Meet Russell Miller
By LORETTA FULTON
Russell Miller didn’t attend McMurry University, but he got to campus as fast as he could.
Miller is the new assistant university chaplain and assistant director of religious and spiritual life at McMurry. Marty CashBurless is university chaplain. Miller counts at least 16 family members who attended McMurry, including his own children, who graduated in 2009 and 2010.
An ordained minister in the United Methodist church, Miller previously was pastor of First United Methodist Church in Boerne. In Abilene, Miller will serve part time in music ministry at St. Paul UMC, in addition to his work at McMurry.
Q&A with Russell Miller
Q Have you had previous experience with campus ministry?
A Not in any formal capacity. I did do some CPE (clinical pastoral education) training, which is basically chaplaincy training. My clinical setting was in a hospital, but many of the skills I learned there easily translate to the campus setting.
Q What interested you about the assistant chaplaincy position at McMurry?
A Several things. First, I am deeply attached to McMurry because of a number of family members who came through the institution, beginning with my wife’s grandfather, the Rev. Dr. Cyril Stone, who had a profound influence on me. I can count at least 16 family members who attended, most recently with my own children, who graduated from McMurry in 2009 and 2010. (I did not attend McMurry, by the way—I didn’t know any better!)
Secondly, I have always loved the university environment and dreamed of working on a college campus. Finally, I was attracted because McMurry is an institution associated with the United Methodist Church, my home denomination.
Q What are some of the challenges that a campus minister faces that differ from a church minister?
A Working on a university campus is multi-faith setting. At McMurry, we are committed to supporting students and faculty of any faith tradition as well as those with no faith tradition. All persons are spiritual beings and share some of the big questions in life, and it is a privilege to walk with persons as they seek to connect with God and others. In addition, I think that the 18-22 age range of most college students is a particularly tender time in anyone’s life. There is so much going on at this point in their lives….much of it is joyful and exciting, but some of it can also be scary, intimidating, or overwhelming. I suppose that is true at every age, but it seems more integral at this age in a person’s development.
Q What do you see as your primary responsibility as assistant chaplain at McMurry?
A As I am new to this campus, much of my focus is on developing relationships with the students, faculty, and staff so that they know that I can be trusted. I help lead our Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) student leadership team, helping them develop and implement their own leadership skills. I am deeply involved in efforts to provide care for students who need food assistance, clothing for student teaching or job interviews, or are in emotional crisis. Finally, I help lead weekly chapel services and other programming initiatives. It’s a busy place!
Q College students seem to be keenly interested in service and in social justice. How can campus chaplains capitalize on that?
A Yes, they are! And we capitalize on that by providing opportunities to serve. We already have two mission trips in the planning stages…one for January, and another in May. In addition, we hope to provide other more localized opportunities to serve the campus, and the community of Abilene at large.
Q The rise of “Nones,” or those with no religious affiliation, continues to dominate surveys about religion. How does a campus minister serve those students?
A As noted above, we are committed to serve these students as much as any other. The first step is to develop a relationship where they know they are not being judged because of their “non-Christian” status. It is only in that place of trust that conversations can begin to happen to help students wrestle with faith questions that may be troubling them. In the end, all a chaplain can do is help plant the seeds of faith, and let God take it from there. And “nones” can be as interested in service and justice as anyone else, so they are invited to participate in all RSL programs and events.
Q The United Methodist Church is going through a painful split, as more conservative congregations are leaving, primarily over LGBTQ issues. What impact does that have on students at a UMC university? Are they turned off by debates on sexuality?
A This is a profoundly painful, difficult, and frankly embarrassing moment in the life of the United Methodist Church. We have come to a place in our denomination where we cannot even seem to agree to disagree. No wonder people get turned off of “organized religion.” Some students who come from the UM tradition have been asking questions about what might happen to their church and to McMurry. For many of this generation, the questions of human sexuality that divide us are a “non-issue.” My sense is that the denominational split will have little impact on McMurry. In any case, I am committed to loving and serving all of God’s people, no matter where they stand on these particular issues.
Q Do you think ministerial students will be less inclined to be ordained in the United Methodist Church or any other mainstream denomination because of those culture wars?
A It is true that there are fewer and fewer young people going into ordained ministry. There are many who see themselves in full-time Christian service, but maybe just not in the role of pastor of a local church. Universities, seminaries, and denominations need to imagine and reimagine how the church and parachurch organizations can be relevant and meaningful in the cultures in which we find ourselves. This perhaps includes reimagining the role of a pastor.
As an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, I understand that mindset. While I have always served (and continue to serve in a part-time capacity) in a local UM congregation, I embrace the idea that deacons are called to connect the church and the world. For some deacons, it means standing inside the church walls, reaching out to the community around it with works of word, service, compassion, and justice. For others, it means standing outside the walls of the church and pointing back to the church as the place where God’s people are nurtured, fed, and sent out. I am excited that I am in a place I have never been before: with one foot firmly planted inside the church (doing music ministry at St. Paul UMC), and one foot firmly planted outside the walls of the church (at McMurry), helping students on their spiritual journey. It’s a blessing!
Q Do you have any new programs or ideas for changes that you would like to see take place in the Religious and Spiritual LIfe office?
A Yes. I think that by being a fresh set of eyes, I can help our leadership team identify new ways to be in ministry to the campus. We are already in conversations about that. Of course, many things that we are already doing are excellent and need to be continued. I am really grateful for Marty CashBurless and her leadership and guidance in this rewarding, invigorating, sometimes exhausting, but life-giving work at McMurry University.