My first ministry job out of seminary was with The Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO), a campus ministry organization based out of Pittsburgh, PA. I’d just finished a master’s degree in Practical Theology, helped plant a church, and was eager to work full-time in ministry. Just a few weeks before graduation, I was offered a position with the CCO in Philadelphia. The CCO didn’t have a presence in Philly, and I was among their first few hires for the area.
The CCO, like other campus ministry organizations, requires its staff to raise their own financial support for their position. Unlike other campus ministry organizations, however, the CCO partners with local churches to create context out of which campus ministry is undertaken. My position was in partnership with Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church, located in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood.
The church’s location near downtown Philadelphia meant that I had a wide range of colleges with which I could choose to work. Because of my own struggles with integrating faith, the arts, and identity in college, I chose to start a ministry to art students at The University of the Arts (UArts). I didn’t have a campus minister help me work through questions of faith, art, and identity, so I wanted to provide that to students who, like me, might be struggling to fit those pieces together. The CCO and Olivet-Covenant provided me with a great opportunity to do just that.
Over the first three years, I was able to build some great relationships with students at UArts, some of those relationships continue to this day. I struggled, however, to connect the students with my church partner; the two cultures were just so different. Olivet-Covenant was a small church that had seen its prime in the 1920s and 1930s. Post-war migration to the suburbs and a strong sense of nostalgia for the past hindered the church’s ability to reframe her identity in light of shifting neighborhood demographics. When I arrived at the church as the second staff person in 2004, there were about 60 members. My wife and I were the youngest by far. The hope was that I would be able to bridge the gap between the older generation and the missing younger generations. Unfortunately, that task would prove bigger than what I could handle. Many of the students I worked with never came to that church, and those that did often didn’t return.
After my first three years with the CCO, I applied to become the Area Director in charge of staff supervision in Philadelphia. I was excited about the opportunity and thought I would basically be serving as a campus minister to campus ministers. The area had grown from just five of us to over a dozen. My role as Area Director was to supervise and train the campus ministers in my area, and to recruit new staff people for the new positions that our Regional Director developed. Unfortunately, my understanding of the role was wrong. I wasn’t a campus minister to campus ministers, I was a manager. The misunderstanding was my fault. I’d built the position up to be something that it wasn’t. I was also in a place in life where I liked to be needed. The truth of the matter was that when I did my job as Area Director well, my staff didn’t need me. All of those men and women were wonderful campus ministry professionals, and it was an honor to support them in their work. Looking back on it now, knowing better what the role entails, I’d be much better suited for it today than I was then.
The CCO still had a big family feel to it when I worked with them. Though they were based in Pittsburgh, their ministry reach stretched from southern Ohio to upstate New York to Philadelphia, and down into D.C and West Virginia. The staff would gather together for quarterly training events in central Pennsylvania, and annually for a week-long institute in the summer. The biggest event of the year, however, was the Jubilee Conference. Held each February in Pittsburgh, Jubilee is a gathering of nearly 3,000 college students from the CCO’s campus ministries. They come together for a weekend of plenary and breakout sessions on nearly every educational and vocational pursuit imaginable. The CCO’s belief is that because God is already present everywhere, working to redeem everything, God desires Christians to be active in pursuing redemption and reclamation in all spheres of life.
When it was clear that being an Area Director wasn’t going to work out, I started searching for open campus ministry roles with the CCO. There were no open positions in Philadelphia, because I’d filled them all. My colleague in Washington D.C., however, invited me to apply to a couple new positions in her area. One, partnering with a large church in the suburbs, seemed particularly promising. The church was modeled after Andy Stanley’s NorthPoint Community Church in suburban Atlanta, a church with which I was very familiar. I was asked to reach out to nearby George Mason University and develop a small group based college ministry. I took the position and my family and I moved from Philly to Northern Virginia.
I experienced some early success in building a college ministry with students at both George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. As with UArts, my relationship with students from these campuses still continues today. After a brief time in my new role, I was hired to come on staff at the partner church full-time and oversee all the adult small groups. I took the job, and said goodbye to the CCO. In all, I worked for the CCO for five years full-time and another year as an unpaid associate staff member.
Though I loved the work, there were some things that were quite hard. I did not like raising financial support. No matter the strategy or the way it was framed, it was hard. I struggled to raise the full amount of money required of me. The financial stress on my family, with my income being the sole income, was enormous, yet through all of that we never once struggled to put food on the table. We even bought a house and had our second daughter while raising financial support. God was faithful to us during all those years, even if I was faithless. The other tough experience I had was having to fire someone. As hard as that experience was on me, I had no idea how difficult it must be on the person I was letting go. Little did I know, I’d be on the other side of that conversation just a few years later. But that’s another post for another time.