History of Campus Ministry at Texas A&M and the University Lutheran Chapel

University Lutheran Chapel (ULC) is the mission station for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at Texas A&M University and Blinn Junior College. This mission, which has taken on several different forms through the decades, is celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2012.

Lutheran campus ministry at Texas A&M University began in the fall of 1922.  At that time, Rev. A.J. Meyer was serving the Kurten-Zulch area, and saw a need for ministry on the Texas A&M campus.  Rev. Meyer assumed responsibility for the university mission, along with his Kurten-Zulch ministry. Thankfully, his successors continued Meyer’s efforts on campus.

Rev. H.A. Traugott took over this joint ministry in 1939.  The greater Bryan-College Station area did not have its own pastor at that time, but Bethel Lutheran was established in Bryan in 1940, under the leadership of Traugott.

A.F. Droegemueller was called as Bethel’s pastor in 1945.  By this point, Bethel’s population had exceeded the Lutheran population of the Kurten-Zulch area, so Bethel and the Kurten ministry were combined into one (along with the university mission), and Zulch was combined with another local pastorate.

Rev. William C. Petersen assumed the Bethel-Kurten pastorate in 1950, and Kurten’s ministry gradually merged into Bethel’s ministry. In 1961, Bethel Lutheran Church became the sole congregation for the Bryan/College Station/Kurten area.  Rev. Petersen’s pastorate saw the first full-time pastor assigned solely to Texas A&M University’s campus.

He was Rev. Erwin George Becker, who became the campus pastor in 1960.  At the time, the students were meeting on the top floor of the YMCA building on campus, but plans for a building near campus came together. In 1965, University Lutheran Chapel, at 315 College Main, was dedicated. Located just two and a half blocks north of campus, it was (and still is) in an ideal location for campus ministry. 

That was also the year when membership in the Corps of Cadets (ROTC military and leadership training) became voluntary for students at Texas A&M. (Texas A&M was established in 1876 as an all-male military college.) By 1963, A&M had achieved university status, and female students were first admitted in 1964.

LCMS President Emeritus Gerald Kieschnick attended Texas A&M from 1960 to 1964, as well as the fall of 1965 for graduate school.  While a student, Kieschnick attended worship services at the YMCA building, with Rev. Becker presiding.  There were typically about 50 students at worship, Kieschnick reports.  “Our campus pastor, Dr. E. George Becker, was formational in my life, including my decision to become6 a pastor,” he says.  “I jokingly told him, ‘If Dr. Becker can be a Lutheran pastor, so can I!’”

Rev. Becker received his doctorate in sociology from Texas A&M in 1966, which led to him taking a call to Concordia College in Austin to become a professor.  This happened the same year that the LCMS joined the Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA).  LCUSA replaced the National Lutheran Council, the group under which the LCMS had participated for years in cooperative campus work with other Lutheran church bodies.

Rev. Hubert Beck became campus pastor at ULC in 1968.  “I enjoyed working in the university setting and very much wanted to enter a full-time campus ministry,” he said about his decision to take the call to Texas A&M.  Unfortunately, there was a drop in the student population at ULC before Rev. Beck arrived. Rev. Becker’s departure created a vacancy at the Chapel that lasted for more than a year.

Rev. Beck’s responsibilities on campus were also not quite what he expected.  Traditionally, campus pastors provide much-needed counseling services for students. But the need for counseling dropped drastically when the Corps of Cadets became voluntary. However, Rev. Beck did participate with the Civilian Student Council at A&M, as well as the National Lutheran Campus Ministry (NLCM).

Shortly after Rev. Beck arrived at ULC, Dr. J.A.O. Preus, Jr., became president of the LCMS (1969).  At the same LCMS convention where Prues was elected, fellowship was declared with the American Lutheran Church (ALC). At that time, there were only two Lutheran congregations in the Bryan/College Station area.  Bethel Lutheran Church was thriving in Bryan, and Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (ALC), located directly across the street from the Chapel, was also a strong congregation. 

Since the LCMS and the ALC were now in fellowship, Our Saviour’s and ULC decided to cooperate in their campus ministries, to the extent that the ALC relocated its campus minister at Our Saviour’s to San Marcos, Texas.  The Campus Ministry Committee of the Texas District—LCMS continued to be supportive of Rev. Beck’s efforts to serve Lutheran students at Texas A&M. 

When Peace Lutheran (also ALC) entered the picture, the first pastor of that congregation worked with the Chapel and Our Saviour’s  in campus ministry. That included conducting Bible studies at various apartment complexes where students lived. Rev. Beck was also part of the Bryan /College Station Ministers Association, interacting with parish ministers of various denominations.

