Campus Ministry

Stepping into Fundraising and Finding God’s Refuge

IMG023Hear my cry, O God,
listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy.
– Psalm 61:2-3

These past months have been a real challenge as I raise financial support to serve with InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty ministry in Cincinnati. Asking people for money is not a natural gift.

However, I’m told it’s not about asking for money, it’s asking people to partner in ministry. A ministry that I and many others want to see thrive and in which I see God’s hand at work Also, in reality, I’m not the one raising support, God as always, is the ultimate provider.

While one part of my brain assents to these idea, the materially conditioned part of my brain becomes overwhelmed with the numerical goal and what it’s likely to take to reach it. So many letters, e-mails, phone calls, meetings, . . .

In this world I waiver between two extremes. First, trust God fully that the support will come. Sounds good, and it’s biblical. But, sometimes I use this as an excuse to sit back and wait – excusing myself from any role in this work. Or, second, do the work and trust myself In this mode I find myself worried about not reaching the goal and trying to figure out ways to convince people to give. It feels awful.

Slowly (painfully slowly), I’m learning to trust that God is at work in raising this support as I step out to share about the ministry. In this stepping out, I see how God is working and, more importantly, how his Word is changing me. Sometimes I fall flat on my face, sometimes I feel rejected. Other times I’m surprised at the interest people have and their faithfulness in walking in God’s ways whether they decide to offer financial support or not.

Part of the change in my life is a growing awareness of my brokenness. It’s becoming clear that I think and act as if I’m the one in control more than I ever thought. Each week I detail a task list and make plans to complete the work ahead – calls, ministry plans, visits. I don’t even feel worthy of praying until some work is completed and I can show God that I’m diligent and deserve a reward. Once I finish I can then go before God and thank him for the way he followed through on my plans. As you can see, all the emphasis is on me.

Eventually, I find myself crying out in frustration and weariness. Retuning to God with my head bent low and hands held out as a beggar. As one who cannot do this work, or any, on her own. As he then lifts me to the “rock higher than I” I am open to hearing words like Paul’s”

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. – 2 Cor 9:8

God’s grace will provide the needs for every good work – those works God prepared in advance for us (Eph 2). However, those needs may not be what I see as the needs. So all I can do is step out and embrace the sufficiency and the work that God provides.

Through these days and weeks ahead I know I’ll continue making mistakes. Even so, I pray that each step will be towards God who will lead me to His refuge instead of towards a refuge and path I design myself.

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The Weight of Mid-Terms

It’s mid-term again – more than half way through the fall semester at the University of Cincinnati.  Really.  With a change from quarters to semesters I had a false sense that we had an endless amount of time.  But now the mid-term is upon us and it’s time to reflect on what I have finished, and what is before me.

This semester I have had more contact with individual students.  Whether it’s at some of the planned activities or in one-on-one conversations, there is a longer list of connections than in past years.  Yet, as I look at this list I am also anxious about how to strengthen these relationships – especially mentoring/discipling relationships that help individuals draw closer to Christ.  My MO is often just let come what may and then respond.  But there is also something to be said about planning to meet and study scripture with students.  By this time I had wanted to have 4 small groups going.  Well one is.  But I haven’t done much with the others.  Perhaps a 4 week study to get things going for 2 groups?

I have also put off setting up the registered student organization – and the deadline is November 15.  Okay, so this week we’ll get the frame build and then ask students to fill it in the next week.  Nothing like a deadline.  As part of this task I also want to invite students to lead, even in small ways.  To take on ownership of small parts of the groups.

And then there are the larger events ahead – pumpkin carving, an international meal, giving a paper at the SAMLA, attending new staff training, and then all the Christmas stuff.  It’s piling up.  A month ago I thought I had all the time in the world to finish everything.  Now everything is upon me and time – well it’s quite limited.

It’s difficult to write out of a place of giving and grace when I feel so tied up and always behind.  I want to talk of others, make connections with community, go on pilgrimage, and stop this uber-individualism, but I don’t feel I can.  There’s so much I need to do and for which I am responsible to other people.

