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 some of his origin story, part 1 can be found right here.
So… my spouse Meredith wasn’t thrilled with the idea of moving to State College.
And frankly, I can’t really blame her. Our two-plus years of ministry had not been easy, nor had our transition to southeastern Pennsylvania. We left behind our community and a rich and vibrant southern California for rural suburbia. We had expected our transition to be a homecoming of sorts… we had both grown up in country close to the city, and assumed that it would feel familiar even if it wasn’t the exact area we grew up in. What we did not count on was how much Pasadena had changed us.
Before we left for Pasadena the largest town either of us had lived in was our college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. We were still trying to make sense of what we believed, and also trying to make sense of living in a marriage commitment (we had only been married for one year). We left behind Virginia’s rolling green mountains for the arid and rugged San Gabriel Mountains beyond Pasadena. We arrived not knowing, or having never been clearly challenged by living in a diverse community, never thought much about the extent of our ecological impact on the earth, had rarely considered the politics of immigration, had little interaction with people from other faith traditions, and had yet to determine what we really felt about LGBTQ inclusion in the church.
We met many people during our four years in Pasadena that challenged us to think differently on these things, and many more. We experienced what it meant to be a Mennonite in an area where few people had ever heard of that tradition. We became friends with people with different religious ideas, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and sexual or gender identity. We ate and fell in love with foods we never knew existed, explored cultures we’d never experienced, and met people from all over the world. We expected to be ready to leave Pasadena after a quick three year program, and ended up staying for four years, and left feeling like we were leaving part of ourselves behind.
It isn’t surprising then that southeastern Pennsylvania felt different and challenging. We went from having only one car that we used infrequently, to having to depend on two vehicles for pretty much every aspect of our new lives. We shifted from having almost every culinary food at our fingertips to limited restaurant offerings of pizza, hoagies, and meat-and-potato dishes. While we found many wonderful new friends, most people seemed similar to who we were – white, middle class people from a Mennonite or Swiss-German heritage.
Salford Mennonite Church was an incredible congregation with a great depth of resources, but those first few years of ministry were challenging in ways we did not expect. We didn’t anticipate feeling a cultural disconnect – both with the transition from Pasadena, as well as a new area that had a deep rootedness that was hard for an outsider to connect right away. We also had several circumstances that were unexpected. I lost a close friend from college due to cancer in my first year. We moved in to our first home, and then had to move again within months due to a complication in our living situation. We got pregnant with our second child and then experienced the pain and trauma of a stillborn daughter. I had some incredible experiences with the church and our youth group, but also some painful moments of tension and pushback to the way I fit with the broader community.
My reaction to all these complications was to start to think about what else we might do, and where else we might go. Meredith, on the other hand, was more inclined to stay put and wait for a calmer moment in our lives.
When University Mennonite Church posted the campus pastor position we talked with friends and mentors and tried hard to discern what was best for us. We decided to let the process help guide us… I decided to be fully transparent with the hiring team about my sense of call, but also some of my reservations with a transition like that, and if they still felt as if I was the right fit we would consider that to be a sign that we were meant to move in that way.
In the meantime, we started to see small signs that a pathway was unfolding in strange ways. Friends were forwarding the job description to me, asking if I knew about the position and wondering if I had applied. Folks at Salford seemed to have a decent number of connections to folks at University Mennonite Church, and were able to get a strong sense of what I might bring to the job. My visits and candidating went really smoothly, and before we knew it the position had been offered. After making the announcement that we were leaving for State College, there were many people who were sad to see me go, however many of those same people told us that they totally understood why I was being called in that direction. THere was almost a sense of lament that the congregation hadn’t been a better fit for me to lean in to my unique set of pastoral gifts. A few of my youth were curious about why I was leaving and assumed it was for more money. When I assured them that I was actually taking a pay cut to leave, they were really surprised. It gave me an opportunity to talk with them about a sense of call and purpose, and to get them to imagine that there may be more to life than wealth.
One of the most touching moments for me was that the lead pastor at Salford spoke at my ordination service at University Mennonite at the end of my first year. Pastor Joe explained that I had a unique calling to use my faith to stand up for peace and justice, and he commended UMC for being a congregation that was willing to hire me to be their prophetic voice in the community, speaking out when it was called for. People from Salford made the journey to my installation service, and then again to celebrate when I was ordained by the congregation and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.
I had a lot of ideas about what I was being called to, and some of those have turned out to be true. But many of the aspects of this unique campus pastor role have turned out to be far more surprising and unexpected than I could have imagined.
Blogger Shannon Waite is the Interim NCMA Executive Director. She is a former campus minister and is ordained in Presbyterian Church USA. This blog post explains some of her origin story.
"Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime's work, but it's worth the effort."
-– Fred Rogers
People are often so interested in call stories of ministers and how people end up on this path. It is something that is different for everyone, but yet all seem to have the same threads, generally revolving around the community that surrounded them and the way the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. When I think back on how I ended up in campus ministry and now as the interim executive director for NCMA it feels a lot like something that I fell into, but at the same time maybe it was a path that I was on the whole time.
I am a cradle-born Presbyterian. We joke that my family has been Presbyterian back to the bought that brought them over from Scotland. I am really grateful for the church that I was fortunate enough to grow up in the generation of youth and leadership that I did. I know that not everyone who was my age or a few years on either side had the same experience, but for me church was my safe space. It was one of the few places where I felt like I was fully a part of something. There were a few brief moments where I wondered about stepping onto the path where I could end up working in a church, but every time I brought it up, I was greatly discouraged from it. I’m so glad I was. I needed the time of questioning what it was I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.
