The PC(USA)’s UKirk Collegiate Ministries director says in an era of isolation, campus ministry is more important than ever
May 4, 2023 by Mike Ferguson
Asked Wednesday about the work that’s making her come alive, the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, executive director of UKirk Campus Ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said it’s that “there are college students on campuses around the country that are craving community.”
“It’s also about their participation in God’s mission of transforming the world,” Norris-Lane told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation during the most recent edition of Leading Theologically, which can be viewed here or here. “There are college students across the country who want to know there is a different way of following Jesus.”
To date, UKirk has 208 campus ministries, a number that’s growing, Norris-Lane said, adding that her conversations with campus pastors indicate “there is a need for campus ministry where all are welcome — those raised Presbyterian … and those raised in other Christian traditions and those experiencing woundedness from the church by telling them they are loved by God, and those who are just curious about what this whole Jesus thing is all about.”
“You’re there to be that phone-a-friend to these ministries,” Hinson-Hasty said, because “none of them are exactly the same.”
The fact is that outside congregational ministry, campus ministry is the oldest in the Presbyterian tradition, dating back nearly three centuries, Norris-Lane said. Why, Hinson-Hasty asked, does campus ministry still matter?
“I think it matters more now than it ever has,” Norris-Lane replied, citing a study indicating just 2 in 10 students will come back to church if they’re not engaged during the ages of 18-25. The level of growth and development in college-age students is second only to those children ages 0-3, she noted.
In addition, “in today’s society, we know young adults are experiencing mental health diagnoses that are at record levels,” Norris-Lane said. “In so many ways, we don’t know how to be community.” On that very day, Norris-Lane said, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and the lack of connection in the country. In his advisory, Murthy laid out a framework for a national strategy to advance social connection, a strategy that has never before been implemented.
“What does it mean for all of us to continue our baptismal vows, to continue to journey with young people as they navigate from adolescence to young adulthood?” Norris-Lane asked. “What does it mean to understand mission and outreach? It’s Matthew 25 in a more expansive way: Who’s hungry? Who’s imprisoned by something? How can we reach out to them as part of mission? What does it mean to do evangelism in a pluralistic world with integrity, trusting the Holy Spirit to move and to be a witness to something that’s expansive and life-giving?”
“What does it mean for us to understand that all young adults are our young adults? That our calling is to pastorally accompany this generation and to listen to their questions?” Norris-Lane asked, adding the question she often hears is, how many students can we expect for 11 o’clock worship? “My answer is often, ‘none, some, I don’t know,’” she told Hinson-Hasty. “The question can become, ‘how many students are we called to have coffee with each week? How many students are we called to pray for by name each week? How many students are we called to text and say, I’m thinking about you. How did your test go?’”
“I feel like collegiate ministry is research and development for the church,” said Hinson-Hasty, himself a former campus minister. “It’s about looking around the corner and saying, ‘It’s not about a building; it’s about a community. It’s about sharing love and engaging authentically. It’s about living into our baptismal vows.’” How, Hinson-Hasty asked, can we strengthen campus ministry?
One way is to have your faith community welcome campus ministry leadership, Norris-Lane said. Another is for faith communities “to look at who your [high school] seniors are, who are going off to college or the world of work or to the military, and ask, ‘How can I pray for you right now?’ Tell them there is something beyond what you have experienced, and you’re going to help them connect there.” Presbyterians can visit the UKirk website to refer a student to campus ministry, Norris-Lane said.
Since campus ministries are locally supported, Norris-Lane suggested considering support for one locally or making a gift to UKirk national. “We want to provide something for campus ministers and for the church to help us all articulate who we are in a way that says, ‘This is what you can expect, and this is what we’re inviting you to. Bring who you are — exactly who you are — and we will journey with you.”
Norris-Lane also briefly discussed UKirk’s national gathering, set for June 13-16 at Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Asked to give a charge or a benediction, Norris-Lane offered both. “Pray for all of our college students, traditional age or nontraditional. Please pray for collegiate ministers and places searching for collegiate ministers right now,” she said. “Pray for our seminarians, that they will remember that God’s Spirit is still working. Pray for me and for UKirk, please.”
“The God of love who began working even before the light of Creation dawned continues to move and work in your life and mine, in the life of the world. No matter what the statistics say, the Holy Spirit is alive and present in every congregation and on every campus, on every street in the country and around the world, especially in the broken places.
“Cling to the fact that God is moving, God is working, God is a god of redemption and restoration, and God is inviting us with our lives and gifts and questions and resources — exactly who we are right now — to catch a vision … God is a god of hope, and hope will break in, maybe through you. The Holy Spirit is as close to you as your very breath and as wise as the whole universe, and we get to participate in the wild and wonderful work of God.”