By: Jerad Morey
For the Wesley Foundation’s new president, University of Minnesota sophomore Joe Abe, the ministry is a place to play video games, relax with coloring books, and discuss the merits of controversial titles like Rob Bell's Love Wins. The Wesley Foundation is the campus ministry that connected him with a covenant discipleship group whose members hold him accountable to living a balanced life. Joe says the ministry provides “a place to ask questions freely without worrying about what people think of me.”
Joe is one of 80,000 students, staff, faculty, and visitors on the University's Twin Cities campuses. For Cody Nielsen, executive director of the Wesley Foundation at University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), Joe and his 79,999 neighbors are a mission field where he and the Wesley Foundation are embarking upon their second year of ministry.
From an initial meeting of five students at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, the ministry has grown to what Nielsen describes as “a core of around 20 students” who share leadership in organizing activities related to service, justice, and discipleship. The group has served meals at Walker Community Church, held communion-centered worship services, and gleaned fields for produce. It has also held small groups and book studies to help students better know God.
Such a busy first year has led Nielsen to some solid lessons. Chief among them: college students “have too much to read,” so book studies don't always work out well. No matter. Nielsen is overwhelmingly positive about all of the foundation's activities, saying that “we took the time to talk to students about their interests first, and allowed them to move forward with things they were excited about.” Student president Abe agrees, saying “Cody was always asking ‘what do you want to do?’”
This is not an untried approach. The Wesley Foundation draws from, and improves upon, traditional models of campus ministry. “Campus ministry is the same and different as it was a hundred years ago,” says Nielsen.
Similar are the mission fields: it is still about the university community comprehensively, not just the students. Different are the perceptions of the mission field. “The diversity of the campus . . . the mental health issues, the financial struggles . . . [and] the realization that we are on a global scale over a regional or even a national scale is what is changing.”
Another difference between last generation's campus ministries and today's is that campus ministry is increasingly crucial. Nielsen suggests that if the United Methodist denomination looked at its college-age members, it would see that around 85 percent of them are in college. “Because so many people are headed to college today, the church must realize this is the chance we have to be present during the most transformational period of their lives. And whenever someone asks where all the emerging adults are, they should find the nearest campus. They are here!”
And Nielsen is ready to meet them. For the 2012-2013 school year, he plans for significant growth. “Right now the biggest challenge is built around the sheer number of students we will have.” He notes that pastoral counseling needs of college students are greater than for the average adult member of a local church. “I spend a lot of time with students just helping them discuss and talk about what is happening with them and helping them in discernment.” He will share some of these responsibilities with a new intern, Anne Lynch, a former student at American University. “She'll bring more experiences . . . along with a female staff presence to the ministry.”
While the Wesley Foundation is staffing up for its second year, Nielsen would love to find more ways to connect with local churches. Typically, when students leave home for college, they enter a sort of spiritual vacuum which requires a missional presence. Nielsen encourages churches to support students and campus ministries financially. He asks local congregations for prayers, and is happy to come and talk about what we are doing.”
Nielsen is eager to share ways in which the Wesley Foundation's ministry is effective. These students might spend up to 20 hours weekly engaged in some aspect of the foundation's ministries. What congregation wouldn't envy a metric that demonstrated this level of commitment to love of God and love of neighbor?
Still, “nothing replaces the stories,” he continues. “So many students say the words ‘without campus ministry, I don't know where I would be.’”
Abe measures the effectiveness of the Wesley Foundation's ministry by his own experience: he is found. “I kind of have an idea of where I am in this journey of life.”
With the Wesley Foundation starting its second year at the university, Abe and other students can know that Christ is on this journey right alongside them.
Jerad Morey is a member of Mosaic in Brooklyn Park and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @Jerad.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church