A model in the mountains

By Jeff Brumley

Baptist congregations in western North Carolina and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina are expanding their influence on college campuses just as huge financial and cultural shifts make campus ministries one of the riskiest and most rewarding outreaches in the nation.

The most recent development is now officially underway at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where the Baptist campus minister position, historically financed by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, is now funded through a partnership between the local and state Fellowship groups.

CBFNCPlus, CBFNC and more than 20 congregations in Raleigh are exploring ways to assume the active ministry roles left open at North Carolina State University and other campuses since the state convention changed the way it handles collegiate ministries beginning this year.

This and other changes represent a shift in scope, but not in commitment, said Wanda Kidd, CBFNC coordinator for collegiate ministries since 2007.

“Now in many places we are the Baptist campus ministry, where we were an additional Baptist ministry before,” she said.

It all started last year when the state convention changed its funding allocations to maximize efforts to reach the unchurched, according to reports in the Biblical Recorder, news journal for North Carolina Baptists. That included shifting the focus for campus ministries to congregations, and all nine of its full-time campus ministry positions were eliminated.

The move reflects a national trend of denominations and other religious groups changing the way they do campus ministry, or even getting out of it altogether, said J. Cody Nielsen, president of the National Campus Ministry Association.

The shift is happening across traditions and has mostly to do with money, Nielsen said.

“They are running out of money and pulling things that are not self-sustainable,” he said.

Campus groups can hold fundraisers and appeal for donors but usually cannot pay for themselves monetarily.

“No campus minister ever said ‘there is no value and we need to step away from this,’” Nielsen said. “It was always a funding issue, never a theological issue.”

Feeding the financial difficulty has been a steady decline since the early 1970s in student involvement and leadership in campus religious life, he added.

Campus ministry was born out of the student movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Religious organizations entered into the field to meet student fervor and faith.

“And in the early and mid-20th century there was a real growth in religious identity in America,” and that was also true on university campuses, Nielsen said.

Student religiosity has declined right along with the rest of the nation’s, providing fewer dedicated participants in campus ministry programs.

But that makes this a more important time for institutions to stay involved on campuses, he added.

“We find students more hungry and looking for something deeper than what has been offered over the past two decades,” he said. “And there are more college students today than ever before in college education.”

That’s also been David Stone’s discovery at UNC-Asheville, where he’s been the Baptist campus minister since 2001.

For several years now he’s noticed more students who are not religious or who had negative experiences with church growing up. On campus, it’s less important to be doctrinally correct with students than to be a welcoming spiritual presence for them.

It’s something that college-town churches struggle to provide on their own, Stone said.

Students nowadays also are much more willing to question beliefs and to ask questions on sexuality and faith that few would have dared to ask in earlier generations, Stone said.

“College culture is a very unique culture — it’s like a rite of passage and students are very much for themselves and of themselves and a lot of churches don’t grasp that.”

It’s one of the reasons Stone said he was relieved when Western North Carolina Baptist Fellowship and the state CBF stepped in to continue funding his collegiate ministry. It will function without its original facility but will maintain its openness to all manner of Baptists, other Christians and even non-believers.

“The way I do campus ministry, it’s for everyone,” he said. “There was never a need to have a CBF group because we were just a Baptist group — and in there were Anglicans and Methodists all intermingled.”

What will be new is Stone’s added responsibility of overseeing student ministry interns at other schools in the region, including Western Carolina and Appalachian State universities.

Keeping college ministries — and Stone — was an obvious need since the BSCNC withdrew funding for the position, said Paul Raybon, chairman of the WNCBF coordinating council.

Taking on that responsibility totals about $100,000 a year, which includes the one full-time minister and stipends for the other campus interns, Raybon said in an appeal for funding issued last fall.

Contributors include the WNCBF coordinating council, CBFNC and the Buncombe Baptist Association.

More fundraising is needed but the effort is worth it, Raybon said.

The ministry “is a prime source of future Christian leaders, and it’s where many of our ministers got their initial training,” he said.

At the state level, CBFNC is running its collegiate ministry programs on $48,000 a year, meaning that more creativity and collaborations are going to be required, Kidd said.

Among congregations in Raleigh, conversations are just beginning on how to provide programs at the universities there, she said.

Before, the Fellowship provided resources mostly to augment existing Baptist campus ministries.

“We’ve been active for four or five years now, but this opens the door for us to do much more,” Kidd said.

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