college ministry leaders worth knowing

Yesterday, I highlighted the upcoming Ascent conference, but I promised to dive a little deeper today. Anybody interested in the field of Collegiate Ministry should definitely be aware of Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church – and its “offspring,” the Ascent Network.

university pres & mike gaffney

As I wrote in Reaching the Campus Tribes,

“It might surprise some that the century-old University Presbyterian Church in Seattle probably has the most influential church-based college ministry in the nation. UPC ministers to hundreds of students in a weekly study called “The Inn,” involves a large number of adult church members, and connects likeminded college ministries through the national Ascent Network.” (page 39)

The historic influence of UPC has come through not only impacting University of Washington students for a century (longevity matters!), but also because the ministry has produced ministers. One of those former students is Mike Gaffney, who has gone on to become one of the best-respected leaders and speakers in college ministry, both among those serving on campuses and in churches.

But for the specific branch of church-based college ministry, Gaffney is unparalleled. His wisdom on church college ministry is borne from a couple of decades in the trenches of that branch. Before returning to his alma mater to lead the college ministry of University Pres in Seattle for 13 years, Gaffney started The Annex, the college ministry of First Pres Boulder. (It’s now among the very largest college ministries – of any kind – in the nation.)

A big part of the DNA of UPC (and something championed well by Gaffney) is helping connect adult volunteers with college students – a goal many in church-based college ministry have found to be elusive.

the network

While I was well aware of Mike Gaffney and UPC’s reputations when I began my yearlong trip, I was less familiar with their informal network of (mostly) church college ministries, the Ascent Network. But as I have now told many times, my ignorance was remedied as I traveled up the California coast.

During the second semester of my yearlong trip, I kept running into well-developed college ministries at Evangelical churches – in Bel Air (led at the time by my buddy Rhett Smith), in Malibu, near Stanford (that church is pastored by John Ortberg), and in Seattle. Soon enough, I would also encounter an Ascent Network campus-based ministry in Pullman, Washington, as well as The Annex (described above).

What I often found was these ministries had some staff connection back to UPC or to another Ascent Network ministry. I’ve since called this “Embodied Collaboration” – a powerful method of sharing interns and staff throughout a network in a way that strengthens everybody. That’s how the Ascent Network has formed over time; as UPC has produced future college ministers, they’ve fanned out across the country to serve.

But the Ascent Network also seems very open to helping anybody serving in the tricky world of church-based college ministry! Their stated hope is to provide the same kind of support that parachurch campus ministries often have.

So in our fragmented, underdeveloped world of college ministry, I wanted to make sure you knew about these people – and a church that has loved students for a hundred years. It might be a circle worth joining or a conference worth considering; if I was once again leading a church-based college ministry, I’d definitely look into the network… and I’m hoping to make it to this April’s conference.


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