Often I don’t get to the new things because the backlog of the old keeps weighing on me.  I have to finish the previous work before getting to the new.  At least that’s what my adult self seems to be saying.  After I finish the work, then I can play.  It seems like I will never get to the new, even if that new is just planning for next semester.

Then I see a sunrise as I drive in to work.  A brilliant red blaze.  This is a new morning.  I can grasp Christ, even if my world doesn’t seem to be falling into place.  Perhaps after seeing, really seeing, enough sunrises, I will turn around and get on with the new and leave behind some of the heavy tasks.  I also know that finals are ahead when all this hurrying will be over for a semester.  There will be time to breathe more freely.  Maybe even to see the life that existed in the midst of mid-terms.


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Occupation Isolation in Campus Ministry

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.

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Does Prayer Count If it’s on Your To-do List?

Yesterday I was driving down the highway to work thinking about the things on my to-do list.  It didn’t seem that everything would fit into the hours before me, so I turned on the classical music station and started praying.  Not for God’s guidance in prioritizing my time, but because this was one of the items I needed to finish.

Maybe it would have been better to wait until I got to campus, shut my office door, and quietly prayed.  But I was already running late for a weekly Bible study with students and the rest of my day was scheduled.  So there I was praying on I-75.

But does this really count?  I wasn’t in the quiet of a church or felt particularly drawn by God’s spirit. I didn’t feel especially holy.  But I was praying.  Remembering students I’ve talked with over the past week, reflecting on the Bible passage I read in the morning, and being honest about my own failings – like praying at that moment in order to cross out an item on my task list.  And then when it’s crossed off, is that it for the day?

Some days that is the extent of my intentional praying as I get so wrapped up in other activities.  But many times, because it is on my task list, I will make a point to pray between student meetings.  Every so often I even shut my door and pray the hours or just take time to be silent.

As I read the biblical admonitions to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17) and to ‘seek God’s face’ (Psalm 105) – images of a calm and focused prayer life enter my mind.  A life in which I make time to engage with God throughout the day without having to be prodded to remember.  However, that’s not reality for me at this time.  Thus, prayer remains on the list so it can remain on my mind.


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The Serious Matter of Play

Play.  How does it to connect to following Jesus or to graduate school?  Both are serious matters, right?  We don’t want to mess up with either, so play should be the last thing on our minds.  Or should it?

UC Christian Grads started their series of monthly table talks with a conversation on this topic.  Not because I play well and have a lot of wisdom to share, but because I’m pretty bad at it.  I’m often putting off seeing a movie, contacting friends, or just taking time to rest and read because work needs to be finished.  It turns out that several people around the table also admitted to not often including play in their lives – or feeling guilty because of it.

Our jumping off point of discussion was David Naugle’s short essay on “A Serious Theology of Play” along with Marilyn Chandler McIntyre’s chapter on play in the book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  Both writers explore how play is a natural part of life.  We see it in God’s act of creation, in the actions of children, the practices of Sabbath and festivals, and even Jesus’ lifestyle.

Throughout the conversation we attempted to define what play is – does it have to be separate from work, does it need to include a purpose?   Or, maybe play is play because there is no end goal?  We also mentioned how play can be and is abused in society as it becomes a cathartic event following pressured work patterns.  Anything is acceptable as long as that steam is let off.  Of course, students mentioned how difficult it is to play in the world of the academy – though some did see part of their work as play.  In the end, everyone affirmed that play and some type of rest is a vital part of life’s rhythm.  Though, because it can be difficult to practice, several students  affirmed that it’s necessity to plan time for play and rest.

Looking back on it, this conversation was its own form of play.  Sitting around, enjoying a meal, and relishing community, it was an evening to rest after a week of work.  It was also a place at which participants could trust one another and throw out ideas without the fear of needing to be right.

As we closed we shared what we were looking forward to this weekend and then read Psalm 98 together – providing yet more images of play within creation.  Without formal prompting many in the group even planned a time of play for the following day – frisbee golf and walking in a local park.

Naugle ends his essay stating

“If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognized aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsches of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.”

