By: Karla Hovde
A new campus ministry in Minnesota has made meaningful connections with more than 65 college students in its first year of existence.
Hilltop UMC in Mankato started the campus ministry, the Wesley Foundation at Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU), to form a supportive faith community for college students.
In summer 2017, Rev. Ashley Goltermann, a licensed local pastor and seminary student, became Hilltop UMC’s associate pastor of youth and campus ministries and was tasked with discerning how to better serve college students in the community. The congregation knew that a huge population of college students lived in the area but were not connecting with any church or campus ministry. Hilltop UMC is just two miles from MSU, which has about 15,000 students.
Goltermann began researching what a United Methodist college ministry at MSU would look like and contacted 20 students with a United Methodist background. She determined there was a need for a weekly gathering for college-age people. When Hilltop UMC hosted the first such gathering in October 2017—thus marking the launch of the first Wesley Foundation at MSU—Goltermann was hoping for six to 10 students; 22 came.
“This was a testament to the Spirit’s movement in this area,” she said.
One year later, the campus ministry is thriving in a house located within easy walking distance of campus. The “Wesley House” is open to any student for study, lunch breaks, and even naps. A couple, Alyssa and Peter Thormodson, serve as residential hosts at the house, and along with several volunteer students, staff the space in shifts Monday through Thursday and support students who come in needing prayer or encouragement.
The Wesley Foundation includes three student teams—the Grow Team, the Reach Team, and the Heal Team (named after the three scriptural imperatives that the Minnesota Conference is focused on); they are organized around spiritual formation, outreach, and justice.
Each Sunday evening, 20 to 25 students come together for fellowship. These gatherings are based on the “class meeting,” a type of gathering that dates back to the Wesleyan movement in the 18th century. It consisted of a small group of about a dozen people who shared life together.
At the Wesley Foundation at MSU, the evening includes a free meal, an opening prayer, a devotion, and modified versions of the original class meeting questions: How is it with your soul? How have you experienced God this week? This week, was there a time you did good, avoided evil, or did harm to yourself or others? How can we be praying for you?
Many students who don’t feel like sharing when they first start attending eventually become the most engaged members of the group. The Foundation is open to anyone who wants to experience Christian community.
“We tell students ‘There’s nothing you could have done to be outside the grace of God—you are loved,’” said Goltermann.
Wesley Foundation students are encouraged to go to a Sunday morning worship service of their choice. Students tell Goltermann that going to worship and the evening fellowship makes Sunday feel like a refreshing mini retreat each week.
‘A means of grace’
The Wesley Foundation also hosts a monthly student-led worship services at the Wesley House. MSU student Philip Daniel plays guitar in the praise and worship team. Daniel is a senior studying environmental science and previously spent eight years in the Marines. He appreciates that the Wesley Foundation is an authentic, clique-free community, focused on being the hands and feet of Jesus.
“Being the old man of the group and a veteran, the Foundation has provided a place where I can go and be welcomed and not judged,” he said.
On the first of the monthly worship nights, Daniel arrived feeling strained by homework and anxiety. “But, as we began to play, it’s like an overwhelming peace just spread throughout my body, and all of the worries and fears I had were gone,” he said. “Just seeing the 10 or so students singing their hearts out that night reassured me that this is where I needed to be at this moment in time.”
The worship nights and worship team practices have “become a means of grace in my life,” he added.
Space to practice faith
Brianna Jonason is a junior at MSU who is double-majoring in social work and alcohol and drug studies. She didn’t attend church much growing up, but she did go through confirmation at Luverne UMC. Luverne UMC’s pastor, Rev. Dorie Hall, connected Jonason with Goltermann. Now, Jonason is president of the Wesley Foundation, which has become an official student organization of MSU. She also serves as coordinator of the Grow Team.
“I had no idea how many people were struggling in ways just like me,” she said. “Week after week, I am met with people who are waiting to love me when I am feeling my best and love me even harder when I’m struggling.”
The Wesley Foundation has given Jonason a purpose and a chance to live out her faith.
“We are all getting so much more comfortable talking about our faith with each other…and even strangers,” she said. This has led to new visitors at almost every Sunday evening fellowship.
‘In this with you’
Goltermann wants other Minnesota churches to know that starting a campus ministry is not as scary as it sounds.
“If God is stirring in you a desire to reach out, do it authentically—step forward and trust that there’s a reason you feel this stirring,” she said. Young people crave mentorship and support, not just from hip young pastors, but from people of any generation who simply choose to love them.
“Have the humility to say ‘I don’t have all the right answers, but I’m going to be in this with you,’” she said.
Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church