Recruiting Challenges for a College Campus Ministry Choir
  • Hello, everyone. I’m a music director for a Catholic Campus Ministry located at a public university in the mid-Atlantic region. The university houses an average of 2000-3000 students. I’m already in my fourth year as music director of the CCM.

    The liturgical music group providing music for Sunday Mass at this Catholic Campus Ministry consists of a combined student choral and instrumental ensemble. The repertoire that the group has sung consists of classic and modern hymnody, the occasional chant, and modern compositions of church music. In my capacity, in addition to leading music for Mass, I am also the main accompanist on a digital keyboard.

    For special occasions, I have brought in one or two singers and one or two instrumentalists who adorn our musical repertoire; they are volunteers from two Catholic parishes. The instruments commonly employed are the flute and violin, with the occasional trumpet being brought in; and in the past I have had a very capable guitarist accompany the choral ensemble on classic and modern compositions of church hymnody.

    The public university (in which the campus ministry is situated) a reputation for being politically liberal. The Campus Ministry, however, is very strong, headed by a very capable priest-chaplain. Under his leadership, and that of the staff and student leaders, the campus ministry has grown. One indicator of this growth is the student attendance at Sunday Mass; six years ago, attendance increased from 35 to an average attendance of 80 to 100, and a lot of this growth can be attributed to an emphasis on outreach to the student population.

    In the past, there used to be a slightly larger group of students when I came aboard during my first year (6, I recall). However, as the years have gone by, it has become more and more difficult to recruit new students, particularly freshmen, and it seems like ranks of the student choir are thinning down to 2 or 3. The few who are able and willing to make the regular commitment for a semester stay on, and I can count on them, and in this circumstance it is very encouraging to see bonds of friendship form.

    But when it comes to recruiting new students for the music ministry, many of the freshmen who say they are interested suddenly are not interested anymore, and it shows in the priorities they place in the university-sponsored extracurricular activities in which they get involved (i.e. sports, music clubs, etc.) I have tried to ensure that music ministry commitment is not onerous on students’ academic schedules; in the past three years I have ran a weekly rehearsal lasting an hour and thirty minutes, and a one-hour Sunday warmup rehearsal prior to evening Mass.

    However, as the years have passed, it has become more of a matter of priorities. Team sports have a notoriety for superseding commitments to church-related activities, going so far as to have practices scheduled on Sundays. But aside from that, it seems that other extracurricular activities, especially those related to music, seem to have more appeal to students nowadays than the campus ministry choir. I’m not sure why. One could argue that “making friends” is a factor, but I would like to hear other perspectives.

    So when I reach out to new students, they often tell me that they are “too busy” and “overwhelmed”. (In some cases, they really are overwhelmed, and in others, it’s a go-to line for saying they’re not interested. Again, it’s a matter of priorities in school-sponsored extra-curricular activities over church-related activities.) And so, oftentimes, when students are unable (or rather, unwilling) to make a regular commitment to music ministry, I would have to provide a “shallow entry point” for them in the form of occasional involvement once or twice a month, and/or for special occasions (feast days, the last Mass of the Semester during Advent, Holy Week, and the Mass of the Graduates). So far, I have had a few successes.

    Another circumstance contributing to the already small pool of recruits getting smaller is the presence of a nearby neighborhood parish church adjacent to the University. The parish offers 2 Saturday vigil Mass schedules, and 7 Mass schedules from morning till evening; a schedule made possible by the fact that parking is small, and the parish cannot expand parking and facilities without the neighborhood complaining about it. With so many schedules offered, some University students can just simply go to the parish to attend weekend Mass instead of the campus ministry. While one could ask why I’m making a big deal out of this arrangement (“At least the students go to Mass”), this arrangement precludes students from getting involved in the Campus Ministry, which is set up to serve as grounds for faith formation and equipping students to serve in the parish setting. Ideally, the parish could have served as a university and community parish, but the parish is focused on its own issues and needs.

    The issues I have mentioned boil down to a lack of interest in participating in a student music ministry. The first part of the problem entails the young people not seeing any importance with serving the Church during their very early years of young adulthood. This is an issue common among students who come from public schools, and in some cases, even among students educated in Catholic school (from K-8 to high school). Many of the youth have spent most of their waking hours in a school environment, with church stuff mainly in the form of attending CCD classes and youth ministry events, and their involvement being in an altar server ministry or choir group. The reason why consistency could be maintained is because the parents drive their children to these events. But when the youth enter the college environment, they are suddenly thrust into a world where they make choices of their own. And I think that’s when they get really overwhelmed and hesitant to commit to anything church-related.

    The second part of the problem entails a lack of interest in the student music ministry, even among students who come from homeschooling families. Students from homeschooling families are able to have opportunities to get involved in a parish (far more than those who come from public or private schools). However, when they get to college, they are usually on the fence about making a semester-long commitment.

