When I came to UT as a student in the 1980’s one of the first places I went was the Presbyterian Campus Ministry house. I knew nothing about the ministry, but I was proud of my Presbyterian identity, having been active in my hometown church since I was a child. I wanted to connect with others who identified as Presbyterian to continue my faith journey. Let’s just say I felt less than welcome. The reasons aren’t important. Unwelcome is what I felt and, for a young college student, feeling is reality.
Thankfully my Presbyterian identity was very strong. I began attending and became active in a local Presbyterian congregation who loved and nurtured me, and my spiritual growth continued. When I left UT, however, my view of Presbyterian Campus Ministry was not great. I had seen some of my friends become active in the Baptist Student Union or the Wesley Foundation. I was too Reformed to feel comfortable in those places, but I’m glad my friends found a home there. Other friends of mine just stopped going to church; faith ceased to become part of their identity. In my mind – at the time – Presbyterians had failed at campus ministry. So I didn’t really think much about Presbyterian college ministries for a very long time.
Fast forward 15 years. I was a newly ordained teaching elder in the PC(USA) and in my first call in a suburb of Nashville. About 8 months into my tenure I received a phone call from the Presbyterian Campus Minister at Vanderbilt. He wanted to take me to lunch. Over that lunch he invited me to join the Board of Directors of the Vanderbilt’s PCM. (That’s what they called it back then.) I told him I didn’t have a high regard for the Presbyterian brand of campus ministry. I told him why. His answer echoed the words of Philip in the Gospel of John: “Just come and see.” So I did.
What I found at Vanderbilt was a vibrant community of faith dedicated to being a place of welcome where students could explore and question and doubt and embrace their faith without judgment and without being made to feel like there was only one “right” way to be Presbyterian. It was authentic community. And it worked. It wasn’t big or flashy – that was RUF – but it was genuine, something real, something the students took ownership of. I was hooked.
I got very involved in the ministry. I got to know the students. A year later I was elected to be the Chair of the Board – exactly one month prior to the Campus Minister informing us he had accepted another call. So we formed a search team. And I got more involved, keeping things going until we called another Campus Minister. After her arrival, I stayed involved for the next 8 years, until I moved.
During those 8 years I championed Presbyterian Campus Ministry all over Middle Tennessee. I learned that there were very vibrant Presbyterian Campus Ministries all over the country. I heard stories from alumni of how Presbyterian Campus Ministry had changed their lives. I met many Presbyterian Campus Ministers whose love for Christ and passion for engaging young people where faith and life intersect inspired me to be a better disciple and pastor.
Perhaps most importantly, I became involved with the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at UTK. The congregation I served in Middle Tennessee had, at one point in time, ten students at UTK. Nine of them became involved in the Presbyterian Campus Ministry. Two of them led worship. One of them even lived in the house. Our congregation put money in the budget to support the ministry. Kallie Elliott was the Campus Minister at the time and we had her come preach once a year. Perhaps the best thing, however, was that I learned UKirk@UTK, as it would come to be known during that time, was a place where people were welcomed and loved and encouraged to grow and question and doubt and believe. Whatever my experience was in the 1980’s, that wasn’t the experience of any of the students from my congregation. In fact, it was just the opposite.
I have been active in ministry to college students for my entire 16 years in ministry. After I left Nashville and Vanderbilt, I moved to Sarasota where I was engaged in a ministry to students at New College. When I moved to Abingdon, VA, I worked with students from King College and Emory University. When I moved back to Knoxville a year ago my focus was on healing Second Presbyterian Church. One of my first calls, however, was to Andy Morgan to ask how the congregation and I could help UKirk@UTK.
The college years are such a fragile time for a person’s faith. It’s often the first time we meet people who think and believe differently about the world than we do, the first time we interact with people who come at spirituality and morality and ethics and faith from a completely different direction than we’ve known in the safety of our families and church homes. This is the time we question and doubt and challenge and wonder, and it’s also the time when we are the most open and engaging and unsure of our belief. College students tell me all the time – “My faith is being challenged.” I think the most important thing we can tell them is – “No, it’s your theology that is being challenged. And that’s a good thing.”
You see, I believe college students need a safe place to ask the difficult questions. They need reassurance that it’s not only okay, but normal to get to a point where we don’t just accept things because our mom or dad or pastor tells us it’s so. This is the time when people really figure out, I mean really figure out, what it is they believe and why. So why wouldn’t we want to be involved in that in some way? Why wouldn’t we want to support that whenever and wherever and however we can? If we really mean what we say when a child is baptized and we vow to help them know the love of Jesus, then college is one of the most important times for us to do that.
Even though Presbyterian Campus Ministry wasn’t for me, I have seen it make such a huge, positive difference in the lives of so many in the last 16 years. That’s why I support UKirk@UTK – and still support UKirk in Nashville and at New College and King and Emory – with prayer and financial gifts. I’m asking anyone who reads this to do the same. It doesn’t have to be huge. A few bucks. A few minutes in prayer once a week. Why would you not?
Rev. Tim Reynolds
Teaching Elder and UKirk Board Member
Second Presbyterian Church, Knoxville