Methodism reimagined: Believe in Methodist campus ministry

July 19th, 2022

As we look ahead to reimagine Methodist identity into the future, given the realities of uncertainty and confusion—as well as new possibilities for purpose, belonging, and growth—and given the deep impacts of the last two years on church life more broadly, MinistryMatters is committed to helping you imagine a church called to be God’s future in the present.

To help our readers imagine that, we are asking leading pastors, thinkers, and teachers in our denomination to reflect on their own journey in and through this time of uncertainty.
In this ongoing series called "Methodism Reimagined," we are sharing the tools, practices, and perspectives that pastors are using right now to help them and their congregation move forward into a future that is bigger than the past.

In this article, Rev. Dr. Gerald Liu shares how his new role supporting campus ministries with GBHEM has given him perspective and hope for United Methodism's future - a future that also reflects the richness of our past.

I’m Gerald Liu, an ordained elder from the Mississippi Annual Conference. I just finished a year as Director of Collegiate Ministries, Initiatives, and Belonging for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry [GBHEM] of The United Methodist Church.

Before, I was a professor of worship and preaching for almost a decade. The institution where I first taught sold its campus within a couple of years after I concluded my fellowship year there. At a more recent and equally storied school, unprecedented circumstances led to the end of my professorial career. I could name more setbacks, but the bookends here show plainly enough why I am committed to praying and ministering for a better future.

Attrition has plagued my pastoral experience, too. My last appointment, or “stationing” as the British Methodists call it, was in 2007. It comprised of 4 and then 3 congregations in Nottingham, England. Yes, Nottingham, like Robin Hood! (There is a Sherwood Forest and a castle.) At the time, the Methodist Church of Great Britain recruited recent seminary graduate to fill a shortage of British Methodist ministers. 

Anyone familiar with British Methodism knows that the tradition navigates perilous terrain. The churches under my care shrank because one was closing as I arrived. Now, the remaining congregations have consolidated into a single sanctuary. In 2019, British Methodism lost 6,000 members, bringing its current membership to approximately 164,000. United Methodists are about 37 times larger in the U.S. Still, the 6 million United Methodists in the United States are less than half as large as when we began in 1968. We started with 14 million. While in Britain, I thought that the decline there would never touch the shores of the United States. I was wrong. 50% over 50 years is a big drop.

I still regularly preach, lead worship, and teach as a guest, or “itinerantly,” to use our familiar Methodist terms. Yet even in my current role at GBHEM, the struggles facing United Methodism are more than facts and figures. GBHEM sold its building in the summer of 2021 just before my hiring. A secular university founded as a Methodist Bible College bought it. GBHEM also cut its staff and budget in ways that left an office of formerly 6 persons operating with only one: me. 

My candor is not meant to read like an exposé or a lament. My career twists and turns are “first-world” ministerial problems. But they still convey the fact that at multiple levels of Methodist ministry – local church service, theological education, and denominational support – I have never known what it is like to minister or teach in “good times.” Individual accomplishments have not shielded me from facing Methodist withering directly. To put it another way, the institutional trauma unmooring the United Methodist tradition as I have known it did not begin with a pandemic or our current era of social upheaval. It has roots in ineffective attention and action toward living into visions like Revelation 7:9-10. It has riddled every step of my vocation and nearly every arena where denominational work takes place.

So, what can be done? As you may know or might be able to infer, the “Ministry” wing of GBHEM assists with multiple dimensions related to training and empowering ordained, licensed, chaplaincy, and lay ministry. The “Higher Education” wing of United Methodist supports ecologies of learning such as our United Methodist-affiliated schools, colleges, and universities that number just north of 100. 

Allow me to expound upon the potential of higher education and campus ministry because my work resides there. 

