Blogger Ben Wideman is the NCMA CoCom Secretary, and campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a unique peace, justice, and faith ministry at Penn State University's main campus. He is ordained in Mennonite Church USA. This blog post explains the challenge of picking a campus ministry name.
A question I get asked fairly frequently is why we chose the name 3rd Way Collective for this Anabaptist campus ministry at Penn State. On our student club page for Penn State we wrote this as we began…
“3rd Way Collective is an opportunity and challenge to create a new alternative. An alternative to extremism or disengagement, an alternative to the left or the right, an alternative to violence or passivity. A way that is bolder and more enriching. A place of belonging. A community engaged in building relationships, peacemaking, partnership, and reconciliation. A third way.”
This is a helpful introduction paragraph but doesn’t capture our journey to landing on this name.
One of the early conversations at University Mennonite Church included what to call this new campus ministry. Some folks were interested in a denominational branding… perhaps calling it Mennonite Student Fellowship, or something along those lines. The downside of this approach was that it would deter students from other faith backgrounds or traditions from connecting. We learned in the early years that few Mennonite students had a desire to connect with their faith tradition. In the first year of 3rd Way Collective we held a monthly Mennonite student gathering event specifically to bring together Penn State’s (approximately) 500 Mennonite students. The most students who ever showed up was two… both non-Mennonite students who were curious about who or what Mennonites were. Our assumption has been that Mennonite students often choose Penn State specifically to step away from their tradition while they are in college. Mennonite students who want to remain closely tied to their denominational background often choose Mennonite colleges. The small number of Mennonite students who attend Penn State and want to remain connected to their denominational tradition often chose to attend University Mennonite Church, and connect with 3rd Way Collective that way.
Another option was to widen the circle and call this group Anabaptist Campus Ministry, or something to that effect. This would broaden our denominational outreach to others from that same tradition beyond Mennonites, however some of the same hurdles would be in place. It still limited the circle of inclusion to those who identified as Anabaptist. The word Anabaptist can also be confusing to those who are unfamiliar with its definition. Sometimes the word is misunderstood as anti-Baptist. It is not a word that is commonly used across the Christian tradition, and using this word could have been both confusing and also misunderstood.
We knew from the earliest moments that this organization would be centered on peace and justice, and some thought was given to a Greek/Latin word to link our club’s identity with other campus organizations, especially those in Greek life. If our aim was to provide a space of belonging, perhaps borrowing from Greek life where many go to try and belong or fit in would make sense in our context. The most popular of those ideas was the word PAX, a latin word meaning peace, which also has connections to the Mennonite tradition as Mennonite peace workers in the wake of World War 2 were often referred to as “Pax Volunteers.” Pax was an interesting idea, however Greek life on Penn State’s campus can be problematic and starting an organization with ties to that world could have come with unwanted baggage – especially since we had no firm plans on creating a fraternity-like living community. We also were aware that while Pax was an interesting word, it was not commonly used enough for students to immediately get a sense of who we were.
At one point we thought about being very literal with our name, and toyed with calling this new group the Peace, Justice, and Faith Organization (or Collective or Cooperative). This path would have been far more clear about who we were and what we hoped to be and do, but it also felt a bit clunky and overly-specific.
At this point I have forgotten if it was mentioned by someone on the search committee, the first 3WC Advisory Team, or myself, but someone brought up the Mennonite use of the term Third Way. Mennonites have long used the phrase to explain that they are neither Protestant nor Catholic, but some kind of “third way”. The website url “thirdway.com” is a landing page for those curious about who the Mennonite are. Our team liked the idea that in addition to this tie to our denominational tradition, a third way was also needed at a moment in time in which so many different things were becoming polarized and divided. We liked that any path leading toward a third way required a conversation on how to get there, and we hoped that the third way could continue to provide us with a road map in how to move about campus and our community.
Once we had landed on Third Way, the next part to figure out was if we needed something after that to provide more clarity. We thought about calling it Third Way Campus Ministry, or Third Way Organization or Club. We thought about just leaving it as The Third Way, but that seemed a bit mysterious and elusive.
In conversations with other campus ministers and organizations we noticed that almost all of Penn State’s organizations struggled to get students to commit. They lamented that students like to participate in a variety of clubs and groups, and getting members to show up regularly was an increasingly difficult task. We came up with the term “collective” for this movement out of a hope we were creating something where anyone could find a home for any length of time. This wasn’t going to be a club that required regular attendance or membership dues. In fact, we were more interested in creating a network of connected individuals rather than an insular club that never moved beyond itself. We liked the idea that we could be a temporary home to students who were also part of another organization, club, or group – even if it was another faith-based organization.
