Ministry of Teaching: Steve Hayner, connector
by Robert Williamson, Jr. ’01
Steve Hayner has always been drawn to college campuses. In his 33 years as an ordained minister, he has served in a variety of student-oriented positions, from Presbyterian campus pastor for the University of Washington to vice president of student affairs at Seattle Pacific University. Before coming to Columbia, where he is the Peachtree Associate Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth, Hayner served for 13 years as president of InterVarsity, one of the country’s most active mission agencies focusing on college campuses. “The common thread for me all along has been students,” he says.
“I love being around students. I love the teaching process. I love campus ministry.”
Hayner says his passion for campus contexts stems from his own experiences as a student at Whitman College, where his faith first became real to him.
“I grew up in a very committed Lutheran home,” he says, “And I got a great Christian education growing up. But I’ve got to say that there was not much in terms of a real, personal faith that stuck.” When he went to college, Hayner decided that it was time for him to set out on a truth quest in order to find himself. “I went off to college with the sense that it was time for me to explore the cosmos,” he recalls. “My first strategic decision about how to do that was to quit going to church. Which I did.”
Hayner’s life changed, however, during fraternity rush his freshman year. “I had a rush date with a guy who had a reputation on campus as a great student and a campus leader,” he says. “We sat on the back lawn of the fraternity house while everyone else was playing volleyball, and he talked to me about his relationship with Jesus. I had never heard a peer that I admired talk about Jesus like that, ever. One of the things that he shared with me was that it had been very freeing for him to realize that he didn’t have to create his own life. God
created his life, and would guide his life, and would intervene and walk with him. The message that Jesus could free me from the mess that I was making of my own life came as pretty good news!”
Looking back now, Hayner recognizes that in that moment the course of his life was forever altered. “I look back and see that the Holy Spirit was simply moving in my life,” he says. “I went back to my dorm room thinking, ‘I don’t think my life is going to be the same after today. I’ve got an option here, and it’s a better option than the road I’m currently on.’ So that was really the moment when I made a new commitment to pursue faith, to pursue God.”
Based on his own experience as a student and his many years of involvement with college campuses, Hayner has come to recognize the importance of campus ministry not only for the faith development of students but also for the vitality of the church. “College students are an important demographic that is basically being ignored by our denomination, not only at an institutional level, but also by the vast majority of its churches,” he explains.
“Most Presbyterian churches seem to send their students off to colleges somewhere and just pray that someday they’re going to come back to our churches. I obviously get
impassioned about that because we lose so many of our young folks who have had wonderful experiences in the youth ministries of our churches, but we send them off to college and then don’t provide anything for them there.”
Through his work with InterVarsity, Hayner became convinced of the importance of cooperation between denominational structures and not-for-profit missional agencies. He says, “Churches and parachurch ministries have very different roles to play. Churches are by and large generalists, interested in the widest dimensions of God’s work in the world. They minister to people cradle-to-grave, so their focus is spread across all ages and demographics. When it comes to focusing on a specific population, such as college students, they need help. Where parachurch or mission organizations are helpful is in being able to have specific and particular ministry focuses.” Hayner says he hopes that the Presbyterian Church (USA) will begin to work more closely with non-denominational mission agencies such as InterVarsity. “It simply hasn’t gotten onto the denomination’s radar that campus ministry is important,” he says.
At Columbia, Hayner’s teaching and research focuses on mission and evangelism, not only in relation to college students but more broadly to the many aspects of the church’s ministry. He also directs one of the continuing education programs, the Thompson Scholars. “It is a program primarily in evangelism,” he explains, “helping pastors expand their repertoire, their
experience, and their exposure to what is going on in evangelism.” Ministers accepted into the program spend an intensive week at Columbia studying with Hayner and other scholars and practitioners of evangelism, sharing their own experiences and developing new ideas to take back to their congregations.
Now in his fourth year at Columbia after years of working in nonprofit administration, Hayner says he is enjoying being back in the campus environment. “I’m doing things that I really love here,” he says. “I’ve got a small position on the staff at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, I’m serving on a variety of national and international boards, and I have the privilege of serving on the faculty at Columbia. One of the great things about being on this faculty is that there are people here who are very fine teachers who are willing to share their expertise. I’m becoming a better teacher as I discuss pedagogy with some masters of the craft. I love this faculty because we are very committed to one another and supportive of each other’s work. We are all people who are committed to the Book, and out of that comes a very rich conversation about God, theology, and education. This is an extraordinary group of people that way.”