My first year as a full-time Campus Minister is over, and now I’m spending the mornings of my first week of summer by going to class for my part-time Masters in Theology. My class is on parables, and during our 5 days of in-person class, we are discussing and exegizing those stories of Jesus from the Gospels.
Sitting in class on the first morning, we dove straight into the Parable of the Sower. Our professor, a delightfully insightful Dominican sister, invited us to consider what we heard new. She wishes we could hear the parables for the first time and set aside the preconceptions we have since these parables are less than new to most of us, and she invites us to share our thoughts before simply feeding us her thoughts. Re-reading this parable, I gravitated to the seed that didn’t take: “Other seed fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. And when the sun rose, it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots.” (Mk 4:5)
Given that my program is a Masters in Biblical Ministry, I read the Bible and undertake this coursework looking for the real-life applications and connections to life, especially ministry. That line jumped out to me because it seemed to capture a lot about the situation I came into this year.
During college, when people would ask me about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to work, I would answer that I didn’t think it was really for me to decide. Heading into a career of campus ministry, I felt like I had to go where there was a need for someone like me. In my first few years, I have been called to Ireland as a volunteer, to California for my first job as a teacher, coach, and minister, and now to Northwest Indiana as a full-time Campus Minister. After talking the talk, now I had to walk the walk of trying to minister when things were a bit tougher.
I came into a school with a new principal, new dean, and a new part-time chaplain (whereas they had barely had one before). I discovered a Region where budding, up-and-coming towns butt up against down-on-their-luck cities trying to sustain themselves, and the “east side” of Chicago that I didn’t know existed. I came to a school where 1 in 5 students pay tuition with a government voucher. And I came to a school that didn’t previously have a full-time Campus Minister, where teachers tended to campus ministries in spare time and students had never gone on overnight retreats.
With the help of a wonderfully capable chaplain and the support of an administration interested in developing a sturdy Catholic identity, Campus Ministry grew a lot in my first year at the school: the inauguration of Kairos, a new overnight Senior Retreat, a Student Ministry Team, pervasive student leadership opportunities, a new Chicago service-learning immersion, and lots of plans for Year Two.
It was largely about creating new opportunities, getting them rolling, and feeling out the student response in order to keep improving things. Along that road there were lots of realizations and obstacles.
Having never been on an overnight retreat, the seniors struggled mightily with attention span and vulnerability. Having never been asked to chaperone more than a day’s field trip, teachers rarely volunteered to come on overnight retreats. Having not had a Student Ministry Team before, students weren’t quite sure what to do. The atmosphere at our Masses was pretty strong, but the religious and spiritual literacy of the community was minimal.
My temptation sometimes was to be frustrated and disillusioned with the shallowness of response, in quantity or quality, to the things I tried. But repetition on retreat breeds comfort; personal invitations yield acceptances; and meeting after meeting developed a team with family camaraderie and real direction. And though I still don’t get everything about the place, my patience and effort were helping me understand how to serve this community.
These are some of the things that led me to think of that soil in the parable. Soil isn’t blamed for its character. Good soil becomes fertile because of its surroundings and the care given to it. Rocky soil results from a poor climate or neglect. If the soil has been rocky in my ministry here so far, it’s not the fault of the people there. Teachers were stretched too thin to do full-scale campus ministries, and the students can’t be expected to create it for themselves.
When I took World Christianity class as an undergrad, we studied Steve Bevan’s models of contextual theology. I recalled these because Bevans used garden and gardener metaphors to explain them. I gravitated most to the “transcendental” model personally. In this model, one shares their faith by keeping their “garden” neat, tidy, and green; then when others see it, they’ll want to emulate that and maybe even talk with the gardener about how to do it.
This is how I approach my personal faith, and it certainly bleeds into my ministry. I don’t necessarily try to preach, convert, or persuade; I just go to Mass, maintain positive relationships, and try to be reflective and prayerful every day. In ministry, I try to do my best with what I can control; I try to plan and coordinate great retreats, recruit and train student leaders, write great prayers to share at gatherings and over the PA, etc.
Though I struggle with the overall impact that I may be having in students’ spiritual lives, in the school on the whole, I feel that if I’m constantly trying to plant new seeds, care for the ones that are growing, and harvest the ones that have blossomed, then people will see and want to be involved.
I can’t reach into the spirits of my students and community members to make the change I hope they’ll realize. However, I can try to cultivate a lush, green garden in my corner of the community and have a blast doing it. Hopefully, I’m loving and serving well enough that people are attracted to the garden and want to help plant seeds, water flowers, and harvest fruit as well build the Kingdom!