To date, I have taken a pass on signing on to any of the various proposals offered to resolve some of the woes of our United Methodist Church. One of the main reasons I have not – which I’ve publicly expressed – is that I don’t know how any future organization of the denomination will involve extension ministries. More to the point, what happens to ministry to college students? I realize that, already, many campus ministries have to spend a significant amount of time raising funds for support, since our general church funding apparatus does not meet all requirements. Still, I want to note the significant implications for a shift in polity, if the feared future unfolds.
Since I make a living in a church related university (and before here in a church related college), I want to make clear that this post has nothing to do with job security. I’m under the bishop’s appointment and I will serve wherever the bishop sends me.
So, where lies my reserve with current proposals? It lies with our polity. The basic unit of The United Methodist Church is still the annual conference. This point has been softened, however, by other BoD language something on the order of, “The primary location (or point of contact) for our mission is the local church.” I don’t have my Book of Discipline available at this moment, so someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is the gist of it. If we separate amicably, what happens to extension ministries, especially church related colleges and universities? If we go with what some people call the local option, then what implications does that option have for extensions ministry?
My main concern here is with college students. The National Center for Education Statistics (here) puts this fall semester’s number at 21 million, 18 million of whom are undergraduates. However, keep in mind that this number does not include all the people “in the process” of going to college. Some people otherwise enrolled may not be enrolled this semester. They “stop out” temporarily for a number of reasons, so the actual number of people in the process of going to college is several million higher. Furthermore, not all those 18 million are of the traditional age range (18-24). About 8 million are over the age of 25. And a bunch of them go to two-year schools, where, for the most part, we don’t even try to reach them. Anybody hanging around a “junior college,” to use old and somewhat pejorative language, knows how difficult developing a community of disciples in that environment can be. But it’s true of college in general. Campus ministries compete for the attention of bright, ambitious young people with about a million other opportunities.
When you think about the roughly 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, one wonders how many United Methodist ministries we find. Not nearly enough. Of the United Methodist related schools, about 400,000 students attend them. That’s a significant number itself, but add in the Wesley Foundations and other campus ministries at non-United Methodist schools and you see a network of mission stations aimed at directly effecting the future!
What would happen to this network in the proposed structural changes?
Unfortunately, it is the exceedingly rare local congregation who has a good sense about its calling to reach college students. Once the kids “graduate” from our youth programs, it’s hit and miss when they get to college. Therefore, unless and until our local churches – particularly those geographically near college campuses, but definitely not limited to them – decide to get serious about campus ministry, I will continue to insist that the annual conference is still the basic unit of the church. And we’d better by golly pay it some attention in all our talking about splitting.
While I’m on the topic, let me admit some obvious and hard realities. College students don’t “pay for themselves.” College ministries cost money and there’s no quick or obvious return on investment. Second, college students are notoriously fickle. If they get involved in a church at all while they’re in college, they shop around and church hop, depending on where their friends are going. That’s if they’re traditional, residential college students. It could also be that they’re having to work like dogs while they’re in school and they’re working on Sunday mornings. Either way, as a segment of the population, they’re generally not very reliable for helping to maintain the local church’s institutional machinery. Third, even if they do get involved in a church while they’re in college, they likely won’t stay in the area upon graduation (unless they’re in a big metropolitan setting), so some other congregation will get the benefit of the investment, not the college years congregation.
In short, college ministry is long on effort and short on short-term returns. But that’s the point. The cost-benefit metric is not the right measure. We need a long term vision of college ministry. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we don’t really know how effective we’ve been in ministry until we look fifteen or twenty years down the road from the time we had direct involvement. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true.
So, until someone shows me a plan for how whatever the denomination(s) will look like in the future addresses extension ministries, especially college ministries, I’m going to withhold judgment on proposals for structural change. Not because the proposals are not attractive. In certain cases, I think they are. I just don’t see sufficient awareness of the need for ministry to/with college students. And I think that’s a really, really big deal.