KEARNEY — For Laura Stubblefield, campus ministry has been 20-plus years of on-campus worship services, bible studies, late-night basketball games, band practices, mission trips, and church visits.
“I’ve always loved working with kids and students. They’re just the most amazing thing,” said Stubblefield, an appointed campus pastor at United Campus Ministry at the University of Nebraska-Kearney since 2002. “I never felt like I had a job. It was a blessing to be asked to do it and watching them develop in their faith and their careers.”
Stubblefield concludes her campus ministry career in June. Although a year away from officially retirement, the 64-year-old is taking time for self-care after being diagnosed in December 2021 with cancer.
“I’m going to go home and enjoy family. I’ll still be down the road,” said Stubblefield, who lives on a farm outside Shelton with her husband, where they are expecting their third grandchild this summer.
The chemotherapy “cocktail” that she receives twice a month doesn’t have the side effect of hair loss that are prevalent with other cancer treatments, she said.
“I had to go through pretty heavy chemo last year,” she said. “I’m on a maintenance program.”
Looking at Stubblefield interacting with students and moving her way through the United Campus Ministry housing, it’s hard to believe she has cancer.
“It has slowed me down,” she said. “I know I’m not able to do 110% by myself.”
Leader by chance
Stubblefield has a resumé that includes myriad jobs, but her longtime avocation was as youth leader at the United Methodist Church in Shelton, about 20 miles from Kearney.
Many years ago, the Shelton United Methodist Church had one of the only religious youth organization in the village of 1,000, invited other church youth not only to attend but to get involved in their own churches.
She remembers a successful church car wash during Sunday morning services, when people stayed in their vehicles to hear the church services broadcast on loudspeakers outside than go in the sanctuary.
Stubblefield made an impression on the district superintendent — “Every time he came, our youth were doing something” — for her work there, at times raising more money for the church than the then-United Methodist Women.
A year later, when John Jones left the position as campus minister (“He set the ministry in the path it was in,” she said) at the end of the 2001-02 school year, Stubblefield went to work — praying.
“As soon as I found out John was leaving, I kept praying, ‘Please Lord, put the right person in there. It’s a great ministry,’” she said and laughed. “Little did I know.”
She got the call and the job offer to take over the campus ministry and accepted after receiving the blessing of her husband and her two college-age children.
“I wasn’t praying for me,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Who am I in the midst of all this?’”
Through the years, Stubblefield has completed the Course of Study program to become a licensed local pastor.
“I kept saying that if there was somebody more qualified, put them here,” she said.
Many late nights
Stubblefield inherited two of the most flourishing aspects of campus ministry — Tuesday night worship services with a band, and Monday night basketball games — that kept her out sometimes until midnight.
“This ministry is a second-shift job, it really is,” she said.
United Campus Ministry (UCM) at UNK, mission statement is all about “Making Connections” for the students and their programs centered around connecting students to grow in their faith, connect in fellowship opportunities, with our churches and the community.“ UCM is proud for the many ways they have been able to equip students in discerning God’s calling and ways in sharing their gifts with others.
Monday-night basketball games were at Kearney First UMC, where playing was only part of the lesson. She taught participants to be good citizens of the church, not disrupting meetings and serving as role models to the Cub and Boy Scouts who used the church at the same time as the games.
“Do I know anything about basketball? No,” she said. “That was a wonderful ministry that lasted for 25 years. I spent a lot of time sitting in the gym over there.”
Participants negotiated a three-point line in the gymnasium, adjusting the carpeting to provide the right dimensions. Players included UNK students and graduates in their 20s.
“That was a great outreach for us,” she said. “You can win and still lose because of your attitudes.”
The games came to a halt three years ago at the onset of COVID, and Stubblefield said she hoped they would be revived in the future.
Stubblefield also inherited a trailer full of musical instruments for worship services and remembers with a laugh trying to negotiate backing the trailer up into a narrow garage as she was at the wheel of her Chevy Tahoe.
At its peak, pre-COVID, the campus ministries would visit churches every other Sunday, providing music, a message and children’s time. Tuesday night worship allowed students to worship together in a college setting and also practice for upcoming church outreaches.
“The students absolutely wanted to do outreaches, and that’s kind of the real DNA of the ministry, the connections we have with our churches, our congregations,” Stubblefield said.
She and the students learned quickly that the congregations in many of the churches weren’t too hip on contemporary worship music, so several standard hymns were incorporated.
One tradition in the campus ministry is to travel to the home churches of each UNK senior in the group.
“That has put us all over Kansas and Nebraska doing that,” Stubblefield said. “Nothing is sweeter than having a parent stand up and say, ‘Oh my gosh’ when they see how involved their kids are.”
Mission trips have taken UNK campus ministries all over the country, where students realize how well-known their campus minister is.
“The joke is always that she knows someone everywhere,” said John Bomberger, a UNK graduate from North Platte.
That’s either from knowing alumni who have spread out across the country or, in some cases, building friendships with a stranger in the time it takes to fill a van up with gas.
“I’ve never met a place where we couldn’t go and find something to do. There’s a need, no matter where we are,” Stubblefield said. “There’s mission no matter where you are.”
