A Bit of a Snapshot

Pencil hiigh speedMany pastors in the Yearly Meeting serve on various Yearly Meeting committees, and frankly, I was trying to escape from Yearly Meeting last year without joining any of them. At Yearly Meeting, however, I found out that along with accepting this call I inherited a de facto membership on William Penn’s campus ministry committee. Historically the pastor of College Avenue Friends seems to always have played some sort of role in campus ministry, and I am very comfortable with this as it lines up perfectly with the call God has long placed on my heart. In fact the very reason I wanted to avoid joining a committee was because I wanted to deepen my roots to Oskaloosa Iowa, the people of our community, and of course, to William Penn University. As many of you know, with the cutting of Spencer’s position and the restructuring of the campus ministry committee, people are asking new questions about how the campus ministry program at Penn will continue. Various committee members have taken up certain aspects of campus ministry. Scott Biddle will be involved in various ways. Tom Palmer will continue his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). I felt the Lord put on my heart that I should get involved with coordinating chapel, and Bailey Hupp has been indispensable in helping me learn the ropes of how this is to work.

While on my trip to Oregon, a young woman named Beth from the William Penn Chronicle sought me out to ask what is happening with campus ministry at Penn. Though she will likely pull a few things here and there from what I wrote as she was intending to create her own article, as I reflected on what I wrote for her I couldn’t help but include it in full for my newsletter. Beth’s last question on behalf of the students may well be the question many of us at College Avenue Friends are also wondering about. It seemed fitting that after many meetings and a bit of experience now connecting with students at chapel so far that some kind of update was in order. Beth’s questions helped me put into words a bit about what has happened, what is happening, and perhaps a little bit about what God has in store for campus ministry in the future. These were her questions to me and my responses to them are included below:

1.) What position do you hold within the church?

I am the pastor of the church, however I prefer the title released minister. This title fits better with the Quaker idea of the priesthood of all believers in which everyone has a call to ministry and can serve God in whatever vocation they inhabit. Basically it means I am a minister among ministers…

2.) How do you feel about the termination of the campus minister position, and what direction do you think they will take now that there is no one officially in charge?

I have mixed feelings about the termination of the campus minister position. I consider Spencer to be a close friend and a co-laborer in the work of ministry.  On the one hand I feel that Spencer was very effective in one on one connections with students, and his ministry will be sorely missed. He really invested in the lives of students and in the building up of leaders. I also think he took the school’s mission statement seriously regarding the pursuit of excellence, yet he marched to the beat of a different drum and was seeking that excellence in ways that are not easily quantified or understood. On the other hand, not having one person “in charge” and decentralizing the work of ministry resonates with the Quaker understanding of how ministry should be a shared burden. Many people were understandably upset by the decision, fearing it would eventually lead to the demise of all effective ministry at Penn. There is a danger that this sentiment could in fact turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as hurt feelings replace actual engagement, but I see this not as a step toward “the end” but a step toward a new beginning. There is a great deal of opportunity here to reimagine what campus ministry could look like here at Penn. While a volunteer-led model does lack a bit in efficiency (though not necessarily effectiveness) it really opens up ways for people to get involved, to share together in the work of ministry, and strengthen the historic relationships between WPU and Iowa Yearly Meeting, and of course, College Avenue Friends Church.

It was once common knowledge that College Avenue Friends Church was called into being to serve as a light to William Penn University. Before the days of car travel, Quaker students of old wrote a letter to the Yearly Meeting and to a few country churches asking them to consolidate and build a church near the college so that the students would have a sorely needed place of worship. These students sparked a real change with their request, resulting in the birth of our church. Unfortunately a few short years after the church building was built, the college had a tragic fire which resulted in the death of a faculty member and student who attempted to salvage the academic records inside, only to have the bell tower collapse upon them. When the college rebuilt after this tragedy at its current location, I think the role of College Avenue Friends as a place of student worship was eventually overshadowed by Spencer Chapel. Time and other factors have led to a long stretch of growing apart and a weakening of the vision originally cast by WPU students of a place to worship God they could call home.

If nothing else, the cutting of the campus minister position has pushed us toward reflecting on the relationship between WPU, Iowa Yearly Meeting, and College Avenue Friends Church.  I believe that the desire to rebuild these historic relationships is a divine appointment. Our church had a meeting to discern God’s leading for us in light of the university cabinet’s decision and it seemed clear God was calling us to step out in faith, and in a spirit of love and humility, seek to strengthen our historic role as a light to WPU, impacting its students, faculty, and destiny as God leads. The spirit of unity at that meeting was palpable, and there was a real sense that we should “take the ball and run with it,” making the most of this new opportunity, and rising to face this challenge with the grace and humility it deserves.

