It is a fitting analogy for an Olympic year, but the Rev. Mary Haggard thinks of herself as the second leg of a "spiritual relay team."
Haggard, campus pastor and executive director of the University of Delaware Wesley Foundation, said, "To me, it's like baton passing. The youth leader should be passing the baton to the campus pastor, and we pass that baton to their future pastor."
When young people head to college, churches pray somebody there will nurture their spirits. This is a time where they wrestle with huge questions in life. Part of a campus minister's job is to make sure God is still a big part of the conversation.
One might assume campus ministries would always have to keep up with the latest pop culture trends and incorporate radical ideas for outreach.
That's not always the case, Haggard said. One of the activities most popular with her students is helping the United Methodist Women group with their annual soup fundraiser.
"The students love it because it's literally being in a room full of grandmas. It's adorable! It's not edgy, but often the familiar is what works."
Of course, edgy can be fun, too.
The Rev. Mara Bailey, chaplain at Simpson College in Des Moines, Iowa, hosted a 2015 event she dubbed "Tattoo Spirituality."
"We had some students do henna, invited in a tattoo artist who really embraces the concept of his work as vocation and invited students to share their tattoos and the stories behind them as a way to consider meaningful moments in our lives and how we mark them," Bailey said. "It was a fun night that I would deem very successful!"
"Much of it is just good old-fashioned hospitality," Haggard said. "During freshman move-in, we do a welcoming picnic and a water brigade, passing out bottled water while parents unload the car with everything their freshman owns."
The Rev. Tim Moore, director of Collegiate Ministry Resources and Training at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said it is important that the ministry is designed for a particular place and that the minister is well-suited to that context.
"What makes a ministry endure is continuous assessment, implementation, reassessment and adaptation," he said.
Every report on demographics mentions the rise of the "nones" — those who claim no religious affiliation — and the challenge it presents for churches trying to reach them. Campus pastors are on the frontline to meet that challenge as increasing numbers of millennials identify as "none."
Haggard and her peers have noticed a shift. Activities that used to be big draws aren't attracting the same numbers, so she's adjusted her approach. Their peers, though, may be the biggest factor in reaching unaffiliated students.
"I can invite ‘til I'm blue in the face, but often it's a student inviting their roommate to Bible study that gets more traction with the ‘nones,'" she said.
Moore looks at nones differently.
"Studies indicate that students are not less spiritual, but less institutional," he said. "That means that there is a great opportunity to connect with many students so long as the institution is not the goal, but the tool that supports efforts to connect with students."
The church's focus on recruiting young people to its pews and pulpits is sometimes at odds with its actions, as some conferences have reduced or cut out funding for campus ministry entirely.
"The number-one common factor in clergy under the age of 35 is a positive campus ministry experience," Haggard said. She takes pride that in her nine years of campus ministry in a small annual conference, she's helped six people answer a call to ordained ministry.
"Pennsylvania has the highest number of four-year institutions of any state in the union, and United Methodist campus ministries don't have much of a presence there. That's a problem," she added.
Haggard noted that the Baltimore-Washington Conference has begun appointing campus ministers also to serve as associate pastors of local churches. Some think this will encourage local congregations to collaborate with campus ministry rather than for it to be a separate entity.
What can churches do for campus ministers?
Financial help is always welcome.
"We give a Wesley Study Bible at the end of each student's first year. They're not cheap," Haggard said. "Every summer during band camp, we give freeze pops to the marching band. The water brigade during freshman move-in will pass out 1,500 bottles."
It's also vital that churches forward the names of their students to the campus minister of the colleges they will attend.
"At annual conference, my mantra is always ‘If they're coming to me, please tell me,'" Haggard said.
The Texas Annual Conference is developing an online reporting system to make it easier for churches to timely and securely report their students' information to campus ministers. If successful, this could prove a useful model for other conferences.
One other thing Haggard truly appreciates is a little housekeeping help.
"Students aren't the best at cleaning up after themselves. I've heard of UMW groups who come once a year and make the Wesley Foundation building spic and span, and those campus ministers LOVE them for it."
Higher Education and Ministry offers a number of resources to support campus ministries, including grant programs, trainings, spiritual renewal retreats, consultations and partnerships with annual conferences, colleges and schools.
"We are always wanting to hear from collegiate ministers," Moore said. "The board is creating a general survey with input from campus ministers to help us better respond to the needs of those collegiate ministers."
Unique ministry opportunities
A campus minister encounters young people when they're trying to learn how to be an adult, and that process can be painful. Like all campus ministers, Haggard has seen the good and the bad.
"I've had to take someone who was sexually assaulted to the hospital, and we've had to look for students whose friends were afraid they were contemplating suicide. And relationships, bad break-ups. You name it. But I also get the great stuff: I did four weddings one year for former students."
To emphasize the unique nature of campus ministry, Haggard singled out a program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.
Florida State's Wesley Foundation building stands between sorority row and the freshman women's dorms. On the day sororities announce their pledges, Foundation staff and volunteers set up a tent. As each young woman passes by, she receives a white rose telling her that even if a sorority didn't accept her, she is still a precious child of God.
"One year the campus pastor wondered why all these girls were walking past his building crying," she said. "When he learned it was because they'd just been rejected by a sorority, he realized this is a perfect opportunity for grace. No local church would have the opportunity to know this is a need."
College is an atmosphere full of achievement and expectations, and failure can be devastating. That's where it's good to know a campus pastor is there to provide support without judgment.
"We love on them and care for them and try to be a positive adult in their life while they're in college," Haggard said. "We don't grade them on anything. If you bombed on that paper, you can still come to Bible study."
Joey Butler is a multimedia producer/editor at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, September–October, 2017.