The sense of freedom felt by InterVarsity staff and students at Georgetown University this fall is palpable. After being unceremoniously booted off campus a year ago last August, along with five other groups, InterVarsity was later invited back as a whole new relationship was established for Protestant ministries on the Jesuit campus.
Before, InterVarsity always seemed to have to prove itself. Now, says Kevin Offner, who works with the graduate student chapter, “there’s much more of a welcoming spirit and more freedom to be ourselves. We’re an officially recognized group and we’ve earned the right to be here.”
Even though it was a trying experience, Kevin believes it was worth the turmoil. The InterVarsity name is now more prominently posted around campus and InterVarsity has more name recognition. Students and staff know what InterVarsity is about.
Kevin was appointed to the study committee that Georgetown officials set up to investigate last year’s disaffiliation of InterVarsity and five other Protestant groups. So he may have the best perspective of anyone; and he admits that there are still a lot of questions about how it came about.
“They were a little bit embarrassed by all that happened, to be completely honest,” he says of the Georgetown officials that he’s gotten to know a lot better in the past year. The disaffiliation was apparently as much of a surprise to top university administrators as it was to InterVarsity, and they were blind-sided by the negative publicity it generated.
The study committee that was appointed wasn’t just for face-saving, Georgetown administrators clearly wanted to fix the problem. As the committee began to meet there was time set aside for everyone to share their own perspectives. InterVarsity had a lot of support on the committee, even though it was primarily made up of mainline Protestants rather than evangelicals.
It was also clear to Kevin that he and the other InterVarsity staff could have done more to address what was essentially a communication problem. The fact that there was only one meeting each year between InterVarsity staff and the Protestant chaplains didn’t allow much time to build relationships. “We needed to have more meetings to build a sense of collegiality and trust,” he says.
One of the Protestant chaplains who had made the disaffiliation decision ended up resigning. And Kevin was appointed to chair the new committee that oversees Protestant ministry. Each Protestant ministry now has a seat at the table. That includes Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian denominational ministries which recently began working at Georgetown.
“There’s about a dozen of us that meet once a month now,” he says. “We talk about what we’re doing and plan joint activities.” A joint Thanksgiving service will be held in late November. It’s the kind of event that was dreaded in the past because of poor relationships. But now it is eagerly anticipated because planning is done in partnership.
Kevin believes the lesson for other chapters from this experience is to make sure that communication with school officials is as good as it can be. There are sometimes concerns that school officials will have different views about ministry, and may even be antagonistic towards InterVarsity. But establishing a relationship should transcend those concerns.
“The more we can get to know the chaplains and administrators in our universities, and as much as possible work alongside them, the better it will be in the long run,” he says. “And if there is a problem we already know who to talk to.”
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