I spent much of my career until 2007 in campus ministry. I first fell in love with working with college students, faculty, and staff at the University of Montevallo outside Birmingham, beginning in 1982. Even as a pastor in Owensboro, KY, I was involved with higher education as chair of a state campus ministry board. I ended that phase of my ministry in 2007 when my position as Associate Executive for Campus Ministry for our presbytery came to an end due to funding cuts.

Campus ministry has for many years now been a rather peripheral and undervalued work in the Presbyterian Church (USA). We have been painfully slow on the uptake recognizing the special needs, gifts, and characteristics of today’s collegians. For a time, we had no national staff person exclusively devoted to higher education ministry. Fortunately, the 219th General Assembly last year corrected that mistake by re-establishing an office.

Despite that action, my colleague Jerry Beavers complains in the April 9, 2011 blog of the Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministry (PACHEM) that the PC(USA) has “high regard in the abstract and low regard in the tangible for collegiate ministry.” He asks: “When will we take seriously the notion that ministry on campus to college students is a missionary endeavor? When will we start treating campus ministers and chaplains as missionaries and colleges as a mission field?  Campus Ministry is not just an older youth group, able to provide nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, and perhaps a choir member. Campus Ministry is a missionary outreach to a different culture” (emphasis his). Obviously, what happened and happens at the national level did not and does not change the common perception and practice of congregations. Or not yet, anyway.

More recently, The Christian Century noted that mainline churches have had some success in building connections to social movements or even to people of other faiths. But, says the journal, “[a] bridge that has been harder to build is one that connects to a generation born outside the church—young people interested in spirituality but allergic to organized religion.” Echoing and confirming Jerry’s comments in his blog, the article goes on to quote Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She says that young city dwellers have an indigenous culture that requires them to “‘culturally commute’’’ in order to attend most mainline churches (Jesse James DeConto, “Camp Meeting,” August 9, 2011: 13).

My experience with campus ministry over the years has made me hopeful and excited about the gifts and potential of collegians and all emerging adults (that is, ages 18-25), but deeply concerned about the understanding of, and outreach to, them inside and outside the church by congregations and my denomination. To so many churchgoers, I fear, this age group remain lumped in, as Jerry points out, with what a well-meaning but misinformed lady in one of our churches called “our youth.” (She introduced me to someone as “Tom Cheatham; he works with our youth” when I was a campus minister at Mississippi State.) Few will expend the effort even to seek to understand the difference betweeen youth and emerging adults and try to find creative ways of doing ministry in the culture of higher education and postmodern people.

August 14 is Higher Education Sunday across the PC(USA). Whether or not you are a Presbyterian, I encourage you to find out how you can be a part of and support ministries in higher education. There are lots of resources out there both about Millennials and emerging adults. For the latter, the place to go first is www.jeffreyarnett.com/articles.htm, which includes downloads of some materials. Presbyterians can begin to find out about current PC(USA) ministries with http://gamc.pcusa.org/ministries/collegiate . Jerry Beavers’ blog is at http://pachem.blogspot.com .

© 2011 Tom Cheatham


This post is dedicated to my niece Page and nephew Julian, both of whom begin college this month, and to all in the Class of 2013.

"The future of ‘mainline’ Christianity in North America, as well as the future of the university, will be profoundly affected by the way in which Christians, among others, relate to the intellectual project of the West at this crucial juncture in its history (postmodernity)”—(Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith).


This Sunday, August 16th, is Higher Education Sunday across the Presbyterian Church (USA). In this post, I want to offer some practical suggestions for observing the day, my “three R’s” for campus ministry.

First, ritual. Holy Communion and Baptism are both sorely neglected in the PC(USA), despite the call in our standards for frequent Communion (Book of Order W-2.4009) and for remembering the grace of God at work in Baptism (W-2.3009). Yet both sacraments can be a tremendous resource of strength, encouragement, and community building for college students, faculty, and staff. So I long for the day when each congregation located in a university or college town provides a weekly opportunity for receiving Holy Communion. And I would be thrilled if those same congregations would emphasize the call and the comfort of God in Baptism somehow in those same services and in every time of worship. One great way to do this is to offer an ancient/future or a contemporary service on a Sunday or Wednesday evening for students and others. In those times, the community can remember Baptism in some creative way upon entering the sanctuary, then later celebrate together as all come to the Table.

Second, reminders. Let us remember that God is already on campus; we don’t “take” him there nor do we need to “take back” the campus for God. None of us possesses God. The highest heaven cannot contain him; how much less the church, the university, any human construct or institution (see 1 Kings 8:27)! God is already at work on campus in the lives of his people there and by the Spirit in ways both hidden and open in the institution itself. Our task is to discern where and how God is acting and join him!

Let us also recall that our college students are the Church now. Well-meaning people often speak of them as “the future of the Church,” and I try to hear the words of support of campus ministry in such comments. But too often ministry in higher education is seen as a way to grow congregations or ensure new blood for leadership tomorrow. I am firmly convinced that God will not honor such viewpoints. He will give success when we begin to see college students as valuable in their own right, for their ideas, their leadership, and ther commitment now, and give them meaningful opportunities to serve and to bear witness.

We need also to pay attention to faculty and staff. They are living out their baptismal vocation in the college and university. These faithful people are seeking to serve our Lord through their engagement with ideas, their guidance of students, their help with procedures and problems, and in so many other ways. In any celebration of higher education ministry, they need to be remembered. Perhaps they could be commissioned in worship at the start of the school year for their work. (See the Book of Occasional Services.)

Finally, resources. Let me simply point you to some helpful websites, then give a few suggestions about ways individuals can remember college students. To find out more about PC(USA) collegiate ministries, go to http://www.pcusa.org/collegiate/index.htm and also to www.pachem.org (Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministries; some of the resources on this site reguire registration, but that’s free). For a wonderful resource for progressive young adult Christians, visit www.livingthequestions.com and click on “Dream, Think, Be, Do.” Note that this curriculum piece costs about $300. Finally, if you are in a community college town, check out www.listeningpostinc.org, a well-established and respected franchise program that promotes listening among generations.

Or how about these simple ideas? Recruit one or a few interested people in your congregation to keep in touch with students, faculty, and staff, doing things like remembering birthdays or other anniversaries (a parent’s death, for example), sending exam snack bags, and keeping up by Facebook. Establish a program linking students with older folk in the church who can be a local resource for them. And finally, pray for students, faculty, and staff and all who minister with and to them.

I trust these ideas will be helpful to you as you celebrate Higher Education Sunday. It’s my fervent hope and prayer that our Church can recover its vision for ministry in higher education. And that begins with you and me. May God bless our efforts!

© 2009 Tom Cheatham