Enter college where it was a time during which I drifted away from the more traditional faith and church ideas. I ended up with many friends who were also doing the searching that I was, people of faith who were wandering without a home. Having grown up in the Northeast, it was a bit of a culture shock to move to be in the Bible belt in North Carolina. Suddenly the groups that I came across were not discussing the same types of things that I had learned in church. I decided that instead of joining a faith group and I would join a variety of service groups. Through these groups it felt like I was still living out the faith I claimed. I loved my time with them and learned a lot that would serve me well in my future career path. It was also during this time that I decided that a career in science wasn’t my passion, but what I really wanted was to work with people and switched to Human Services (which was defined as the art and science of helping people). Throughout this time, even though I loved my friends and the programs I was involved in, it did always feel like there was something missing and an element of community that I had lost.
Upon graduation, I decided to use my degree while at the same time taking some time off from school and began working with AmeriCorps on a college campus to bring together community organizations and students to create partnerships supporting the non-profits. In one of those times when the saying that we make plans and God laughs applies, this was when I decided to go to seminary. I say this because throughout my working through my major and then with AmeriCorps, we had limitations on the work that we could do with religious organizations. I still wasn’t sure that it was the path that I wanted to go down, but the program that I was looking at had a joint MSW and M.Div where I could stick to more of my original planning with and MSW and then through in this other niggling element in my brain. I ended up applying with the thought that maybe I wouldn’t get in and then I would know to go another way. Then I got in. Then I decided I probably couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t end up going anyways. Then the financial aid package came through. I decided that having the change to move to Richmond sounded like a good plan and since everything kept lining up, maybe I should just go with it.
I spent my first semester of seminary rotating between having an amazing experience where I was meeting all of these wonderful people and feeling like I had completely gotten myself in over my head and wanting to quit. Then one of those people who I had met approached me about working on starting a campus ministry together. There had been money set aside for creating this group and while he had the right energy and experience with the people and programming side of a campus ministry, he wasn’t as familiar with the school side of things. With my experience having worked at a college, we felt like we could be a good team to get this thing up and running. Having never gotten involved in a campus ministry, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. Like some of the best unexpected things in our lives, it ended up being the beginning of a love story for me, a love of campus ministry, that is.
Getting everything up off the ground wasn’t always the easiest, but seeing the way it came together and how a group of students, who, like me in college, were searching for community and for a place to ask questions and learn more about what it was to be people of faith was richly rewarding. Getting to explore what a new ministry could be and how we could meet the needs of the students and find ways to connect them over their questions around faith was something I had never experienced before and filled me in ways I never could have expected. I spent the next three and a half years working with the ministry, building, growing and dreaming. We even managed to grow to the size where the group gained attention and could now afford to have a full-time staff person. Upon graduating from seminary, I was called somewhere else though.
I entered into the next 5 years in college ministry with an ecumenical ministry. I already had found out how much passion I had for working with students in college in my last position and now I began to fall in love with full-time ministry, particularly with the fun that comes with ecumenical ministry. When people would ask me what is next, I would always say I don’t know, I thought working in a campus ministry and with students would be a forever thing, that I would always be in full-time ministry moving from call to call. Yet, once again, I think I hear God laughing. Life sometimes goes in unexpected directions. Fast forward several years, while I still have a heart for college students and campus ministry, my life has changed in unexpected ways: marriage, loss, a big holy no at the question of continuing in my position another year, and twin babies arriving any day now. Another thing that has changed is a part of my call. Through several different arenas that I had ended up in, I find myself drawn to working with and serving other people working in ministry. From finding ways to create connections to finding ways to meet the needs of ministers working in our current climate (in both the secular and church world), I am drawn in and have begun to wonder what this means for where my life is headed.
It was in this last position that I discovered the National Campus Ministry Association. Something that I never expected to change my ministry and in some ways my life in such drastic ways. I saw a Facebook post talking about this new thing called the Bethany Initiative where they were looking for new campus ministers to be a part of this group that would be joining in spiritual exercises and fellowship together. It was a rich experience for me and I think probably the only thing that kept me from leaving ministry entirely due to burn out. Campus ministry can be a very lonely field, there may be other ministers around you, but often they are working in parishes and don’t understand the world of ministry in higher education settings. The connections I made through first Bethany and then NCMA at large and the conferences were feeding to my soul and my ministry. I quickly entered the world of the Coordinating Committee and became President. During my term, the parallels of transition for both the organization and my life continued to amaze me. We are in this place of dreaming what’s next for the organization as I have been dreaming of what is next for me.
It fell into place that the time where NCMA was trying to figure out how we could get the help we needed, hopefully in the form of some additional staff, was the same time that I was realizing that my husband and I loved our life where we are and what we thought was going to be one baby turned out to be two. Full-time ministry suddenly wasn’t in the plan for me anymore. CoCom decided that we needed someone in the interim who could help start moving on all of the hopes, dreams, and plans we were making while we continued to put together information for a permanent part-time person. It felt like even though God has laughed all along that it was a path where things lined up just a little bit perfectly. I could hit the ground running and begin to get all of our plans moving where we wanted them too. I have big dreams for where NCMA and my own ministry can head and my prayer is that God will keep laughing and leading all the way through.