Though there is no one person—such as a campus minister—officially and visibly “in charge” at present, that does not mean no one is in charge of campus ministry at Penn. I am a part of the newly restructured Campus Ministry Committee, a group of wonderful folks honestly trying to go forward in this new direction and help make it work. While some are still wounded by the decision itself, we recognize the importance of serving the spiritual needs of the Penn community. This work has always been larger than one person, and as I mentioned earlier this is opening up new opportunities for service. The piece of this I am taking up is the role of chapel coordinator, something I am very excited about. It is a great way to connect to students, though of course many students have to rush off immediately afterward for class. At chapel we are striving to embrace a sense of hospitality, regularly sharing a home cooked meal together as the early church often did. We are shooting for a more interactive approach, seeking ways to grow in depth and authenticity through table fellowship, discussion, and challenging one another to grow and serve in tangible ways.

Many ministries at Penn such as FCA, Intervarsity, sports devotions, and student led bible studies are largely autonomous, free standing entities. It is exciting to see Team Christ—a newly formed student led group—grow and thrive, reaching out to the Penn community in Jesus’ name. The biggest struggle involved in not having a campus minister is that communication and coordination of all these wonderful student led ministries is a real challenge. Good things come from cooperation and collaboration, and this is harder to do without one person acting as a point of connection. The committee is seeking some graduate assistants to take on the role of Spiritual Life Coordinator, connecting and communicating the work of ministry on campus, as well as investing in Religious Life Scholarship students and being available to minister to students, faculty, or staff. A job description has been created and the committee is beginning to promote the position and seek those whom God is leading to serve in this way.

It is hard to see a great deal of fruit presently stemming from the work of our committee. I for one am still learning the context of my small corner of campus ministry involvement and as of yet ways of gauging effectiveness seem elusive. Yet there are real signs of hope on the horizon. The opportunities present in this new work are something of a new testing ground, calling for creativity and collaboration between students, volunteers, and of course, faculty and staff. So many of the seeds we have been sowing will not sprout until next year and beyond, but the framework we have been working on will hopefully serve the spiritual life of WPU for years to come. I for one am excited about what God is up to and bringing forth in this new adventure.

Agape,

James Tower

Released Minister of College Avenue Friends Church and Chapel Coordinator of WPU

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About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. A former atheist trying to find my way as a Quaker minister. A former drop-out trying to find my way through an M. Div program at George Fox. A former addict who, over twelve years ago had a life changing encounter with Jesus that has altered the course of my life forever. I am a creative person called to pastoral ministry, spiritual direction and discipleship. I love "conversations of consequence" with people who are willing to wrestle through the deeper truths and messiness of life. I have found God in my brokenness, and He has shown me how to use that personal knowledge to work toward healing and reconciliation with others. I love the outdoors, camping and recreation, an eclectic blend of music and arts, and creativity in general. I am passionate about expressing my faith in Jesus, and allowing God to transform every area of my life and every decision I make. Together with my wife Liz and daughters Sophie and Greta, we are on a journey to figure out where, when, and how to live out the call God has placed in our hearts. For more about me check out the "about" or "my story" pages. View all posts by jtower11

2 responses to “A Bit of a Snapshot

  • martinkelley

    I sometimes wish Friends Churchrs and Meetings would take to task whether they had some specific collective leading. For a number of years I was part of an urban Philadelphia meeting that attracted large numbers of first-time visitors and new-to-the-city college grads. Many stayed for a few years before careers or life paths took them elsewhere. The result is that many liberal Quaker meetings across the country have members who spent some time at that meeting in their 20s. What if the meeting took it upon itself to be incubator–continual new seeker classes, some sort of nurturance/clearness program, opportunities to teach and use Quaker process techniques. Almost think of itself as a lay seminary. It seems like that could be one of the rolls of Friends Churches situated by Friends Colleges. But it takes work and intentionality.

    • jtower11

      Greetings Martin,
      I believe we are headed this sort of direction, that of being a resource to a transient community. I think our Meeting is an important one especially because it is in a unique position to influence and send back out equipped young adults. The work and intentionality piece of this has been revealing itself in the face of these many transitions and opportunities. I appreciate your encouraging words Martin. Thanks.

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