Intentional efforts help students stay connected to their faith

February 27, 2014

By: Jerad Morey

Rev. Cody Nielsen still remembers when his parents dropped him off at the University of Northern Iowa in fall 2002 and recalls it feeling “extremely sudden.”

Although he had been attending a church back home, he didn’t start out knowing any on-campus pastors. But early on, through a service opportunity, he connected with a campus ministry in which he remained active throughout college.

If he hadn’t made that connection in college, “I would not be involved in the church,” says Nielsen, who serves as executive director of the Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities location. “There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Unlike Nielsen, a lot of today’s college students aren’t involved with a campus ministry—and research has shown that college years are when many young people lose their connection to their faith. Nielsen aims to change that by helping students stay connected during that critical transition period.

Elizabeth Drescher is a religion scholar and researcher who has interviewed hundreds of people who consider themselves to be “nones”—not affiliated with any religious tradition. Of those she interviewed, 70 percent used to be Christian. In an interview with confirmation program Confirm Not Conform, she explained that a large number of mainline Protestants, such as United Methodists, are “deeply affirmed in early formation and then they ‘graduate’ from church.” They lose their connection to their faith, and along with it, their sense of its relevance to their lives. This disconnect with the religious tradition of one’s youth typically happens in college—and it can happen even to youth who were once very active in their churches.

Nielsen wants to change that all-too-common scenario. He’s working to give the Minnesota Conference’s high school seniors an opportunity to develop early relationships with campus ministries at the schools they plan to attend.

“You cannot overestimate how big a deal it is to get dropped off at college,” says Nielsen. “It becomes real when parents leave and the door shuts. From that moment on, your life will never be the same.”

Senior dinners

Working with volunteers and host churches, Nielsen is organizing “senior dinners” in different regions of the state. At the dinners, high school seniors, their parents, and relevant staff from their churches meet with college students, mentor parents who have already seen their kids off, and campus ministers, respectively, to talk about and plan for the upcoming transition.

High school students are invited to ask college students questions and encouraged to talk about what makes them nervous or excited about joining the college ranks. Meanwhile, parents learn how to help with the transition and are urged to think about what their child needs to learn how to do before arriving at college; for example, has their son or daughter done laundry or made a doctor’s appointment? And church staff learns how to support high school students as they move to college—perhaps by making plans to send a care package during the first semester’s midterms, for example. Nielsen himself then follows up with the students, connecting them whenever possible to the ministry staff on their future campuses.

The senior dinners are one element of a larger strategy that Nielsen is championing—one that streamlines ministry with people in the first third of their life.

4+4+4 model

Sharon Parks, author of Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, says in her book that people are essentially fully developed at age 25 and that colleges interested in helping during the formative years need to think past the four years of college and offer more intensive and ongoing services to alumni who are approaching that acme. Joining high school youth groups to this concept, and referring to the amount of time one spends in high school, college, and the four years post-college, Nielsen now refers to Parks’ “4+4+4” model of ministry.

Those last four years, which include people who have recently earned their undergraduate degrees, have become increasingly relevant to the Wesley Foundation. “Minneapolis is a ‘stay city,’” Nielsen says, meaning that students who attend college in Minnesota often remain in the area after graduating, either to work or continue their education. They maintain their relationships with younger college friends but also seek out the company of others their own age. To a campus ministry, this can mean that former students or older graduate students still wish to participate, and Nielsen welcomes their involvement. Offering ministry specifically to and through them helps emerging young adults continue developing as leaders.

“Doing more graduate ministry and incorporating more graduates yields more mature students and more leadership opportunities,” Nielsen says.

Ministering to post-undergrads

Alex Kaizer is a graduate student who is involved with the Wesley Foundation. Originally from Ames, Iowa, where he attended a United Methodist church, Kaizer became active with the United Methodist ministry at Truman State University in Missouri when he went to college there. It seemed natural to then connect with the Wesley Foundation when moving to Minneapolis to pursue a Ph.D. in biostatistics.

“When I moved here, I was like, ‘I’m an adult now and I will find a real church,’” he recalls. He joined one and even got involved in the bell choir but, because he was still a student and so much of his time was spent on campus, he felt drawn to the environment of a campus-based faith community.

Kaizer has observed firsthand how incorporating graduate students into the Wesley Foundation has helped undergrads to improve their leadership skills.

“It’s a nice place to help students start to see how they can be leaders,” he says. “Seeing others excited to attend an event you organize helps you withstand the occasional discouragement” that any project leader is bound to face. And experiencing small successes with facilitating, say, a Bible study, helps students “get more brave with their suggestions” for activities and more willing to risk the effort it takes to organize an event.

Youth hosts

At annual conference session in late May, attendees will have the opportunity to witness youth leadership in action. Another new initiative of Nielsen’s is the “annual conference hosts” program, through which some of the young people involved in the Wesley Foundation will play the role of well-informed annual conference session and St. Cloud guides. “They will tell you where the best place to eat is, give you directions to different locations, and possibly be leading some activities,” Nielsen says.

Student leaders will have the opportunity to network with adult leaders and, ideally, envision how they could become more involved in the Minnesota Conference and the local United Methodist movement.

“The church’s future is based on working with children, youth, students in college, and young adults,” says Nielsen. The senior dinners, the incorporation of post-undergraduate students into campus ministry, and the annual conference hosts initiative all represent ways in which the Minnesota Conference is intentionally engaging in ministry with the younger demographic. As Nielsen says, “Working with that group has the potential to save us from ourselves.”

Jerad Morey is a member of Mosaic in Brooklyn Park and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@Jerad).

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