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that UCCG danced that evening, recognizing and sharing in the life of a God who does the same – and it was a real joy.

Where and how do you play?  Is it part of following Christ?


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A New Year, a New Anxiety

Last year a week after the term began I was anxious because not many new students had attended welcome week activities.  A few here and there, but not the level that brought the possibility of building the groups with new participants.  I was deflated and kept wondering how to draw in people.

My strategic planning hat was on and I have to admit my focus was not so much on Christ or the students, as it was on having large enough groups so that it looked like my work was succeeding.  “I” was definitely too much of the focus.

Now, a year later, I am anxious again.  This time not because of too few students, but because of the many new students that I met last week – and their excitement in ministry. Part of me wants to celebrate and can’t wait to share these attendance numbers with others.  But then I stop.  Too much of me once again.

Prayers for missional students – students who may be interested in seeing God’s mission come to life on campus – and for students looking for community have been going up all summer.  Now it looks like God has provided.  Now what do I do?  In some ways getting students to an initial event is the easy part – as long as the information gets out.  Building relationships and involving them in the community is more difficult.

I’m going to have to step back from seeking to control and find ways to invite students in so that together we are in God’s ministry together.  Over the next weeks I think I’ll be spending time in one-on-one conversations, meeting students at coffee shops, and praying.  No longer can I just stand and observe how an event is going, how people are connecting, and how to do better next time.  I’ve got to go deeper.  It’s time to see where God is going with this.


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Holy Exhaustion

Days of new activities, students, planning can take a toll.  Starting with a midnight pancake breakfast and ending over a week later with a tour of Cincinnati – and with open houses, dinners, and meetings in between – outreaching to students in campus ministry is exhausting.  All I want to do is crawl in bed or curl up with a book.  But I must keep going during these first weeks so that students are aware of the ministry.

This isn’t easy when so many other things are vying for their attention – moving into dorms, finding their way to classes, buying books, wondering how their professors will grade, landing a job, preparing to teach, hanging out with friends.  Why would campus ministry be in the picture at all?  It’s difficult enough to juggle what is required to get that degree.  So, it appears the exhaustion is not only on my part.

Maybe there’s a way to connect with this mutual feeling.  How do we deal with this overload of activity?  Jesus promises that all who labor and are heavy laden will find rest in him (Matthew 11:28).   Exhaustion may bring us to that place where we can’t do anything but rely on God. But what does this look like today?

Campus ministry doesn’t have to be more club to join or responsibility to add to an already full schedule.  (Though, I will admit, many times it can feel like it and it’s tempting to call students to such a practice.)  No, such ministry can provide a way to see everything in our lives as a response to God’s grace.

Instead of fighting with the rest of the world to succeed, we can rest with our identity in Jesus. Whether students gather in small groups to pray, for worship, or even over a meal, together we can encourage one another to step out of the practices that are wearing us down and take up others that bring life.  More importantly, we can together look to the cross, the place where God wiped out everything that separates us from him.

Taking time to gather as Christians on campus doesn’t have to be just one more thing.  No, if done well, it points to the One who puts everything else in perspective and ultimately relieves our exhaustion.

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Don’t Let Your Heart Be Troubled

Moments of this campus ministry journey include intense times of planning and executing activities during which I must be ‘on’ for five or more hours – talking with students, leading discussions, giving tours of the house, helping volunteers.  All this while also seeing how I might help students connect with God’s story.  During these times it’s easy to focus on food and games, trying to keeping everyone happy.  Or, to think about how the event is not living up to my expectations.

At 6:30pm this past Tuesday I was discouraged because there was not a line outside of the door ready for our annual international meal.  Some students were inside, but many of these were returning from last year.  The rush of new students didn’t appear.  I was reluctant to begin and almost wanted to apologize.  I had people bring all this food for what?

Then a handful of new students walked in – we prayed and headed to the kitchen to fill our plates.  Several times throughout the evening students came in the front door.  There may not have been a long line to start, but it turns out that these small forays worked better.  I was able to focus on each group for awhile instead of being overwhelmed with a large mass of students at once.  Hmm . . . maybe my expectations needed some rearranging?