One thing that we never considered was that the word “collective” has some socialist (or gulp… communist!) implications. Our intent was not to choose a politicized word, however in a politicized world this is almost impossible. In fact, there have been moments where we’ve wondered if we should have leaned in more intentionally to a politicized name. Most of the ~40 Christian organizations on Penn State’s main campus come from a conservative, traditional, or orthodox posture. Perhaps if we had called ourselves Progressive Christian Campus Ministry we would have created an organization for the progressive Christian students who did not see their kind of theology represented in the list of faith-based groups at Penn State.
When it came time to finally write down our new name on applications for club status, websites, and social media, we realized that we had another decision to make. Would we use the long-form “Third”, or the shorter “3rd”? I was somewhat indifferent to the two choices, however I liked the idea that our acronym could be 3WC instead of TWC (I’m not sure why, it just felt better to me). This seemingly-inconsequential decision turned out to be more lucrative than we could have imagined. Choosing “3rd” placed us pretty close to the top of the alphabetical list of the 1000 Penn State clubs and organizations (nudged out of the top spot only by the 3-D Printing Club).
When choosing a name, we did not consider that a faith-based peace and justice group had the potential to provide college students with a third way model for how to live life. As we moved about campus in those first few years we discovered that for many years students felt as if they had to choose between their faith and justice issues they cared about. This seemed especially true for students who had been brought up in more traditional or conservative Christianity. They assumed that they had to choose to hold on to their faith, or give it up completely to become more embracing of the LGBTQ community, active in environmental or racial justice, or gender equality. When they entered justice-minded advocacy groups, they were found many students who claimed no faith, or had rejected their faith. Likewise, they had ministry groups telling them that the issues they cared about were not important, or counter to what tradition taught. What they needed was an example of how to combine their faith tradition with a passion for justice. They needed a literal third way.
The other major discovery after settling on this name was that students from beyond the Christian tradition began showing up inquiring if they were welcome to be a part of the “collective”. We realized that it wasn’t just Christian students who wished their tradition was more interested in peace and social justice, and they were willing to check out this new movement (and tolerate that it was being led by a Christian minister) simply because it gave them a chance to hold their faith tradition while engaging the the issues that mattered most in their lives. Over our five years on campus our student leaders have included people from the Peace Church and Anabaptist Christian traditions, but also other flavors of Christianity – both Protestant and Catholic, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and even Atheist or Agnostic students.
In the five years since we chose the name 3rd Way Collective it has ended up being a great fit for this alternative kind of campus ministry, one that blurs the lines between faith and justice organizations, between campus and community organizations, and so much more. We did not realize how important it would be to create a network of connected people. Nor did we realize the power in creating a space where more could belong than simply those from a specific faith tradition or political posture. We’re glad we found a third way.
Blogger Ben Wideman is the NCMA CoCom Secretary, and campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a unique peace, justice, and faith ministry at Penn State University's main campus. He is ordained in Mennonite Church USA. This blog post explains the decision-making process in his campus ministry's name choice.
Starting a campus ministry from scratch was not something I had given much consideration to until I learned about the creation of 3rd Way Collective. Being hired as the first campus minister allowed me to jump into this consideration with both feet – baptism by fire if you will. One of the easiest ways to immerse myself in the early years was to try and spread myself as broadly as I could across our campus and community. I did this by showing up in many different places, but also by saying “yes” whenever I could.
At times I’m guilty of operating under the self-inflicted pressure of “FOMO” – a Fear Of Missing Out. I say yes because I don’t want to experience missing out on something I could have been a part of. I still have a memory of a moment during my high school years when I took too long trying to decide whether to join a group of friends for a concert of one of our favorite bands. By the time I said yes the show was sold out and I had to spend the next few weeks hearing my friends talk about how great the concert was and wishing I had been there with them.
Being guided by FOMO as a new campus minister occasionally worked out to my benefit. When I was asked if I would participate or help plan, prepare, or lead an activity or event in those early years, my only parameters were whether it fit under the broad umbrella of peace, justice, or faith, and if my calendar had free space available (sometimes even that parameter was stretched beyond its limits). I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be present in the community in some kind of meaningful way, so I just said yes to everything in hopes that I wouldn’t miss those early chances.
