“There’s a church beyond our church,” one of my colleagues in campus ministry said recently.
She wasn’t talking about other denominations, or denominational structures like dioceses. She was talking about communities of practice within the Episcopal Church that supplement the parish.
As a chaplain, she and I are part of one of these communities, the church-wide Society of Campus Ministers. This network has existed in a casual way for decades, and has recently given itself a name and is working towards some very particular objectives.
One of those objectives is to extend our identity as a community of learning. For years we’ve been getting together every year for a chaplains’ conference, and meeting in provincial and diocesan groups.
Now we’re wondering if we can’t use online learning resources to grow as a learning community. If we can, it’s our ambition to offer the methods we’ve explored and the gifts we’ve discovered to the wider church, so that other “churches beyond our churches” can use them.
We have a non-synchronous distance learning project underway. “Non-synchronous distance learning” is the term of art for web-based classes in which participants don’t need to be in the “virtual classroom” at exactly the same time.
It’s a model that academia is deeply engaged in exploring right now. Everyone from small liberal arts colleges to giant universities is busy upping their ability to offer online learning.
In years to come, more and more students will earn their degrees online, and campus ministers want to know how to meet them there and participate in their education. But to meet them there we first have to get used to being there ourselves.
Meeting together, we identified seven topics that we’d like to explore during the coming academic year. Alongside the very specific things we learn from these classes, we’ll also be learning how to exist as an online community. Which practices help foster communities, and which detract from it? Kyle Oliver at VTS and Tom Ferguson at Bexley Seabury have been incredibly helpful as we think through these questions, and we’re sure that there is a lot more to be discovered as we engage in the work.
Right now we’re looking for instructors. There’s a lot to be learned from the recruitment process itself. It depends, largely, on community—contacting colleagues, letting them know what we’re looking for, having conversations about who the right people are to ask.
And that, in many ways, is how the “church beyond the church” functions. It relies on the structure, the community, the relationships of the parish and the diocese, invites people out of those institutions in order to engage in a specific purpose, and then asks them to return to those institutions with new knowledge and insight.
We all become a little like missionaries sent off to foreign lands—like Paul and Barnabas, who understood that their mission was most valid when it managed to convey their new discoveries and theological understandings back home to Jerusalem.
We have great instructors for four of our courses, but are still looking for people to teach the other three. Information about time commitments, expectations, and resources is available by contacting me. We’ll be publishing a course catalog soon. Watch for it, and sign-up for classes, at the Society of Campus Ministers website, societyofcampusministers.org.
The Rev. Karl Stevens is Missioner for Campus Ministry in the Diocese of Southern Ohio.