By: Christa Meland
After Rev. Lauren Rheingans graduated from seminary, she wasn’t sure exactly where God was calling her to serve. But while interning for University Christian Ministry at Northwestern University in Illinois, things quickly fell into place.
“What I discovered in my work there was that campus ministry is where I thrived,” she said.
Her mentor connected her with a job at the University of Minnesota’s Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist-affiliated campus ministry where she’s been for the past four years—and she’s never looked back.
“I love being able to see and be part of the journey for college students, from the first moments when they are new on campus to getting to know themselves and their identities and what they think and believe,” said Rheingans, who recently received the Francis Asbury Award from the Minnesota Conference. The award recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to fostering United Methodist ministries in higher education.
One of the things she’s been intentional about is taking ministry out of the building and onto campus. Worship takes place at the U of M’s student center, and a weekly discussion night, which includes Bible and book studies, happens at a coffee shop in Dinkytown. (Both gatherings have been occurring online amid the pandemic.)
“There’s something beautiful about removing as many barriers as possible—whether that’s church as a place that’s been hurtful or location—and meeting students where they are and where they feel comfortable,” she said. She noted that during the pandemic, the one obstacle that Wesley students didn’t have to overcome as they shifted online was a sentimental tie to a particular building.
Rheingans, an ordained deacon, also formed a partnership with Centennial UMC’s St. Anthony Park campus, which is near the U of M’s St. Paul campus and accessible via the campus bus. Rheingans describes the church as “an anchor supporting us,” and larger Wesley events—like game nights and a murder mystery party—have taken place there. Wesley students have also been invited there for Easter worship, and some have attended the church post-graduation.
Something that has been important to Rheingans since she began leading the Wesley Foundation in 2017 is empowering students to lead by helping them discover and share their unique gifts. The Wednesday night discussions are student-led and provide a safe space for various students to engage others around something that interests them. Additionally, one student is in charge of worship music and five student officers write grant proposals and regularly make the case to the university for funding.
Rheingans also set up student covenant groups based on the Wesleyan model of weekly accountability check-ins and asking, “How is it with your soul?” Although the groups were intended to meet during the school year, many students found such value in them that they continued meeting last summer as well.
Rheingans’ commitment has not gone unnoticed by her students.
“Lauren truly does go above and beyond what is necessary in her work,” said Junior Natasha Stark. “She is a very giving person and has fostered such a welcoming and loving space at Wesley. She always goes out of her way to support students no matter what our needs are. We love her and we are so lucky to have her.”
Students also appreciate Rheingans’ pastoral heart.
“Lauren is a constant source of support and knowledge for the Wesley Foundation,” said Senior Meg Rhoades. “She provides students with an unending feeling of comfort that the Lord is with them, no matter what they might be going through. Lauren also strives to educate her students in an open, nonjudgmental environment…Overall, she is an amazing leader, counselor, and friend.”
As a deacon whose role is to connect the church and the world, Rheingans is passionate about ensuring that campus ministries are a vital part of The United Methodist Church’s connectional system.
“When we make baptismal vows and pledge to support and love and send and equip people in their faith, what does it look like to think about Wesley students as part of that connection?” she said. “I want students to feel more confident connecting to a church because of their time at Wesley.”
Rheingans loves what she does and knows the Wesley Foundation is exactly where she’s supposed to be. Her greatest hope for the students she works with and ministers to?
“I hope that they learn they are beloved children of God, that it’s okay to ask questions, and that asking questions is a part of a mature faith journey,” she said. “I hope that they learn how to not just absorb whatever theology I teach them but use the tools that we teach to grow in discipleship. I hope that they leave college having a better sense of their identity in Christ.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church