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Matt Smith starts new campus ministry out of old one

Cooperative Ministries at the University of Washington in Seattle has changed the name of its campus ministry to Progressive Christians at the University of Washington to reach out to today’s students, not to shift from ecumenical partnership.

Matt Smith
Matt Boyd

Since former campus minister Monica Corsaro left in 2007 to work with the Greater Seattle Council of Churches, the campus ministry has been dormant, said Matt Smith, who began as campus minister in July.

The name change, Matt said, is “to say who we are, where we are at and what we are” in contrast to the historic name that spoke of ties and associations, but connects less with students.

“Students from the progressive Christian community can look at the roster of student groups and see us.  The name gives us visibility,” he said, adding that he has calls from students because of the new name.

“We hope the name ‘progressive’ has resonance and meaning for the students, who tend to be less tied to historical denominations but seek connection with a faith community.”

Matt also plans to make denominational ties visible, but not prominent.

The 10-member board, with representatives from the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, United Methodist and Presbyterian Church USA, is completing the sale of its property at Covenant House, which previously housed the campus ministry.

It is being sold to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which will carry on campus ministry with the Episcopalians in that location.

With funds that will be paid annually over the next 10 years, the goal is to establish an endowment to support campus ministry, said Catherine Foote, a member of the pastoral team at University Congregational UCC and a member of the CMHE board.

Each denomination owns a different percent of the property, which has complicated the sale, Matt said.  Each denomination has agreed to receive and transfer to CMHE their share of the proceeds to fund the campus ministry.

University Congregational UCC is providing space for an office and gathering space in Pilgrim Room, originally intended for campus ministry.  Other university churches are also offering space for gatherings.

Partners include University Christian, University Baptist, University Temple Methodist and a Presbyterian representative, said Catherine.

“We seek to strengthen our connection with the local university congregations, including University Lutheran and Christ Church Episcopal,” she said.

Before July, Matt worked as a multi-faith minister at Seattle University, chaplain on the campus for everyone who was not Catholic.

While completing studies at Pacific School of Religion, where he chose to enter ministry in the United Church of Christ, he did an internship with United Campus Christian Ministries at Stanford.  He graduated from PSR in 2007.

Having grown up in a nondenominational independent church in Salt Lake City, he understands the rocky road students face as they open their faith exploration.  Recently, however, he learned all four of his grandparents belonged to UCC churches.

Matt is aware that the different denominations in the Cooperating Ministries in Higher Education are at different places on different issues, so he said the common ground is that the ecumenical program means extending “radical welcoming hospitality to students who may not even have a faith home.”

That means he may converse with atheists who have no interest in being in a church.

“Our goal is not to convert them to Christianity, but to be welcoming and give them an experience of community, however fleeting,” he said.  “That’s the witness of the Gospel.”

Given the slow decline in campus ministry nationwide since its heights in the 1960s, Matt likens this program to a new church start.  He is starting with no student base, so if two students come to an event “it’s a success compared to what we had  before.”

He leads a Sunday evening chapel service at University Congregational UCC and meets informally for hour Monday evenings, offering “Deepening Spiritual Practice” at the LGBTQ Center.

In the winter, he plans to launch a time for students in transition, students who grew up in conservative churches and seek to process their move into progressive faith.

Along with increasing visibility through their name change and making informal connections with student, Matt said he and the board are working to have participating churches refer students who are attending the UW and participated in their churches.

“Denominations experience a big loss of students as they transition into university life,” he observed.

By “progressive,” Matt means a faith commitment that includes practicing social justice and living out the Gospel in extending community and friendship to people who are often excluded and devalued.

“We affirm the goodness of all people,” he said.

“Progressive also means living in a sustainable way, valuing having ‘enough’ and recognizing that when we have more than enough we will share it,” he added.

It also involves recognizing that people of all genders, races, ethnic groups and political orientations are part of the wide, diverse family of God.

For Catherine, who has served at University Congregational UCC for nine years, the progressive Christian voice on a college campus is about denominations joining in a common voice.

“Students’ first concern is not denomination, but connecting in ways that make a difference in the community and world,” she said.  “Progressive is having passionate love for Jesus, God and our neighbors that is open and inclusive, drawing people to work toward justice in all of Creation.”

For information, call 206-524-2322 ext 3100.


Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © November-December 2010





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