Ecumenical Campus Ministries pastor Holcombe retiring after 22 years of listening

Thad Holcombe, campus minister at Ecumenical Campus Ministries, is pictured on Friday, May 3, 2013, within the chapel. After 22 years of building relationships with community members and students, Holcombe is set to retire at the end of June.

Retirement celebration

Ecumenical Campus Ministries will have a retirement party for minister Thad Holcombe this weekend. It’s set for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the ECM building, at 1204 Oread Ave. just off the Kansas University campus. Dessert and drinks will be served, and organizers say they expect 300 or more visitors.

Thad Holcombe has overseen a capital campaign that raised $835,000, watched a weekly vegetarian lunch program grow to serve hundreds of students and helped provide a place for a retired professor to continue a human sexuality course that had come under attack.

But the most important part of his job, he says, has been to just listen.

Holcombe will retire June 30 — his 73rd birthday — as the minister for Ecumenical Campus Ministries after 22 years on the job. He said he’s tried to make ECM, located just north of the Kansas University campus, a place where students, no matter what they believe, can come talk about questions ranging from their career hopes to their faith to their sexual orientation. And all the while, he’s been there to lend an ear.

“It’s a place people can come and kind of pause and talk candidly with one another without feeling like they’re judged,” Holcombe said.

That doesn’t mean he has not left his mark on the ministry, which represents five different Christian denominations but welcomes students with any beliefs to its various activities.

“Almost everything that exists today at ECM is a result of Thad’s work,” said Bob Minor, a KU professor emeritus of religious studies who has served on the ECM board of directors since 1999.

That would include the Veggie Lunch held every Thursday while classes are in session, which Holcombe said he’s seen grow from six students who gathered to eat rice and beans one week to an event that attracts 200 or more. There are also the sexuality courses taught by Dennis Dailey, professor emeritus of social welfare, weekly Faith Forums, alternative spring or winter break service trips and environmentalist and social-justice activism.

One thing those programs have in common is that they’re led largely by KU students, something Holcombe has ensured, Minor said.

For those students and the others who visit ECM, Holcombe said, he hopes it can be a break from their busy campus lives and an opportunity to talk and think about what they’d like to do with their lives. He worries that these days, too much of their college experience is devoted to finding a job after they graduate — in no small part, perhaps, because of the loans they accumulate — rather than asking questions about what they believe and what their passions are.

“I think education needs to be subversive,” Holcombe said. “It needs to raise questions about what’s going on in our culture.”

Beth Ruhl says Holcombe and ECM certainly helped her find her passion. In fact, after spending time there for about eight years, she wants to do what Holcombe does.

Ruhl, a KU graduate student studying French who first came to the ECM just before her first undergraduate year in 2005, said she hopes to provide young people the kind of guidance Holcombe has provided her and others. She came to Holcombe back then with questions about the role of women and feminism in Christianity, and, almost immediately, he got some money together to send her to a women’s leadership conference.

“He can meet someone and immediately just intuit who they are: what their needs are, what their desires are,” Ruhl said.

She’s beginning seminary in the fall in Louisville, Ky., in hopes of leading a campus ministry one day herself.

Other students who’ve passed through the ECM under Holcombe’s watch have gone on to join the Peace Corps, become activists, work for charities and otherwise try to make the world better, Minor said.

“We will never find another Thad Holcombe,” Minor said, though a search for a replacement is under way.

At least until the end of June, Holcombe is still there to listen.

“Sometimes you don’t need someone to sit there and give you directions,” Ruhl said. “Sometimes you just need to be listened to.”