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New ministry of presence fosters higher education-church dialogue with gospel


Campus chaplain, the Rev. Shirley Bowen explores questions of belief and truth with USM honor students. Fellow panelist, Dr. Paul Nakroshis, offers his perspectives as a physicist and Zen Buddhist.  

The Rev. Shirley Bowen prepares to greet students at the student activity fair last fall.  
As the Rev. Shirley Bowen looked out at her audience in the Student Center of the University of Southern Maine one day in late February, it occurred to her that sometimes reality and vision come together in ways that are hard to foresee. 

What had started several years before as a grassroots desire by Maine Episcopalians to establish a chaplaincy presence on the state’s campuses and to engage colleges and universities in dialogue about the Gospel, was going to happen in about five minutes.  And she was at the center of it all.

Bowen has served since September, both as the campus missioner for the Diocese of Maine and as Episcopal chaplain at USM, a position created from the funding of the diocese’s recently concluded $3 million One in Christ Campaign and a two-year grant from the Episcopal Church’s New Initiatives Fund from the Office of Young Adults and Higher Education.

Three years ago, when Bishop Chilton Knudsen and the One in Christ leaders worked to  determine which mission priorities would bubble to the top of the “wish list,”  it immediately became clear that Episcopalians in Maine placed a high value on the startup of campus ministry efforts. 

“We were not spending any money or dedicating any clergy time or lay leader time to an official ministry presence on our campuses,” Knudsen said.  “I envisioned a chaplain gifted with ministry with this age group gathering a group of students, talking about the important issues of their lives; wrestling with them about the moral dilemmas of life in a complicated, post-modern world; struggling with them about issues of world peace, of global reconciliation, of economic justice … and doing that in the context of their faith.”
Others in the diocese agreed. 

The Rev. Roy Partridge, assistant professor of sociology and Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and a priest in the diocese, knows firsthand about the value of college chaplaincy.

“I support campus ministry because I’ve seen what the absence of it does.  It leaves students, particularly those students who already have some sense of their spiritual life, at a loss to figure out how to live those lives on a campus like this,” he explained. “Students just need a place to go to share their thoughts, their struggles, their concerns.  Counseling does it for some students, but to have another avenue open to students is really, really important.”

Meanwhile, Bowen was on her own journey.  A long-time member of Christ Church in the small southern Maine city of Biddeford, she completed her seminary training while working full-time as the associate dean of students at the University of New England. 

A comprehensive campus ministry

As the money was being raised to fund a Maine chaplaincy, the vision for campus ministry was being crafted.

In December, when Bowen was ordained to the priesthood and celebrated her new ministry among college students, the Rev. Douglas Fenton, staff officer for the national church’s Young Adult and Higher Education Ministries, was present.  Commenting on the vision that Maine brought to the granting process, Fenton said, “The Diocese of Maine, bar none, had the most comprehensive and well-articulated rationale for campus ministry: To engage both the institution of higher education with the institution of the church in a dialogue with the gospel and to include all constituent groups.

“It is a formidable task, but the service on Dec. 10 to celebrate this new ministry reminded each of us that the next generation is the responsibility of all of God’s people. Many voices were lifted up in support of the ministry. Maine’s institutions of higher education and their students will be well served.” 

In late February, after a mere six months of a “ministry of presence” among the students and staff at USM, Bowen sat beside a physicist-Zen Buddhist on a two-person panel modeled after National Public Radio’s This I Believe program.  Before a group of honor students and members of the public, they would attempt to answer the questions “How do we find truth?” and “How do we recognize truth?” 

For Bowen, the invitation to sit on this panel, to assist in supporting students in the wake of another student’s death, to bring a new spirit of collaboration to her work among other campus chaplains – from Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to the Pagan Fellowship – is the convergence of the vision and the reality set in motion years ago. 

Students desperately seeking meaning

The looks on the faces of students as they listen to Bowen talk about truth and faith, the staff member who seeks her out in the cafeteria to talk about a personal problem, the nontraditional student who needs to talk with a wise chaplain about his enlarging worldview – these are the embodiment of a growing ministry that, as Fenton described, engages higher education with the church in the dialogue with the gospel.

But that’s not always an easy job, said Bowen.  “In my years in student affairs, I saw a decline in most students coming from a grounded faith tradition.  I think people of this age are desperately seeking meaning, but many don’t have the vocabulary of faith. “Soon some students and I will begin gathering for regular prayer, reflection, meditation, music,” she said. “Sometimes it takes five years of a ministry of presence to establish a solid ministry.”

With the grassroots support of the people of Maine who value campus ministry, the renewed interest in higher education ministry at the national level and her wide experience with students, approachability and groundedness, Bowen is anxious to make an Episcopal presence felt on the USM campus. Soon she will also begin a ministry of presence at her former campus, the University of New England.  And, over the next few years, as the multiyear pledges and gifts continue to stream in from the One in Christ Campaign, future chaplaincy possibilities will be explored.

“With Shirley’s years of experience working with college students coupled with her giftedness as a pastor, she is well-poised to be an important presence and voice on the USM campus,” Knudsen said.  “Her ministry has the potential to reach students, faculty and staff in ways we are just beginning to glimpse.”