Recently someone shared with me the concept of occupation isolation. In American society, we usually receive affirmation about our occupational identity outside of ourselves. This could be through an understood job title like doctor, teacher, pastor; a shared corporate culture such as at Google, University of Cincinnati, or Fidelity; or people seeking out your skills such as a carpenter, a computer specialist, or editor.
However, some jobs just do not fit into categories that people understand or can affirm. Campus ministry is often one of these jobs – a ministry that takes place between two large institutions – the church and the academy. One could say this ministry exists in a liminal space on the threshold of the two groups with which it’s associated.
In my case I am serving outside of the usual model in my church body – which is a pastor leading a church or Bible study near campus. Furthermore, without formal education in ministry, I am not considered a rostered church worker. Even though a group of churches pays my salary, I don’t fit into any category of minister within the larger church body. So, I spend a lot of time explaining to people what I do within the church.
On the other hand, I am seeking to connect with the university – especially within the departments where I have experience and/or am serving servants – English departments, graduate school, international students. In this arena it can even be more difficult to explain my position that exists between the church and the academy. This recently hit home when a paper of mine was accepted for a literature conference this fall. I’ll be giving a paper on pilgrimage as used in the novel Little Women and am excited about this opportunity. However, when I see my name in the midst of other presenters who have university affiliations, I again feel outside of a group.
Except for a few times that students really connect with what I’m doing or supporters send words of encouragement, I feel that I am alone in manufacturing my job. Yes, hopefully within God’s call, but still rather alone in the eyes of the world. When someone comes to an event at which I describe how I spend my time in ministry and then asks me what I do for a living, I cringe inside. I wonder if I should find a job where others know what I’m doing.
Reflecting on the idea of occupation isolation highlights how much our identity within a community matters within our lives. I like to think I’m above this need, but I’m not. Wanting to be known and accepted is not necessarily a bad thing, we were made to live with and among other people. Knowing that isolation is a concern in a job such as campus ministry, I’m now more actively seeking community and ways to define this work – instead of wondering what is wrong with me.
One last thing, there is an element of freedom in having the opportunity to define this ministry outside of normal structures. In this liminal space there is the possibility of reaching others who are on the margins where God is at work in the places in-between.