This aggressive willingness to say yes allowed me to build many different kinds of relationships and connections. My network continued to expand as I found myself in many different kinds of spaces – participating in community organizations, campus panels, collaborating with other clubs and groups, leading workshops, mentoring, counseling, and many other different things. I discovered and became an active part in many movements in our area built around racial justice, LGBTQ advocacy, environmental justice, poverty, interfaith collaboration, peace, and so much more.
At a community meeting during one of my first years I bumped into the Mayor of State College. She greeted me by name and congratulated me on showing up. “You know Ben, I think you are present in more spaces than I am!” she remarked with surprise. I don’t think she knows just how much that sentence has stayed with me. I took her words as the ultimate praise, that I was doing my job to the best of my capacity.
Unfortunately my FOMO also became a crutch. I realized early on that if I was ever scrutinized over whether 3rd Way Collective was “working”, I could at the very least point to my robust calendar and all that I had been a part of. I didn’t want to ever be accused of not trying hard enough, so overcommitting and overworking became my standard operating practice.
Since our first event I’ve tracked each event and activity in a spreadsheet. Our second school year at Penn State (2015-16) 3rd Way Collective created or collaborated on 138 different projects during those two semesters. I also showed up to numerous community meetings/committees/panels/boards not included on that list – at times as many as four or five additional meetings per week. The Penn State school year has 30 weeks of classes, and during that year I somehow averaged out to more than four events per week, plus other meetings. There were a few weeks where I was away from my family four or five evenings each week. There was a moment near the end of that year when my wife Meredith looked at me and said, we can’t keep this pace up. Something needs to change.
Saying yes to everything was a difficult thing to correct. The more I did, the more positive affirmation I received from my community and supporters. My value and affirmation was all tied up in an unsustainable process. It was like a boulder that had been pushed down a hill. Once I got going, I had set up a precedent that came with momentum. The more connected I was, the harder it was to say no, and the more aware I became of all the different ways I could be involved.
One of the major weaknesses of this system was that my over committed pace made it very difficult to react and respond when unexpected things came up in our community. I remember having to say no to an impromptu community vigil because I had already committed to some kind of scheduled event. I remember having to say no to a last-minute request from a student who wanted to get coffee because I was supposed to be a part of a panel discussion.
But perhaps the biggest weakness was that I wasn’t able to offer adequate time to my family or myself. My partner was a solo-parent far too often, and my kids missed out on more time with me than they should have. My over-committed-FOMO-mentality also meant that I had less time for my own quiet time to reflect or do the things that I love to do on my own – riding my bike, taking a hike, or playing disc golf.
Marv Friesen was the pastor at University Mennonite Church when I began this work. His presence in my life was a real gift as I was getting started with this process. During one of our conversations he asked what would be different if I cut back on some of my commitments. I told him that I felt anxious just thinking about doing less, but that it also sounded wonderful to slow down a little more. He wondered where the anxiety was coming from – was I afraid of letting someone down? I realized that a significant part of the pressure I was putting on myself was self-inflicted. I was the one who was not willing to let myself slow down. The imaginary crutch of a robust calendar was not necessary because the church who hired me and the board who guided me were very supportive of the work that I was doing. We realized in these conversations that a core part of the work of 3rd Way Collective was being a community presence. My hunch was that this was only possible by being busy, but the reality was that I needed to be less busy in order to be more responsive to the needs that came up in our context. By putting less on my calendar, I could be more adaptive when students needed me to be there for them. I could show up in places and spaces that ministers rarely went because I’d have less programming and planning that I had to do.
It was an epiphany that I deeply grateful to have been blessed by, and a posture shift that has allowed this work to be far more sustainable than the path I had originally taken.
I still have FOMO, and I still occasionally fall into the trap of overcommitment, but in the three years that followed the 2015-16 school year I have lowered the number of 3rd Way Collective events and activities in each consecutive year, while also being more adaptive and flexible. Each year I still feel some anxiety that less on the calendar will result in less impact in the community, but the reverse continues to be true. This past year was our lowest event total since our first year at Penn State, yet we connected with more people than ever before, and I personally found my work to be far more fulfilling than any previous year.
I still struggle to honor my time and my family by first considering those two things before saying yes, however this practice has been live-giving – more than I could have imagined.
I know this will continue to be a part of the challenge of creating something new, but I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to figure this out as I go. The surprising realization for someone who began thinking that it was best to always say yes is that there is more balance and fulfillment – perhaps even more worth – in saying no from time to time.