ASHEVILLE, N.C. (ABP) — August brought a lot of the same for college minister Tim Willis. Same campus. Same students. Same mission. But there was one major difference – a new job and a new ministry venture.
After 18 years as Baptist campus minister for Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., Willis left to become minister of students and singles at First Baptist Church of Clemson, where he led students to begin the Cooperative Student Fellowship, one of the first Cooperative Baptist Fellowship collegiate groups in the nation.
Willis told college ministers and workers about his ministry transition Feb. 24 during a workshop at the Current retreat in Asheville, N.C.
An employee of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, Willis found it difficult to work with integrity when his personal beliefs differed from those of his employer. “I was always pushing the envelope and that became more difficult,” he said.
First Baptist Church of Clemson wanted to launch a new group more aligned with the Fellowship, and it approached Willis about joining its staff. The church had a long history of campus ministry at Clemson, having partnered for decades with the state convention to support a Baptist student group. They helped build the Baptist Student Union ministry center.
Much of Willis' former student leadership team accepted his invitation to launch a new ministry. “I told them, ‘If you want to be a part of a new venture, we're going to make this up as we go along,'” he said. And more students followed, with an average of 60 coming to Thursday night dinner and a creative worship at the church. “The group just took off,” Willis said.
The Cooperative Student Fellowship became a recognized campus organization Oct. 1, as is the requirement at most colleges, and it is setting precedent for a CBF presence to launch at other schools. Willis said a group is forming at Furman University in nearby Greenville, S.C. “I think [Willis] kicked the door open,” said Mike Young of Tullahoma, Tenn.
Not all campuses have to launch a separate ministry, said Ryan Clark, former college minister and assistant director of admissions for McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. If partnership with an existing religious campus organization is possible, churches should work with that group instead of competing with it, he said.
Those gathered suggested that college ministry would be better as local-church based instead of denominationally controlled. While college ministry can take a lot of time and money, it is necessary, Clark said. “We need churches to minister to college students so we don't lose them,” he said.
Developing a new college ministry can be daunting, but having even two college events a year can be the groundwork for the future, the ministers said. “Start small and do what you do really well,” said Tammy Abee Blom, associate coordinator for leadership development at Tennessee CBF.
College ministry varies greatly according to local student demographics and culture. Some college ministers can't get students to Sunday school, while Sunday school is the largest event for other ministers. “Numbers attract numbers,” said David McDurham, college minister at First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas.
Staff longevity is also a key to growing an established college ministry. “The longer you're there, the longer high school seniors know there's something for them,” McDurham said.