During Rev. Beck’s time at Texas A&M, there were several significant events—both in the LCMS and in the world—that impacted his ministry. In 1974, most of the faculty and students at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis “walked out” of their campus and formed their own seminary, Christ Seminary in Exile; also known as Seminex.  In 1976, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) was formed by LCMS churches that were sympathetic to Seminex. In 1978, the AELC joined the LCUSA, despite efforts by the LCMS to prevent that from happening. The LCMS was still a part of LCUSA at the time.

In the world at large, the Vietnam War raged through the late 60s and early 70s before coming to a tumultuous end in 1975. The first Earth Day was held in 1970.  Students around the country were leading the fight for greater social freedoms and civil rights and were protesting against the Vietnam War.  At Texas A&M, students who participated in Earth Day were more interested in environmental issues than wartime protests, Beck said. The large Corps population and conservative faculty strongly supported the troops in Vietnam. But new trends of independent thought were still influencing campuses all over the country, creating a sense of identity and a need to be heard among students.

In 1984, Rev. Beck took a call to the campus ministry in Durham, North Carolina, to serve Duke and North Carolina Central Universities.  A retired ALC/ELCA pastor filled the vacancy for the cooperative Lutheran ministry at Texas A&M until the next campus pastor arrived.

He was Rev. Richard Manus, who arrived at ULC in 1985. When Manus took the call, the Lutheran campus ministry was united between the ALC, the LCA, and the LCMS, as part of the Tri-Synod Agency of Texas—known as LCMT – The Lutheran Campus Ministry of Texas. But that union dissolved on December 31, 1985.

This happened in the midst of strife between the LCMS and other Lutheran bodies over theology and ecumenism. It all came to a head in 1987, when the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches joined to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  At this point, LCUSA ceased to exist, and the LCMS discontinued joint campus ministry efforts with these other Lutheran church bodies.

Nevertheless, ULC continued to serve all Lutherans (as well as all Christians).  The campus ministry of Peace Lutheran continued, too, and eventually called its own pastor, Rev. Debra Grant. Because the LCMS does not ordain women pastors, there was division between Peace Lutheran and ULC, splitting the Lutheran population between the two ministries. “I can’t speak highly enough of the students,” said Rev. Manus, noting the strength of spirit of the students who attended ULC during that difficult time.

At that time, University Lutheran Chapel was serving about 60 people a week with a liturgical style of worship. Under Rev. Manus' leadership, local chapters of Beta Sigma Psi Lutheran fraternity and Phi Beta Chi Lutheran sorority were established. Pastor Manus also launched Lutheran Student Fellowship (LSF) at the Chapel in 1988. 

In addition, Rev. Manus began intentional outreach among the sizeable international student population at Texas A&M. All Nations Christian Center became the home for this part of the Chapel's ministry, which included conversation partners, Bible study and various kinds of hospitality events. There was also an international vacation Bible school held during the summer at married-student housing. It attracted approximately 100 international children and their parents daily. It was staffed by A&M American students, professors, and volunteers from the local Lutheran congregations.

Another important milestone at the Chapel under Rev. Manus' watch was the establishment of a Chapel endowment, with a $10,000 gift from Professor Ruth Schafer. In addition to the normal pastoral responsibilities of preaching, teaching, leading worship, and counseling, Pastor Manus also led Stephen Ministry training for resident dorm advisors, students and local adults; initiated a peer ministry program and a "See Through The Scriptures" class on campus; and started the Lutheran Lecture Series, which featured speakers like Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, theologian Martin Marty, Rev. Victor Raj, Dr. Dale Meyer, and the Early Texas Music Ensemble.

Regular features of Chapel life for students during his tenure included intramural athletics, retreats, an annual servant event, and dormitory Bible studies. In 1998, Pastor Manus accepted a divine call from LCMS World Mission to serve as the head of LCMS Campus Ministry in St. Louis. 

Later that year, Rev. Larry Krueger accepted the call to be the next campus pastor at ULC. Early on, he focused on reaching out to students from Texas LCMS congregations.  His efforts netted about 20 students in worship and 10 students for Wednesday night Bible study.  Over time, small-group Bible studies, praise worship, retreats, mission trips, and service projects became the focus of the Chapel’s ministry with American students.  International student Bible and English classes also continued at the Chapel.

A tragic, on-campus event increased student awareness of ULC’s ministry even more: the fall of the Aggie Bonfire in November 1999.  Bonfire was an annual activity where Texas A&M students would construct a gigantic bonfire in preparation for the Texas A&M – University of Texas football game the day after Thanksgiving.  In 1999, the Bonfire collapsed while students were working on it, killing 12 students and injuring 27.

When this happened, the student population at Texas A&M became more united, and Christian ministries grew in strength, as students sought comfort and answers to spiritual questions.  Rev. Krueger—in the tradition of the campus pastors who had preceded him at ULC—had maintained a good relationship with the campus administration, and he was given several opportunities to provide counseling and comfort to students. “That’s when pastors have to be pastors,” said Rev. Krueger. 

