For many pastoral musicians, a chapel on the lake with a brilliant organ in one of the world’s greatest cities may be the ultimate dream job. For Steven Betancourt, it’s another day in the life as the director of music for Loyola University’s Campus Ministry—something he hardly takes for granted.
In addition to being the dean of the local AGO Chapter, Betancourt navigates the challenges and rewards of this high-profile, demanding position—all while effectively providing spiritual and musical growth for students faced with the rigors of college life.
What was your calling to campus ministry?
A great question. I always felt that my life was meant to be in a parish setting, working with all ages from children through seniors. Through a unique turn of events and the gentle nudge of friends who saw in me the ability to make a difference in the lives of college students, I applied for my current position at Loyola.
What is significantly different about campus ministry vs. “regular” parish ministry?
The significant difference is that academics always come first. You learn to not plan anthems or music that are significantly challenging around midterms and finals. My world is also drastically different from parish ministry in that as my colleagues are gearing up for Advent and Christmas, we are doing just the opposite. The first two weeks of Advent usually line up with the last week of class and final exams, so we do music that is simpler at those times. Christmas we have only one Mass at Midnight, which is quite special because our little chapel sits right on the shores of Lake Michigan. The combination of the season and the magic of snow with an intimate and intentional singing congregation make for a unique Christmas.
Holy Week is a similar experience. Palm Sunday is a big deal because our students are on campus, but they get a break from classes beginning Holy Thursday, and then they return for class on the Tuesday following Easter. So we assemble a festival choir of students who are local or who are not going home for the short break in addition to staff and community members. We have an Easter Vigil because we have a program for RCIA, so our Vigil is again filled with an intentional and singing congregation. Easter Sunday is a fun experience as many alumni return for the one Mass we have that day, and it is a grand experience.
My family would chime in here that since I have started in campus ministry I no longer sleep through dinner on Christmas and Easter, but I am resurrected and alive and they love campus ministry for that fact!
With students in your program graduating every year, how do you effectively maintain continuity and progress with your music ministry?
We relish the time we have with our students because most are active in our program for three to four years and then graduate. So, to make the most of things, I have found that a vision and planning help the most. Students want to be involved with a program that is worth the precious morsels of time they have after academics. Well-planned and organized rehearsals that begin on time encourage all levels of students to stay active in our programs because it respects that time they give. Providing opportunities for prayer and reflection is another way to keep students grounded and make involvement in a choir worth the time.
What have been some of your best recruitment methods or tools?
Getting students involved in leadership with our programs has been a good recruitment tool. The students recruit students and share the value and importance of our ministry. They lead rehearsals with my supervision or guidance, and they do the weekly communication reminders via email, text, and social media. Music that is done well and represents a wide spectrum of styles and traditions provide avenues for students to become involved. We provide both auditioned choirs and non-auditioned choirs to accommodate all levels of students. Our largest ensemble also is flexible with a student’s commitment level, but the opportunity remains engaging so that students choose to be involved.
What are some challenges that you face on a daily basis that a typical parish musician wouldn’t ordinarily?
Lots and lots of administrative work. Some of the things I have become good at since I have started in Campus Ministry in the university setting have been budget and finances, creating policies that are clear and articulate, justifying expenses and, providing comparative analysis. The administrative work can be consuming at times. Late nights are another challenge. We have our largest attended Mass on Sunday nights at 9:00 pm. We also have weekly Taizé prayer on Wednesdays at 9:30 pm. The engagement and energy of the students make the late nights worth it though for sure!
What is the best perk in being a campus music minister? The most stressful part?
Seeing students make a conscious choice to go to Mass. It seems like such an easy thing, but when you really think about where they are coming from a home life where most attend out of obligation with family. It really begins to make Sunday Mass really special. I am one lucky person that gets to make music with a church filled with people who have made a conscious choice to be there.
The most stressful part would be navigating politics!
What are some purposeful ways you are instilling themes from the Year of Mercy at Loyola?
At the current moment, we are singing the hymn for the Year of Mercy during Lent at Communion at most of our Sunday Masses. It fits great and can be sung simply or with choral harmonies and works well with our congregation and choirs. We sing a lot of Taizé music and the refrain has a similar sound, so learning it has not been a problem for us. We do an electronic bulletin, so I have placed a short write-up with links to the hymn as well as the youtube link so our congregation can listen at home (http://www.im.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/inno.html).
We also have wonderful Jesuits who throughout these past months both at daily Mass and Sunday Mass have used the homily to tie in themes from Scripture and the Year of Mercy. It’s wonderful to see the connections and reminders of mercy and grace in our lives.
What recommendations can you give to musicians and pastoral musicians looking to go into campus ministry?
Love the students you minister to, appreciate them, learn from them, and be open to being vulnerable in your deficiencies so that they can see you are a real person that has daily challenges. Have a good prayer life and be ready to explain your faith and why you do what you do to those who ask, because there are a lot of questions asked in the academic setting!