In my way of looking at things, Campus Ministry is one of the most important aspects of ministry a church can be involved in. Young people on campus are the future of our church, any church, and if we do not stay connected to them we will lose them. There is a statistic that comes up every now and again in Orthodox circles regarding the number of students we lose when they go to college. I have heard that 17% of Orthodox do not return to the church after college. I cannot back that up (like the fact we used to say there were 5 million Orthodox in America no it’s like 1.5 million). But either way, many do not return to the church after college.
Orthodox Christian Fellowship is the Orthodox Churches campus ministry organization. Organized under the Assembly of Bishop, OCF ministers through some 300 local University chapters across the United States and Canada in an attempt to keep Orthodox college students engaged in the Church. I have the honor of representing my Archdiocese as a member of the Board of Directors of OCF.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking before a group of student leaders of OCF. The StudentAdvisory Board is appointed each year and made up of students from all the regions of the County. They come from a variety of backgrounds, although I was surprised that there was only one convert in the room. The Board of Directors deals with the budget and other such items while the SAB focus their energy on the Big Picture of Ministry. And they lead THEIR organization. OCF is led by students for students. And that is the way it should be.
I was asked to come and speak on the topic of the persecuted Church. Much has been in the news recently about persecution in the Middle East and other places and we spoke about the Church that had been in captivity in Eastern Europe under the yoke of Communism. Then I brought it home. I spoke about how we might persecute people in our own church. How we might judge them because they do not do this or they do not do that. I ended by saying that Orthodoxy is a big tent and there is room for all. We love everyone, as Jesus commanded us too, and we welcome all regardless of what ails you. We are all broken and it is the church, the Orthodox Church in its non-juridical way that helps to fix us.
I am so impressed by these future leaders. I was impressed by their willingness to serve in this capacity for no pay and I was impressed by their engagement in the topic. They had some great questions and after my hour was up they asked me to hang around and chat over lunch. I was an wonderful experience and I am proud that I serve on the Board of Directors.
What about the future of campus ministry. As with all things in American Orthodox we are going through growing pains. We represent less than 1% of the US population and I would guess that translates to college campuses. My belief is we need a concerted effort to establish Orthodox parishes outside of college campus across the US. There are places where they do exists already, but there are places where there are none at all.
Drive through any college town. Located within walking distance of the major university and that is the secret “walking distance” there are church of every shape and size. If a church does not exist nearby, a ministry will come on campus and hold services. We need to remember that most college students do not drive and have no way to get to a church they cannot walk too. We need to be intentional about planting church near college campus and choosing clergy who have a heart for campus ministry. It does no good to establish a church near a campus, first of all that does not use English as its Liturgical language, or that has clergy that do not wish to engage college students. This is VITAL to the future of the Church.
If money were no object and I was in charge, too things that most likely will never happen, I would start to establish Orthodox Student Centers, much like the Roman Catholic Newman Centers, on major college campuses around the country. For example, about an hour west of my Church is the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The student population of UMass is about 17,000 (same as the Town of Southbridge with its three Orthodox Churches) and Amherst does not have an Orthodox Church.
According to the Directory of Parishes located on the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops website, the closest Orthodox Church to UMass Amherst is 11.3 miles away, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Holyoke, Massachusetts. (the Church does not even have a webpage! Epic Fail!) The law of averages would say there would be at least 100 Orthodox Students of the 17,000 at UMass. Where are they going to Church? We need an intentionally planted Church, or at least a student center in Amherst, Massachusetts. This is just one example of what I am sure is many.
If we wish to be serious about bringing America to Orthodoxy, if we wish to be serious about growing our Holy Orthodox Church from its minority status to that of a serious player on the American Religious Landscape, then we need to turn our attention to our college campuses and to OCF.
OCF is doing amazing work with the resources it has. OCF is reaching students and keeping them engaged in the Church but, as with everything, we can always do better.
To my fellow clergy, if you live near a college campus are you engaged in campus ministry? Do you ensure that your college age parishioners know where the local church is near where they go to college? When you send them off to college, do you send them with an OCF connect kit? If you answer to any of these questions is no, then you need to ask yourself why! We have an obligation as clergy to ensure our college students are being cared for and that has to be more then just when they come home on breaks.
We are all busy and we have millions of things that we need to do but if we do not spend the time considering the future of the Church we will have much more time on our hands.