Campus Ministries Walk Fine Line in Connecting with College Freshmen

September 10, 2010

 Assistance on dorm move-in day, free food for lunch, Friday night movies and popcorn – these are some of the methods UMC campus ministries use to connect with freshmen during their first days and weeks at college.

“As funny or lighthearted as the first few weeks are, they are central to breaking the ice and getting students connected to people and to a ministry that can forever change their life,” says the Rev. Michael D. McCord, director of Campus Ministry Resources and Training at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The Rev. Ashlee Alley, director of campus ministry at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., agrees.

“Initially they want a place to connect, to be accepted and to find other people like them,” Alley says. “That’s pretty true for every student, and they all will find it somewhere. Hopefully, they will find it in the Christian community and don’t have to look other places.”

As most campus ministers know, there can be a fine line between encouraging student involvement and coming across as too heavy-handed.

“It’s not at all uncommon for students who have been very active in church in high school to want to take a break once they get to college,” says the Rev. Betsy Eaves, chaplain of Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. “It’s a time for them to step back and decide what is theirs – what they believe versus what their parents taught them.

“Students tend to come and go when it comes to engagement with their spirituality.  It’s a time in their lives when they are raising a lot of questions.  As chaplain, I want to get to know them and to be there for them in conversation, guiding them, and offering support to help them come through this period in a healthy way.”

Rising college senior John Badley says he had something of a been-there-done-that attitude when he first came to Southwestern.  Raised as a Southern Baptist, Badley began attending a UMC youth group in his Oklahoma hometown during his freshman year of high school.  But when the church’s youth minister moved away and a cash crunch prevented the church from hiring a replacement, Badley was left feeling abandoned.
“It plunged me into a period of skepticism and cynicism during my senior year of high school and freshman year of college,” he recalls.

Those feelings slowly began to lessen after Badley joined Discipleship Southwestern, a campus service learning program, and became part of a small-group Bible study.

“As I became more and more involved, I came to realize more about my relationship with the church,” Badley said.  “It’s not like purchasing a product and then deciding you don’t like certain features.”

One key to the turnaround was his relationship with Dave Smith, senior pastor at First United Methodist in Winfield, who volunteered as an adviser to Badley’s 13-member Covenant group. “The group is a safe place. It’s even okay to question whether God exists and at the same time be in Discipleship Southwestern.”

If established campus outreach is tricky, the situation can be even more difficult for pastors and members of local congregations extending invitations to off-campus activities.

“There is an awkwardness,” says Badley, now a student intern working with youth at Smith’s church. “The pastor may be thinking, ‘I hope the students approve of me,’ and students may be thinking, ‘I hope there is respect for us.’ Sometimes there are strained relationships.”

At First UMC in Winfield, the key to successful outreach has been an emphasis on service.

“We have invited lots of college students to be involved in ministries of the church through volunteering with our youth ministry, working in our nursery, working with our Kids’ Day In program for preschool children, and serving on ministry teams in the church,” says  Bill Podschun, director of Christian education. “Our congregation also has many persons who are connected to the campus as teachers, administrators,  and volunteers.  They all help us have a presence on campus and make our church a comfortable place for young adults to come and worship.”

According to McCord, involving students early on in campus ministry tends to help them feel more spiritually engaged.

“Across the board, I see acts of radical hospitality and service as ways that campus ministries can help new students feel connected to the campus,” McCord says. “Those first days, you don’t know anybody or anything, and campus ministry has a unique opportunity to stand in that gap, providing connectivity tools and offering friendships that will help those students feel more grounded.”