    Basically, no matter what background, students in their first year of college are always on the fence about committing to a church-related activity, let alone even to a campus ministry choir.

    I’d like to know if there’s anyone on the MusicaSacra forum who has directed any campus ministry student choir in the past; at least someone who has had the same issues as I have. I would like to continue keeping a student choir going, but I’m not feeling very optimistic about this prospect, in light of what I have brought up. If I’m fortunate, I could try bringing in adult volunteer singers to bolster the student choir (hopefully without causing interference to the parish music ministries). But if the numbers continue thinning out, I may have to consider bringing in one or two professional singers to keep the music program going at the Catholic Campus Ministry, and that can get expensive over time.
    Thanked by 3chonak bdh Heath
  • Heath
    Posts: 862
    I work on a college campus. Can you send me an email, please?
    Thanked by 1dthielma
  • I'm sure Heath will have a wealth of ideas for you!

    If Heath's (and a grad-school friend of mine's) experience is anything to go by, I'd say that tradition is your friend. Most young kids still going to church without their parents forcing them are probably seeking to root themselves in tradition. I doubt very many find a GIA diet very attractive. I certainly didn't. I avoided any liturgies that had any whiff of that about them.

    Perhaps you can advertise the need for voices in the music dept. at the university if there is one. In my experience, many young people want to sing. Universities tend to have thriving choirs (or so I have witnessed at my three universities/colleges). Perhaps you can snag someone who isn't catholic but wants to sing good rep and cant sing in the school choir due to scheduling.
    Thanked by 1dthielma
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,654
    I don’t run a university program, but have subbed in regularly at one for the past 7 years. They hire a crew of men to sing their traditional music Mass - sometimes 4-5 guys, but at one point they were up to 10 or 11. When the paid singers were good and acted professionally they’d get 5-6 super dedicated volunteer college student guys. When the paid singers weren’t good or the few times I was there and the conduct of the paid singers was unbecoming, it seemed the volunteers had all but disappeared…
    Thanked by 1dthielma
  • Hi, Heath,

    I would love to hear your ideas. My email is:
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 285
    Five years ago when I was in grad school, I was close with staff of the Episcopal student ministry at a private Ivy League school, and went semi-regularly to their liturgies.

    There they had a very fascinating program; two students who were the current organ scholars at the local Episcopal parish were also tasked with running the music component of the student ministry. They worked with the chaplain to choose music and plan the service; each week one of them played and the other conducted. Then they had also a hired quartet (octet? it’s fading...) of students from the music school. Those singers were the anchors, and after that, all who wished could come an hour early and rehearse the psalm (to Anglican chant), an anthem or two, and whatever else had to be ready. Most weeks, there were 10 or often more volunteer singers; a mix of music majors who were buddies with the staff musicians, students in various other degrees who had been choristers as children, and even a few adults from the university community.

    So that was a really stunning sound – a bunch of enthusiastic young people in a gorgeously live Gothic chapel with a fabulous organ, all excited to be singing Gibbons or Howells or Stanford or whatever and happy to go out of their way, even in finals week or in snowstorms, to participate. The churchmanship was rather high – priest chanted the Preface and collects, incense on the way in, at the offertory, and elevation, even sung gospels on major feasts. For whatever reason, that combination seemed to work for jaded millennials, and the music was certainly to a higher standard than what one finds in most parishes.

    So YMMV, but this worked. I think they had, to break it down:

    -Enough money to hire not just someone to be in charge, but also enough music students (and they’re cheap!) to guarantee a good choral product week after week
    -Supportive priest and ritual practice that suggested something serious and noteworthy was going on
    -Challenging and engaging music that took work to prepare and thus was its own reward
    -A chance to do something you couldn’t do anywhere else (sing legit choral music well, not just sing through a hymn in unison)
    -Stunning environment and landmark organ

    Would that every school had such.
  • Gamba -
    A nice reminiscence.
    You mention 'a landmark organ' -
    do you know who was the builder and when was it built.
    Do you wish to name the school?
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 285
    Oh, sure. Princeton U Chapel. ‘28 E.M. Skinner / 1991 Mander.

    Just what the doctor ordered when it comes to playing a service and mightily impressing young-un’s.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,095
    Well, Princeton also attracts more than a typical share of musical collegians and its local churches also benefit. Harvard/MIT* and Yale likewise. All are located in areas relatively heavy with Catholics. It's different if one's college does not feature that attraction and is located in an area where Catholics are much scarcer on the ground.

    * For quite a while, there were arguably more MIT-affiliated people in the parish adult choir at St Paul's Harvard Square than Harvard-affiliated people. (Imagine Oxford and Cambridge within 2km of each other. It's nearly obscene.)
  • Gamba, I like that organ. If only it was in a Catholic church.