One of those home church visits was to Scottsbluff UMC, where a UNK senior announced to the congregation that he was going into the ministry.
“She helped me grow my gifts and my discernment to call,” recalled the Rev. Matt E. Fowler, now pastor of Kearney First UMC.
“I knew it, but he was arguing with me the first year,” Stubblefield recalled with a laugh.
Fowler said Stubblefield has always helped students realize their call, whether to ordained ministry or being active in their churches.
“The things they were passionate about, she kind of helped develop those along with their gifts and passions,” he said.
Fowler said Stubblefield always looked out for the students’ interests.
“There’s an honesty that Laura has that she expresses through care and presence,” he said. “She developed that vision in collaboration with the students. She listened well with the students, but she was also deeply present with the students throughout her time at campus ministry.”
Recent graduates who work with the campus ministry also praise Stubblefield’s caring nature.
Eight students live at the United Campus Ministry houses, just a half-block from the UNK campus, and Madison Sanders said Stubblefield gives life lessons — laundry, cooking — to the students on their own for the first time.
“She just really cares a lot about the students,” said Sanders, a “super senior” from Lincoln. “I think it’s nice having Laura as someone you can go to while you’re in college.”
A new home?
Stubblefield’s retirement isn’t the only change coming to campus ministry at UNK.
The current UCM houses are a blessing and the reality of repairs and handicap accessibility limitation. Updates and renovations on the current houses would not solve all ministries problems, Stubblefield said.
Architectural drawings, provided free by the father of one of the students, show a new campus ministry center where the two adjoining, century-plus-old houses would be razed, and a new building would be constructed.
The cost for the possible projected campus building center is somewhere around $500,000. The UCM Board continues to address the needs of the current houses and the possible replacement.
“They’re not safe, they’re not handicapped accessible,” she said. “These houses were never built for utilities.”
The United Campus Ministry sign outside the front door of the house includes the logos for United Methodist Churches, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ, although the latter two no longer have a presence in Kearney, Bomberger said.
The UCM board has a majority of United Methodists, and the rest are Presbyterian, Stubblefield said. UNK is the only campus ministry in the Great Plains Conference that has its own individual governing board.
Stubblefield has started some new traditions in her 20-plus years as campus pastor.
Among those is a “towel signing service,” where graduating seniors receive a towel decorated by their fellow students with favorite Bible verses and memories. The service includes the washing of the seniors’ feet and readings from John 13.
“The disciples weren’t ready for that, either,” she said.
Stubblefield said she was unhappy the way campus ministries as a whole would just give a “see ya later” to graduates.
“This gave them permission to go out into the world,” she said. “Towel services are kind of rough sometimes, but it allows them to put their feelings down and be a part of that. That’s a wonderful tradition.”
The constant cycle of students comprises both the positive and negative aspects of campus ministries, Stubblefield said.
“Every semester is a new group of people — some leave, some come in. You get excited, and they leave you — it’s devastating,” she said. “But it gives you an opportunity to give that next person a chance to step up.”
Stubblefield also gave permission for her current students, whom she describes as largely introverted, to “go rogue” and come up with crazy ideas.
Among them are surprise birthday parties — even more of a surprise since the celebration may come nowhere near their date of birth.
“That just keeps the surprise,” Sanders said.
Prognosis for future
UNK has several other campus organizations, whether religious or not, including the eight different campus ministries at UNK, have yet to return to the pre-COVID attendance numbers, Bomberger and Sanders said.
Stubblefield said she counts on 10 regular participants in worship and Bible study, along with 30 students that receive monthly messages and care packages. The numbers a few years ago of active members in worship were in the 20-30s.
Those in each house, including a Muslim from Nepal and a student from Imam, have formed their own families and welcome others into the building.
“This house has been a great space, because students just come in,” Stubblefield said. “You’ll find students doing homework or watching videos, because we don’t have cable TV, or just hanging.”
Stubblefield said the campus ministries will be close to her heart, even if she won’t be a part of the day-to-day operation.
“We’re taught to plant seeds,” she said. “We’re not there to make them grow, we’re there to nourish them.”
UCM programs and events have continuously adapt and change over the years according to the need, student leadership, and class schedules.
Although Stubblefield bounds around the house with high energy, students said they could tell the cancer has changed her.
“She doesn’t have as much energy to go all-out,” Bomberger said. “Since it happened after COVID, we had been kind of wound down already. There were a lot of ministries we tried our best to run through COVID, and it was so hard to gain numbers. It was a lot of effort for no return.”
Fowler said he’s noticed a difference.
“It’s been harder for her, and it’s a hard season in campus ministry,” he said. “That really changed things. She’s been quite active still.”
Her diagnosis, Stubblefield said, hasn’t changed the way she feels as a Christian and a spiritual leader.
“I know God doesn’t give us these things,” she said. “But he equips us with wonderful people to surround us and doctors and loved ones and students and family. I’m overwhelmed with the care I get.”
The UCM board is in the process of selecting a successor to Stubblefield.
“Again,” she said, “I keep praying for the right person.”