Campus Ministry’s Unwitting Complicity in Systemic Racism

by The Rev. Ken Howard

Community college campus ministry is likely the Church’s biggest blind spot, greatest overlooked missional opportunity, and even worse, a prime example of inadvertent systemic racism and classism. Which means it’s time we started asking ourselves, “Who are we missing?”

Over my 25+ years of ordained ministry, I have observed that as a general rule congregations and judicatories seem to put much more resources into campus ministry at 4-year colleges and universities than they do into 2-year community colleges. Not that campus ministries at 4-year institutions get all that much attention compared to typical congregation-based ministries, mind you. Most clergy seem to view campus ministry as a “junior varsity sport” when it comes to vocations, and those who start there quickly come to see congregation-based ministry as a better career move. The problem is that these types of missed opportunities can help spread institutional racism.

It is challenging to quantify this persistent observation, mostly because of the dearth of research on campus ministry in general, let alone at community colleges. There appears to be only one faith-based study that compares the numbers of campus ministers at 4-year and 2-year institutions:  A National Study on Catholic Campus Ministry 2017, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCB) Secretariat of Catholic Education. (I do acknowledge the difficulty in making valid extrapolations from one study from one denomination, but it’s all we’ve got at present).

The Difference in Pastoral Presence between 4-Year vs. 2-Year Institutions is Huge 

If the Catholic Campus Ministry study is at all representative of the larger Church, the gap between pastoral presence on 4-year institutions and community colleges is stunning: 1 in 4 four-year institutions have a pastoral presence vs. 1 in 60 community colleges. Which means community college students are nearly 150 times less likely to experience campus ministry.

Who Are We Missing?

The Pew Research study, A Rising Share of Undergraduates are From Poor Families, Especially at Less Selective Colleges, clearly demonstrates how our de facto decision to prioritize campus ministry at 4-year institutions over community colleges systematically excludes racial and economic minorities. In other words, how we have unintentionally (or at least not consciously intentionally) extended systemic racism and classism into campus ministry.

(Granted, there are some parachurch organizations that do have a presence on community college campuses – Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ for instance – but these do not represent denominational, judicatory, or congregation-based efforts.)

We are reaching significantly fewer minorities (especially Latinx). Hispanic students make up 24% of the total community college student population vs. 17% at 4-year public institutions and 12% at 4-year private, nonprofit institutions. The exclusion of black college students is smaller but still significant, with 15% attending community colleges and 13% at 4-year institutions. Combine this with the Catholic Bishop’s study’s finding that 86% of campus ministers are white non-Hispanics, and you begin to appreciate the significance of our oversight.

We are reaching significantly fewer poor students. The percentage of poor students we exclude by ignoring community colleges shows an even more stark divide. Fully half (50%) of students at community colleges are at or near the government poverty level, compared to 39% at 4-year public institutions and 27% at 4-year private nonprofit institutions. And judging by the high number of white, non-Hispanic campus ministers and by the amount of financial resources necessary to achieve their level of educational attainment (almost two-thirds have post graduate degrees, according to the USCB study), most college ministers are at a significantly higher socioeconomic status than those they are trying to reach. Yet another disconnect. 

Finally, we are missing opportunities to grow our congregations. While filling our own pews should never be the primary reason for any kind of evangelism, the practical effect of overlooking community college ministry (and inadvertently spreading racism and classism) is fewer students becoming part of our worshipping communities. According to the IPEDS Fall Enrollment Survey, out-of-state students account for a quarter of the student population at 4-year institutions, more than a third at the top 100 institutions, and more than half at many state universities, while at community colleges, by definition, all students are from the local community. These numbers would significantly increase if you included students from outside the area. It’s easy to understand why judicatories might prioritize 4-year institutions. Larger student bodies, with more students living on campus, and more places to hold meetings do make it easier to do campus ministry there. However, because so many of them are from outside the area, relatively few students will have the opportunity or the incentive to form a long-term relationship with a local congregation. In other words, for the vast majority of students we engage, we will be preparing them for a future relationship with someone else’s church. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Planting seeds for the future growth of the larger church is a worthy endeavor. We just need to be realistic in our expectations. And we need to be cautious about how we’re potentially spreading racism and classism.

What should we do? 

First, we need to recognize how our campus ministry priorities may make us unwitting accomplices in systemic racism. 

Second, we need to more research to get a better understanding of the differences in the demography of the student bodies at 4-year institutions and community colleges, the varying issues students are facing, and the potential impact of campus ministry at each. Which means we need to do a lot more research with more broadly representative samples.

Third, we need to be more strategic. Rather than simply going for the “low hanging fruit” presented by larger and more prestigious 4-year institutions and avoiding community colleges because it’s so much more challenging to do “sticky ministry” in a non-residential setting, we need to discern a clearer vision for campus ministry and a clearer understanding of why we are doing it and what we hope to achieve.

On a personal note, my previous congregation started a ministry at our local campus after recognizing the need and the opportunity. So I can certainly affirm that it is a much greater challenge to figure out how to do campus ministry in a non-residential, community college setting, requiring a lot of experimentation. But it was an exciting challenge, and rewarding.

Finally, we need to experiment with new ways of doing campus ministry, particularly at community colleges, which are relatively “virgin” territory. And we need to be willing to learn not just from our success but from our failures, which is not something the Church is very good at.

Doing these things will require a large investment of our resources. Not just financial resources, but discernment, attention, time, and effort. 

But if it’s what God is calling us to do, it will be worth it.

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FaithX is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and Ken’s faith-based consulting practice at FaithX is carried out under an extension of ministry from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.