Ministry Interview: Todd Stewman & Benjie Slaton
Todd Stewman and Benjie Slaton are both campus ministers at the University of Texas at Austin. Todd heads up Campus Crusade at UT and Benjie leads Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). Both ministers attend All Saints, and I sat down with them last week to talk about their ministries, life on campus, and iPhones.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done or said in a large group meeting?
Benjie Slaton: I’ve told a number of embarrassing stories about myself. None that I am particularly eager to repeat.
Todd Stewman: I once sang a bar of “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin from Top Gun with the falsetto and all that. It was part of an illustration. I also showed my senior prom picture. I had this white tux with tails and a cane, a top hat, an aqua bow-tie and cummerbund. I think it was to show students how coolness dies.
TS: Teaching about sex is always awkward; you don’t even really have to explain the imagery of Proverbs 5. I think I also said “my homies” once, a few years ago. That kind of stuff doesn’t fly if you’re over 30.
What led you to campus ministry as a profession, and RUF and Crusade particularly?
BS: I got involved with RUF in college, and made friends
very easily with the people there; I wasn’t making a grand decision
about philosophy of ministry or anything like that. I wanted to be working with the support and accountability
of the church, and work to further the kingdom. I think that
accountability given me the grounding that I needed, coming out fairly
young from seminary. I originally thought that I would end up in
education, but after seminary I realized that I wanted to be teaching
people the Gospel, not a subject, and connect on a more spiritual
level. I really love the demographic approach to ministry; one size
doesn’t fit all, and here we are seeking to meet the needs of UT’s students. That that might not be the same way as another minister on a different
campus approaches his job. The iPhone is important, too.
TS: The iPhone is crucial, for any campus ministry. We both
have Hondas, iPhones, and Bibles. That’s really all you
need, as a campus minister. More seriously though, I had been brought
up in the church, but it was in college that I really began to
understand the Gospel – and that was primarily through Crusade. I didn’t
really seek it out, it just became where I grew spiritually and
socially in college. When I started thinking about my vocation, I
wanted to go into law and the business world. I started thinking
about ministry, but I wasn’t ready to be a pastor or go to seminary. I
always said I liked Campus Crusade, but I could never do it because I
couldn’t raise support.
BS: 18 years later . . .
TS: I went on an men’s project in the summer after college,
and I really identified with the guy leading the project. So, I decided
to be on the Crusade staff for two years. Like Benjie said, it’s now
been 18 years. I’ve stayed with it, partly because I’ve not been
called away from it. I’m not married to Campus Crusade, I just see it
as a vehicle to minister to students. It puts us in the everyday lives
of students. I really believe that students are one of the most
significant audiences. If you think about what happens every day
between Guadalupe and Red River, Dean Keaton and MLK… people come to
that area from all over the world. I really believe UT’s slogan that
what starts here changes the world, for better or worse.
Does the level of diversity make it difficult to minister at UT?
What are some of the benefits and difficulties of working at UT and in
BS: I think the diversity is exciting because it shapes how
we present the message of the Gospel. We can’t get away with teaching
students a Gospel that fits comfortably with one particular culture.
People see through that because it lacks thoughtfulness. There’s a lot
of life in that, but it can make it hard to build a group. An older
Crusade guy said 5 or 6 years ago you could get anyone to come to
anything at UT. It seems to be less and less that way the more diverse
the campus gets.
TS: I think the benefits and difficulties are the same. I
love the diversity, but the diversity can make it challenging, and I
love that too. That appealed to me even when I started college at UT,
and the diversity forced me to own my faith. Being a Christian is a
little bit more black and white here. I remember looking into the
resurrection, because if Jesus raised from the dead, my life belongs to
him. But I wondered if I could believe that without committing
intellectual suicide. The bigness of UT, and the diversity, actually
drives people towards smaller, homogenous groups. There aren’t a lot
of big clubs here, ironically.
BS: The diversity can be frightening to a lot of students, and I think a lot of them gravitate towards people like themselves.
TS: I don’t think people embrace the diversity like they say they do.
BS: Students try to simplify their lives by staying
with their group and that hinders maturity. From the moment students
come to campus they try to insulate themselves.
