Cooperative Christian Ministry helps prepare young leaders at Charlotte-area schools

Chris Hampton says he’s thought of going into ministry for most of his life. But before coming to UNC Charlotte, the Davidson County native had only a limited idea of what form ministry could take.

“All I knew was that if you wanted to go into ministry, it was, ‘OK, you’re going to be a preacher,’ ” says Hampton, 23, a lifelong United Methodist. Then, four years ago, Hampton got involved in UNCC’s campus ministry program, Niner United. And he “learned that ministry means … so much more than Sunday morning at 11.”

Niner United (after UNCC’s nickname, the 49ers) boasts about 100 students active in various areas, including on-campus worship, mission trips, Habitat for Humanity, disaster relief, local shelters and urban ministry.

Niner United is one branch of Cooperative Christian Ministry, a campus ministry that encompasses four denominations – United Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopalian – and three colleges: UNCC, Central Piedmont Community College and Johnson & Wales University.

Because of its program, Cooperative Christian Ministry was one of 21 campus ministries to receive a $100,000 Campus Ministry Theological Exploration of Vocation grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment.

The Endowment’s initiative expands on a project in which Lilly gave grants to more than 175 church-related schools over 15 years to help students trying to discern their life’s calling and deepen their faith. This time, it’s going to help students of faith at non-church-related schools.

United Methodist Rev. Steve Cheyney, 42, has been the campus pastor at UNCC since 1999. Campus ministers, he says, are doing “one of the most important jobs the church can do,” working with “precisely the population the church is failing to reach, and that’s 18-24-year-olds.” Statistics tell us that before they graduate, high school kids decide whether they want to leave the church, Cheyney says. “I hope to prevent that.”

Cheyney developed the grant proposal last summer along with campus board members and student leaders. They already had the groundwork laid: For years, Cooperative Christian Ministry has arranged immersion experiences for students to work in partner churches and has offered fellowships in which students receive a stipend to work several hours a week planning worship, being music leaders, leading small group ministry, and organizing service and mission opportunities.

The Niner United project

With the grant, Cheyney says, they will create what he calls the “Accelerated Ministry Project,” to operate out of Niner United at UNCC. The project will have three components.

Even if they’re not planning to be ordained, Cheyney says, anyone who wishes to deepen faith will be welcome to participate.

Each ministry that received the grant is encouraged to develop its own program.

The Rev. Mark Coulter, 55, is lead pastor for campus ministry at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, one of five pilot campus ministries that received the grant in 2012.

“Students come to the university and they are hungry for help in discerning what to do with their future,” says Coulter, himself a 1980 UNC and Lutheran Campus Ministry alumnus. He’s had many students go on from campus ministry to join the Peace Corps, the Lutheran Volunteer Corps or other service groups after graduation. Some have pursued ordination.

‘Voice of hope’

While finishing his religious studies degree, Chris Hampton works two jobs in Concord: as a supervisor at Great Wolf Lodge and as a youth director at Central United Methodist Church. The church job, he says, is helping him decide his future.

He thinks back to the guidance he received from Cheyney. “We sat in his office sometimes for hours at a time, and just talked about difficult life issues ... parts of the ministry that will be very tough.”

Now, Hampton says he’s “probably about 80 percent sure” he wants to go to seminary and be ordained in the United Methodist church.

He believes Christian leaders should stress love and acceptance. “You really need to show that you have passion and compassion,” he says. “I often say, ‘We’re called to be the example of Jesus for someone.’ ”

Young Christian leaders can be a “voice of hope,” Cheyney says.

“But when we’re done with them in campus ministry, I need the church to be hospitable and welcome them back.”