Even though the Bonfire collapse was a tragedy, the emotional and spiritual healing experienced by the campus led to a greater awareness of campus ministries, including ULC.  This new awareness helped to increase attendance at the Chapel and participation in its ministry activities.

This led to a very good thing: the need for a larger sanctuary for worship.  A building project was begun in 2000 and finished in 2002.  In the meantime, services were held in the main assembly area of the Chapel, which later became the narthex for the new sanctuary.  Despite the awkward arrangements, worship size grew to about 85 a week, and when the new sanctuary was finished, average attendance was 95 people.

In the midst of the building project, the events of September 11, 2001, unfolded. Texas A&M mourned, along with the rest of the world.  ULC continued to be a place of support, comfort and peace for students, and the ministry of the Chapel continued to grow.

At one Wednesday night Bible study, a student mentioned that even if Rev. Krueger were to leave the Chapel, the ministry there would be able to continue because it was based on what God was doing through all the students; not just through Rev. Krueger. 

How prophetic that statement was! In the fall of 2002, he received a call to work as an assistant to Missouri Synod President Gerald Kieschnick. Krueger accepted the call and left in November 2002.  

So, once more, ULC began the process of calling a new pastor.  Rev. Ken Hennings, Texas District Mission Executive, worked with the current students to set up interviews with three candidates.  Students met with the candidates individually for lunch and a campus tour.  Questions for the candidates were prepared and presented by the ULC calling committee, a group of five students.  All students were welcomed to attend a subsequent Q & A session and were encouraged to submit feedback regarding the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.  At least 30 students attended each of these.

The calling committee met with Rev. Hennings to present its recommendation, and in May of 2003, Rev. Paul Hoemann received and accepted the call to ULC.

During the time between pastors Krueger and Hoemann, many students took on various leadership responsibilities. Although vacancy pastors were employed to provide Word and Sacrament ministry on Sundays, the students, by and large, led the ministry at ULC.

For example, during the first decade of the 2000s, the student-led Freshman Bible Study grew to include 15-20 freshmen per academic year. In 2001, Girl Aggies in Loving Service (GALS), a chapter of Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML), was formed with student leadership. It has encouraged Aggie women to be active in mission at ULC and in the LWML since.  Also, throughout the 2000s, ULC students have participated in spring-break mission trips to Mexico and to serve Texas District congregations on the Texas-Mexico border. Chapel spring-break mission trips in 2007-09 took students to New Orleans, to help people re-build their homes after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

International student ministry—also known as All Nations Christian Center (ANCC)—has also continued to be a strength of the Chapel’s ministry. In a given year, more than 200 internationals and their family members are served at the Chapel. Since 1998, the Chapel has celebrated 10 baptisms of international students. Beth Kroeger was director from 1998-2000.  Katie Anderson served from 2000-2001.  Trish Kelm served from 2001-06.  Since Trish’s departure, leadership for this ministry has fallen to two American students, in a co-director arrangement. These have included Stephen Cordes, Shawn Miller, Anya Knodt, Meredith Wright, Tyler Moquin and Palmer Van Buskirk.

Whoever is leading, All Nations Christian Center has always offered English conversation classes, Bible studies, conversation partners, group dinners, and field trips. The purpose of all these activities is to build relationships with our international neighbors, in order to share Jesus Christ with them, or to encourage them in the Christian faith they already have.

One of the biggest challenges facing Rev. Hoemann came less than a year after his arrival at ULC. The Texas District informed him in the summer of 2004 that the Chapel, along with all other specialized ministries in the District, must become self-supporting by Dec. 31, 2011. That was a tall order for a Christian fellowship made up mostly of college students. Immediately, plans were made to establish a more intentional and aggressive Annual Giving campaign. Last year, 2011, the Chapel received $120,000 through its Annual Fund, the all-time record, so far. (To God be the glory!)

In 2008, efforts began to pump up what had been a rather modest amount in the Chapel’s Endowment Fund. The 12th Disciple Challenge II—over a two year period ending in 2010— successfully increased the overall value of the endowment to more than $250,000. Of course, the efforts to increase the endowment are ongoing.

God willing, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod campus ministry in Bryan/College Station—currently known as University Lutheran Chapel—is still in its infancy. Over its first 90 years, it has proven that the Body of Christ, under the leadership of King Jesus, is not limited by geography, age, people group, ethnicity, and leadership capability and experience.  “ULC is truly the body of Christ that relies on each other and looks for God’s guidance when things change,” said Stefani Kokel, class of 2004.  “I was immensely blessed by this ministry, and I pray that the Lord continues to use it to impact the lives of many more college students at Texas A&M.”