A Legacy of Reaching Students

Brian Musser, Baptist Campus Minister at Drexel University

Recently, Baptist Campus Ministries (BCM) in Pennsylvania and South Jersey (PA/SJ) celebrated a milestone. Robert Turner, the first and only campus ministry director, retired after 29 years of service. In a precedent-setting transition, he passed the responsibilities for campus ministry strategy in the state of PA/SJ over to Stanley Williams. I had the opportunity to talk with each of them about how PA/SJ has tried to multiply the work on campuses and support existing work in the past and what is possible in the future.

I asked Robert how he prioritized where to start new works. He stated that it was a mixture of strategy and what he termed a “Macedonian call.” It was strategic for him to look for ways to get a ministry presence on our 14 state university institutions. However, it was also important for him to be able to respond to churches asking for help to connect with the campus down the street from them. In a few instances, like California University of Pennsylvania and Edinboro University, which are both in the Pennsylvania state university system and have local churches asking for help, strategy and call intersected. But there are other schools, Mansfield University, Bloomsburg University, Slippery Rock University, and East Stroudsburg University, where the strategy is still looking for support in order to come to fruition.

Stanley Williams, a veteran of Baptist Campus Ministry in Philadelphia and Chicago, has a similar list of schools in the region that we need to engage with a new work. Schools like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Melon, where we have had work in the past but are no longer active, and the state schools of Slippery Rock, Kutztown and East Stroudsburg, make his top five list for the entire state. But Stanley also has a list of schools specifically in the Philadelphia region starting with Temple University, the University of the Arts, Rowan University in New Jersey, the Community College of Philadelphia (which has a separate article on this page), and local branches of the Pennsylvania State University system (which is unique from the state university system), Penn State Brandywine, Great Valley and Abington. With approximately 388 different universities, colleges, community colleges and trade school campuses of which 166 are four-year institutions of higher education, Pennsylvania has plenty of possibilities for starting new work and about 750,000 students to reach while doing it.

Robert likes to use a metaphor based on St. Augustine Grass when discussing establishing new work. St. Augustine Grass grows by sending out runners from the original plant. But those runners then form nodes that put down their own roots. Quickly, those runners with their own root system, although still connected to and part of the original plant, can become self-sufficient, send out their own runners, and even send support back to the original plant. New work on campuses has to be rooted in such a way that they develop self-sufficiency, that they can start other new works, and with the possibility that what was once the new work could develop into the anchor for the entire system. Three specific pieces come together to create a place to launch a new work with this kind of potential.

  1. An open door with the university. 

Where can we develop a trusting relationship with a university? On many of these campuses, we will be introducing ourselves for the first time. They will not have any preconceived ideas, positive or negative, about what Baptist Campus Ministry is. They may or may not have a history with any evangelical Christian student ministry. If they do have a history, that history may or may not be one of respect and partnership. Often, we have to earn the trust of the university long before we will be given access to their campus, especially with the high percentage of private institutions in the Northeast.

  1. A viable church to support the worker and the work

Where do we have a viable local church that can support the work and the worker? Baptist Campus Ministries is different than other ways of reaching campuses and students (not necessarily better or worse, but definitely different). One of our prized resources is our local churches. Our connection with Southern Baptists gives us access to over 30,000 local congregations. However, in Pennsylvania and South Jersey we have more campuses (~388) than congregations (~350). When looking at where to start a work, it is vital to look at where we have local congregations and the viability of those congregations being a spiritual support for the campus minister, a ministerial support for the students, and even a financial support for the ministry. Robert highlighted that a lack of viable churches in key spots near the priority campuses was the greatest hurdle to reaching many of the campuses in PA/SJ. In these areas, campus ministry partnering with collegiate church planting is often a recommended option.

  1. A particular type of person(s)

Robert highlights that a person to start a new work in PA/SJ would have to have an intentionally missionary posture on top of all the spiritual and ministry qualifications. They need to be a student of the culture, the context, and the campus. Their heart needs to be teachable. They need to have a passion, not necessarily to start a campus ministry, but to do what it takes to missionally reach a campus. Stanley has a vision to raise up local area ministers from the diverse Christian community that exists in PA/SJ to reach the ever-increasing diversity of students on our campuses. Can you imagine a local team of campus ministers with Korean, Indian, Chinese, Arabic, Ukrainian and Russian, Vietnamese, and West African backgrounds working together to reach students on our campuses? One of our greatest needs is for workers, whether local or not, in the incredible mission field that are the colleges and universities of PA/SJ.

When asked about the potential for strategic partnerships with established ministries to facilitate work on new campuses, Robert had four things to say. It needs to be a two-way street with both sides expecting to be beneficiaries. The established ministry might be sending resources and people, but there is much to learn from those doing new work. Personal relationships need to be the focus.  We need to emphasize students knowing students through ministry trips and experiences. There must be a commitment. These partnerships cannot be about one-time endeavors but must be committed relationships over the long-term. And finally, he imagines there being a process where individuals start with short term trips like Spring Break and Summer trips.  Then they consider spending more time as semester missionaries and year-long internships. Finally, some choose to commit to permanent and relocate to the area of the new work. In a moment of reflection over our recent pandemic experience he wondered how all this might adjust to a Zoom friendly world.

Baptist Campus Ministries in PA/SJ is busy extending our reach into our campuses. Is this a vision you want to partner with? Do you want to help a ministry take root in new soil? We have plenty of room and plenty to do. Do you want to join us?

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