracked an increasing number of harassment and hate behaviors that may not quality as a crime but which negatively impact the targeted group. Sexual assault and dating/violence continue to haunt the hallways of academia, despite vigorous efforts by campus officials to interrupt the behavior.

Students of faith who are courageous enough to share that part of their identity in a classroom environment are sometimes ridiculed by faculty and other students who discount religious beliefs as superstitious and ignorant. For residential students who find themselves living beside such a mix of lifestyles and beliefs, the developmentally-appropriate exploration can sometimes have disastrous consequences. Christian and Non-Christian students of faith often try to be invisible in their religious identity due to the hostile responses that surround them.

Less traumatic but no less challenging are the realities of increasing debt for college students and the lack of guaranteed employment following graduation. The explosion of social media, when not managed responsibly, has alienated students from achieving positive, interpersonal interactive skills. Communication that comes in “bytes” is frequently more brutal than that communicated in person and gives a skewed sense of anonymity that does not exist. Casual connections can become dangerous predatory encounters.

Being a student on most college and university campuses today is fraught with hidden mines that will explode in their lives at any time and with varying degrees of impact. Additionally, fewer students entering higher education have been raised in a faith community, thus find themselves without spiritual grounding to sustain them through life’s inevitable challenges.
For those of us who grew up in the church and have come to take for granted the support system that comes from clergy and the parish community, we must try to imagine what it is like for young adults to navigate their college experiences in the climates described above. Academia has always been a critical mission field for the Church. There has never been a time more critical for college chaplaincies to exist.

Many young adults are feeling hopeless, discouraged about their future, disgusted with oppositional leadership in our country, and fearful about the safety of our environment and the planet. I work in higher education because I believe the rising adults are our best hope for the world. But we need to be there for them now, while they are working out their future. There are some cult-like organizations on campus, including religious ones, that “prey” on isolated, unconnected  students, drawing them in to unhealthy patterns and practices and alienating them from family and friends. These students frequently end up dropping out of school.

Lest you think me only a harbinger of doom, the good news is that the national research out of UCLA tells us that college students are desperately seeking meaning and desire to grow in their faith understanding. We also know that when support is provided, students grow deeper in their faith through their college years. We just need to provide them with a vehicle to do so.

I am writing to renew my offer as a resource to parishes with adjacent campuses who desire to be intentional in ministering among college students. With 30 years of experience in higher education, my offer is to help facilitate connecting with the campus, to help insure that all activities are respectful of and in compliance with college policies, and to support you in potentially building a ministry team for this purpose.

There are already such initiatives under way in the Diocese of Maine, and I would love to invite others to join in the venture. We have a team from St. Patrick’s in Brewer, and St. James in Old Town beginning work at UMaine Orono and an emerging outreach to Bowdoin College.

I also want to encourage those who have parishioners away at college to reach out to those students and their families: to be sure they know what resources are available on their campus and to remind them that they continue to be part of a loving parish community.

Encourage them to seek out a local parish and/or the Episcopal chaplaincy if present. Help them find out more about what types of religious organizations they might encounter and how to discern what is right for them. Most importantly, please let them know they are being held in prayer and love.

I would also be happy to serve as a conduit to help students connect on their campus or their communities. Please pass on my contact information and ask students’ permission to offer theirs to me. I could be in touch on a regular basis and encourage their journey. I have created a blog for college students and others interested in them. .

The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child” can be translated into “It takes a Diocese to support our rising adults into their full, hopefully Christ-filled, lives.” One half-time Missioner based on one campus can’t do it alone. Please join me in helping students navigate the minefield of higher education. Please pray for them and me. God bless you.

1 Comment

Filed under Campus Ministry, Diocesan Life, Ministry and Outreach

One response to “Campus Ministry: Learning to navigate a mission field filed with mines

  1. I recently recommended you to a congregation that wants to develop a seamless Christian formation program for children, teens, young adults, family years, mid-life, and older adults. They are not adjacent to a campus, but in a community with a very high college-bound rate in their high school. I suggested that they look to you for insight into how they can continue to be present as a home-base, a place of roots for those who are testing their wings.

    Another trend that we see in the congregation is among parents who drop out of church after they have done their duty and seen their kids through Sunday School. I suggested to this same congregation that you would be a source of insight into what parents go through in the transition from parenting kids to parenting young adults, especially in this age of “helicopter parents.”

    I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important all aspects of your ministry is, Shirley+, on campus and in home congregations. I was phenomenally lucky to attend a church-affiliated university and have a home congregation that had a clear keep-in-touch program. Through all the awful stuff I did, as hard as I tried to push faith away, both of those systems refused to let go. And when I was ready, they were right there as if we had never fallen out.

    You are absolutely correct that one priest on one campus can’t do it alone. I pray deeply that your post will attract the village our young adults so desperately need.