United Methodist Higher Education traverses the United States and its territories through multiple registers of higher education. The United Methodist Church supports boarding schools such as The Robinson School in Puerto Rico. It supports a residential 2-year college like Louisburg College in North Carolina, and 4-year institutions such as University of the Pacific in California. It resources Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and freestanding and university-based seminaries such as Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Boston University School of Theology. The reach of GBHEM even extends to campuses such as Universidade Metodista de São Paulo in Brazil, Africa University in Zimbabwe, and numerous locales throughout Europe and Asia.

My role resources campus ministries at our United Methodist-affiliated institutions like the ones just mentioned. It also resources an equally robust connection of Wesley Foundations, and congregation-based and other hybrid and nonprofit models of campus ministry. Think here of campus ministries with significant fundraising components to them, and ministerial contexts involving public and private institutions typically larger than our United Methodist schools and unaffiliated with the church. Rev. Jaycee Salangsang of Oasis Ministry and his work with Filipino students at the University of Nevada Las Vegas or the Korean American Ministry of Rev. Dr. Woo Min Lee at the University of Chicago provide examples. Therefore, numerically, my office endeavors to resource nearly 200 active United Methodist campus ministries. 

Yet with a building sold, with less staff and resources, and with a sober perspective regarding the very real circumstances of Methodist ecclesial and educational work today, the conditions are lean for fruitful campus ministry connected and resourced by GBHEM and United Methodism. The denomination itself also faces an imminent reckoning about human sexuality that further complicates matters. But my hope and strength come from not only God, but also from those still faithfully ministering within Methodism. 

The campus ministers I serve are twice as many as the presidents of Methodist schools, colleges, and universities. They are five times larger than GBHEM, at least 200 times larger than the staff in my office. They are at least a decade younger on average than any United Methodist leader or church member. They could be more diverse. But they are ecumenical and interfaith, and their work sits at the origin point of how Methodism began. The “Holy Club” John and Charles Wesley started at Oxford University in 1729 was a campus ministry. It ignited the Methodist movement. The power of our campus ministers courses from the DNA of all that we know as Methodist. Who’s to say a resurrected Methodist church could not start with them? 

Here, I am thinking of the manifold of food relief provided by United Methodist campus ministries to neighbors but also for students who may not first come to mind with regard to food insecurity – ministries like those led by 2021-22 Francis Asbury Award winner Kenya Lovell of Bethune Cookman and the 700 families fed in Volusia County, Florida by volunteers and donations organized by her.

But I’m also thinking of lesser-known operations such as the Tupelo, Mississippi campus of Itawamba Community College where Zac Cox empowers a handful of student volunteers on a shoestring budget to nourish a couple hundred students in need.

I also see unrelenting hope muscularly exercised through campus ministers such as Jojo Gabuya at the Wesley Foundation of the University of California, Merced. Jojo is a retirement-aged asylum seeker dedicated to helping students find a home during their studies at Merced. Julia Puac-Romero has forged a path as one of the only Latina campus ministers as she begins her appointment at the Wesley Foundation in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Joey Heath, Lindsey Bell-Kerr, and Hannah Bonner champion LGBTQIA+ inclusion from coast to coast in Washington DC, Arizona, and California. Beth Tipton left banking to become a campus ministry intern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Natalie Hill is redefining in-person and digital campus ministry in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I could go on to name ecumenical partners who exhibit the wide reach of United Methodist campus ministry as found in the work of PCUSA campus minister Zoë Garry at NOLA Wesley [Tulane & Loyola of Louisiana], Church of the Brethren Minister, Walt Wiltschek at Illinois Wesleyan University, and Unitarian Universalist Greg McGonigle at Emory University. United Methodist campus ministries beam light across the United States with a wide spectrum and in multiple dimensions. 

So, I scratch my head when Annual Conferences prune campus ministry funding and support. They are cutting at the root of how Methodism began and endangering its future. I have struggled to yield even minute growth in United Methodism. Yet I believe in our campus ministers because their harvest has been and will continue to be greater than mine.

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