A campus minister carries meaningful baggage

Lately, I’ve been keeping a journal of things that I’ve carried from my car to our campus ministry and vice versa. Here’s a sampling:

A thermocouple for a hot water heater.
Eighty hamburger patties.
A box containing a skill saw, electric sander, staple gun and a speed square.
Four bicycle helmets.
An electric guitar with amp.

Sometimes I imagine what I must look like to other people as I traipse the quarter mile from parking lot to front door with my haul. I can almost hear people saying, “There goes the Methodist campus minister again. I think he gets paid to carry random junk across the parking lot every day.”

Eric Van Meter_web

Eric Van Meter

I hope they consider me eccentric rather than loony.

When I look back over my list, however, I get a different feeling. I can see how wildly varied the job of a campus pastor is, and how narrow my denomination’s definition of ministry often becomes.

Pastors of every ilk complain that their seminary courses did not adequately prepare them for life in the local congregation. I mostly disagree. The training I got in pastoral care, counseling polity and biblical studies was quite useful when I worked in the local church, and is still invaluable in campus ministry.

What no one told me was that my education needed courses in carpentry, appliance repair and interior design. In such a notoriously underfunded field as campus ministry, making the dollars stretch far enough requires plenty of do-it-yourself gumption.

It also requires plenty of assistance. Whenever I do things like replacing a toilet or extending the stage platform, I ask students to help. “Life skills,” I tell them. “You need to know this stuff.”

Bikes and burgers     

But those repair sessions serve another purpose: They open doors for conversation. Working on a common project breaks down barriers. It somehow gives students permission to share things that they would never say in the therapeutic setting of an office.

The same can be said for bicycling. Thanks to a previous staff member, biking has become an integral part of our campus ministry. It does more than help students develop patterns of exercise and relieve stress. Some of the most important conversations I’ve had with students—about relationships, vocation and God—have happened on the back roads through the rice fields of Northeast Arkansas.

The helmets are a must, though. After all, a significant part of campus ministry is helping young adults survive their invincibility complex.

Then there are the burgers. Food remains one of the great attractions for college students. As poor as campus ministries generally are, most individual students are more so. Free meals—even burgers cooked on a weather-beaten grill—are an open invitation to non-cafeteria nourishment.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, however, sharing meals is about more than food. Young adults learn who they are through interaction with others. For most of them, community is a fundamental need, a necessary vitamin for a strong identity.

No matter how it may look to the average person on the sidewalk with me, these things I carry have a hidden importance, a purpose beyond the literal. They are trailheads to the path of ministry.

Door to God

There is another thing I carry, one that has been in my possession since the fall of my freshman year in college. It’s a simple wooden cross about the size of a half-dollar, the kind you might find at any craft store. It was a gift from one of my new Wesley Foundation friends, with whom I would form one of the most enduring relationships of my adult life.

I once heard Ruth Haley Barton say that her college friendships were of great importance to her because they were forged at a time when neither held expectations of what benefit that relationship might give them. Friendship for young adults is not about making connections to get ahead. It’s about recognizing and engaging the kindred spirits around them.

Today, the cross my friend gave me reminds me of him, and of other campus ministry friendships that have made such a deep impact on my life. Even though seminary taught me much about being clergy, my time as a student at Wesley was where I learned the most important things about Christian ministry.

I learned what it means to love God by loving my neighbors—mostly because of the way my neighbors loved me.

My theory for campus ministry is that all of life opens a door to God, if only we have the patience and discipline to look. We campus ministers don’t have to push vision initiatives or politick with administrative councils. We just have to pay attention.

The things I carry help me open up space in which God can work. They give me tools I need to create opportunities for students to grow in every aspect of their lives—academic, spiritual, emotional and physical. They make it possible for me to guide and encourage individuals who are waking up to their adult identity in God.

And by providing those opportunities, the tools and toys I ferry across the parking lot enable me to fulfill the vocation I discerned in college as a student in campus ministry. Even though it’s been 20 years since I first set foot on campus, I’m still on a trajectory of growth and service.

The things I carry help carry me forward on that path.

The Rev. Van Meter directs the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at eric@astatewesley.org.

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