TS: UT is made up of hundreds of people groups. I can tell
you where the Greek students hang out; I can tell you where the black
students are. Rarely is someone breaking out of that. It’s a
challenge to us in discipleship. Ephesians 2 tells us the dividing
walls have been broken down, and we try to do that. But UT is not a
warm, fuzzy, “we’re glad you’re here” place.
I know that Crusade and RUF emphasize being a part of a church,
but it seems like students would be more likely to remain at the
periphery of the church if they go at all. You’ve explained some of
the reasons people don’t commit to things and how these divisions we
perceive are really artificial. So, 1) how are you encouraging
students to do commit to the church, and 2) what can the church do to
break down these barriers?
BS: Students from RUF go pretty regularly. My students
really want to have a church they can call home. Is that fair for your
TS: Yeah, most of our students go to church.
BS: To self-identify as a Christian at
UT is costly enough, both intellectually and socially. So, students realize
that there is no social benefit to merely going to RUF or Crusade and
not church. If you’re going to adopt Christianity, you’re going all
the way. If you don’t really want to be a Christian, there is no
social reward to fake it.
TS: I think they attend, but students mainly see themselves
as passing through. A lot of times, it’s not immediately obvious how
students can plug in unless there is a college ministry. And older
people are intimidated by students. It’s hard for a 40 year old to
walk up to a group of college guys without feeling awkward. Kind of
like how I feel around junior high kids. I don’t know what to ask
them. So there’s a sense of insecurity even on the adult’s part.
“Students value cool, I’m not cool,” or something like that. And if
the Gospel is God in Christ moving towards us, that has to change, on
both sides of the equation.
What are some of the misconceptions about campus ministers?
BS: I get asked if I have summers off. The biggest thing
is, at UT anyways, there is an expectation for us to have a huge group
of students at meetings because the university has 50,000 students. I
hear that a lot.
TS: I think people my age and older often measure success by
the size of the large group, as if that is the be-all end-all question
of whether God is at work. And it’s not. I think it’s much more
important to focus on what is happening in students’ lives the other
six days of the week. I think that a misconception is that we put on
programs to draw in the max amount of students.
BS: Our programs are meant to start conversations. Change
doesn’t really happen in these programs, it happens more in daily life
where we begin to rehash some of the things we’ve discussed in Bible
studies, large groups, etc. That’s where the wheels are turning.
TS: Another misconception is that we want to be around
students all the time. I love my students, but I also like to relax
with other people.
Do people ever come to you and ask what the kids are up to these days & then they find out that you’re not that cool?
TS: No, they find out we’re even cooler. iPhones, man.
Some people want to make connections between youth ministry and college
ministry, but I think they’re different.
Like the fact that you guys don’t have bad facial hair?
TS: That’s true too.
Frick tried to do that with the soul patch. I told him to shave if off.
How can All Saints support you as ministers, and how can All Saints support your ministries?
BS: All Saints is very supportive financially and spiritually. We get prayed about a lot from the pulpit.
TS: I’d echo what Benjie says. I’ve felt more supported by
All Saints than any other church I’ve been a member of. The elders are
very interested in what we are doing, and we feel very supported. Even
as a “para-church” ministry, we have been drawn into All Saints. As
far as needs go, I think we are in great need of mentors, for people
out of college to disciple students, to become friends with them. We
do a lot of stuff in our homes, but it would be nice to have another
home near campus where we could host things. It would also be useful
for the church to initiate something to disciple our staff members to
equip some of the people on the front lines.
BS: I’d love to see All Saints take more a leadership role
in helping to equip our students that way. In terms of mentors and
families, I think if people were more around students they would take
an interest in their lives, and I think that the responsibility is
theirs. College students are not going to take that step. Whether
it’s someone contacting us, or getting involved directly, but taking a
student out to lunch after church or something. Getting students to
show up in church is ambitious, but getting them to initiate with older
people is asking even more.
TS: All Saints is strange because Benjie is representing
RUF, I’m representing Crusade and Greg Grooms is doing Hill House, so
there is no single college leader there. It’s a cauldron of weirdness,
but I like it.
I couldn’t have ended on a better line. Thanks guys.