Recently, the Missouri Annual Conference decided to “shift toward congregationally based ministries with college students,” rather than fund on-campus ministries at colleges and universities across the state. (You can read the resolution here.) My opinion is that this move erodes part of the connection, and moves the conference toward a congregational polity, rather than its distinctive connectional polity. I also believe that it is a move motivated solely by the bottom line – money – and has very little to do with the extravagant, risky, and radical ministry to which Christians are called.
The most common motivation for this move that I have heard is that on-campus ministries cost too much. Wesley Foundations on college campuses are seen by many as wastes of money, or in the gentler language employed these days to smooth over hurt feelings, they are not “bearing good fruit” because the number of students who participate is not commensurate with the resources allocated to them. And to add insult to injury, the Conference is so reluctant to address the issue honestly and openly, the Commission on Higher Education will not even be allowed to make a report at this year’s Annual Conference session, according to a Conference source I spoke with. No chance to grieve, celebrate the many years of good ministry, mourn the loss. In the future, there will be no Commission on Higher Education in the Missouri Annual Conference!
Segue to a story I heard on the NPR program Weekend Edition on Saturday, May 19, 2007. (Listen to it here.) In an interview with retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary Anderson, John Ydstie (say IT-stee) explored the recent kidnapping of three U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Col. Anderson said that every soldier knows that if something happens to him, his buddies are going to come get him or her; no one will be left in the enemy’s control if at all possible. He considers this duty so important he used the word “sacred” to describe it. U.S. soldiers know that they are “not going to be forgotten” and that “[The search] will never be discontinued,” although “…the level of activity may go down” or change focus as circumstances dictate.
Ydstie asked him about the cost, wondering if there ever was a time when the investment of resources in the search would outweigh the dwindling hope of rescuing the prisoners from the enemy. The colonel replied, “It’s not a cost/benefit analysis; it’s, quite as a matter of fact, a moral duty that we feel we have to our troops. Cost at this point and time is I’m sure the farthest thing from the heads of the military commanders that are conducting the operation.”
Of course, sparing no expense to rescue people from the enemy is not only something the military does. Turns out, it is kind of important to Jesus, too. He said, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:4-7)
I hope we have not come to a time when we do a cost/benefit analysis to determine if we ought to go and seek the lost sheep on college campuses in Missouri. Surely there is someone willing still to leave the 99 behind and throw everything into finding the one. U.S. soldiers know that their brothers in arms will not abandon them to the enemy; should not children of God also be able to rest assured that they will be rescued from “the snare of the fowler,” no matter what the cost?
The truth is, I hope that this change in our conference represents a shift in focus rather than just giving up the search. I pray that congregations in college towns will pick up the mission that the conference is dropping. But that’s a hope right now. The reality is a lot of people connected to campus ministries are feeling abandoned by the Missouri Annual Conference. Rather than investing whatever resources it takes to find the one lost sheep, it feels like the Conference is pretty much tending to the ninety-nine.