Once I was more comfortable with the number of people, I started to be concerned when I realized that I hadn’t really prepared anything to catalyze community.  We had good food and people, but how would individuals connect?  I tried to keep the conversation going in the dining room.  However, the energy that comes when people start building a community didn’t seem to happen.  Fearful that people would start getting up to leave, I started to panic.  I couldn’t force them to stay and interact.

But there might be something that would help.  So, when people started moving to the front room I pulled out Jenga, the block stacking game.  I didn’t know if it would work, but slowly people gathered, started coming together, and laughing.  Don’t get me wrong – we didn’t end up with life-long friends talking about the deep mysteries of God that evening.  Yet, a sense of community started and hopefully several of these students will continue on their journeys us in the coming weeks.

Both of these moments were reminders of not letting my heart be troubled – John 14:1, 27 – in the liminal moments of this ministry.  Not an easy thing to do, but these words of Jesus to his disciples could be my mantra during the coming year.  Also, as I look to build community within the group I need to remember that it won’t just happen.  On this journey, there will be moments during which I’ll need to facilitate interaction and not just expect it.  God even had his ways – a burning bush, a ladder with angels, questions.

Could get interesting . . .

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God in the Busyness

So, last week was one of the growing task list – and it has bled over to this week.  Contact students, buy food, send out a prayer update.  Then I look at the actual time I have and it seems a pittance.  Another day to just get through, or is it?  On one of my many phone calls yesterday I asked the person on the other end how their summer had been and we had a conversation beyond setting up meals.  It made the difference.  For even a brief moment there was a glimpse of God in relationship.

To combat the tendency to just get through the day I intended to start each hour with a prayer using Luther’s writings on the Psalms.  Here was a small way I could slow down to remember the story and see myself as part of it – becoming aware of where God is connecting with me.  As I did this I hoped that I would start seeing the many tasks not as work to get through, but opportunities to connect with God.  I can’t say I kept this up perfectly, but after I read a few psalms I returned to my work with a different attitude.

I started cleaning the house thinking of the students who would show up.  Dusting, straightening, and putting away dishes in the newly remodeled kitchen.  I wanted to prepare a place where students would feel comfortable and inspired.  Yet, also a place that would challenge them.  A place where they can rest from the busyness in their lives.

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(not) connecting with God’s Word

So the vision for Concordia Campus Ministries is connecting with God’s Word in the world.  Great and catchy phrase.  However, even before school began I was ignoring it.  Instead I was connecting with my planning and task lists.  One more call to make, meal host to find, student to contact.  Then there were the rooms to clean, posters to make, and website to set up.  And each day the list grew.  This was my connection to ministry.  Once I completed it, then I could get to the God thing.

As I waited to get responses from e-mails I became quite tense.  Don’t they, doesn’t God know that I need this response to effectively plan.  In reality much of this work related to my my looking good in ministry, having success, being ready.  But what about God?  Two weeks ago as I was worrying about not getting responses back from some students, a visiting scholar I hadn’t seen for months walked in with a couple new to the area.  I wasn’t ready.  But God was.  I almost didn’t know what to do because my mind was so focused on all this other work.  However, I sat down and talked with them – and again realized that the priorities I actually focus on often leave out true connections with God.

I just finished reading Hunter’s Horn by Harriet Arnow.  In this story set in eastern Kentucky during the 1940s, a man focuses so much on catching a fox – the King Devil – that he loses sight of other priorities.  His daughter has only a ragged dress to wear and he has no money to send her to high school.  He sells the family’s meat one winter so he could purchase pedigreed hounds.  I want to yell at this character, pointing out his narrow vision.  Yet, I quickly see how I can get caught in a similar hunt.

At times I am chasing after accolades in ministry – praise from others and numbers at events.  I wonder what people will think and how they will respond.  As I do this I become blinded to opportunities where God is at work.  Looking back all I can do now is ask for forgiveness and repent.  Turn and look to God.  Perhaps these failings – and subsequent turnings – are the real connection with God’s Word.  The real thing I can share with students.  Seeing my worthlessness and turning to the one who is worthy.

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