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.
During the summer of 2013, in my role as Salford Mennonite Church’s pastor for youth and young adults, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona for Mennonite Church USA’s biannual national gathering with my youth group in tow. Our week of service, learning, worship, and networking were all deeply moving and meaningful. We got to spend some quality time together attending the Youth Convention workshops and activities, and our hotel had a rooftop pool. I lost and found (and lost and found) my wedding ring while at a local water park with our students, and on one of the hottest days some students tried frying an egg on the sidewalk during the heatwave hitting Phoenix that summer. It was a great week, exemplifying the experience of being in youth ministry and walking with young adults.
Despite all that occurred, one experience still stands out above the rest.
On a whim I decided to go check out a seminar presented by Jim Rosenberger (a person I had never met) from University Mennonite Church (a congregation I’d never heard of) in State College, PA (a town I knew little about). At the heart of that seminar was an important question for the denomination to consider - why was it that Mennonite campus ministries only happened on Mennonite college and seminary campuses?
Jim shared that UMC was considering trying something new on the campus of Penn State. Their hunch was that the unique Anabaptist tradition may have something valuable to offer the campus ministry landscape in their community.
I was intrigued for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I had been interested in campus ministry almost as long as I had been considering a call to pastoral ministry. After graduating from Eastern Mennonite University I got a job in the EMU admissions office, working to recruit high school students to my alma mater. In that role I felt honored to be walking with students as they made big decisions, and as they stepped away from their families and home communities to try and define who they were becoming. Even though my job was not to be a minister to the students I worked with, it felt deeply pastoral. I realized during those years that if I was going to become a minister some day, I really wanted to work with youth and young adults.
From there my journey took me to Pasadena, California and the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary. Los Angeles County was a really interesting place to study theology. It provided a backdrop that illuminated many society complexities, and prevented me from assuming there were easy answers to my questions - both theological and societal. In southern California I watched cultures collide. I marveled at the weird way that part of the country could be both passionately progressive, and staunchly conservative. It was home to some of the wealthiest people in the nation, and also some of its poorest. It was a melting pot of cultures, and a home for many people who were just passing through the region. Highways were clogged with gas-chugging oversized SUVs, and tiny eco-friendly hybrid vehicles. Just about any kind of food, music, religion, art, or sporting event was within a short drive.
Fuller provided me with an incredible theological training, and it also afforded me the chance to explore some options for what ministry could be. I found an incredible opportunity at Occidental College to immerse myself in religion on college campus. Rev. Susan Young mentored me for a year as I watched the amazing way she directed the Office of Religious and SPiritual Life, moving with sensitivity between various religious groups and the students who found homes there. Susan taught me that there was a way to be authentically true to yourself and the tradition you represent, while also being present for students from other faith traditions and backgrounds. Occidental College also gave me a chance to see how religion was changing on college campuses. Fewer and fewer students identified as “religious”, and the Christian label was becoming synonymous in the minds of many young people with being narrow-minded, conservative, and fundamentalist. Being present in students lives as an alternative to that assumption was exciting. It provided a unique challenge to flip the script… to demonstrate that it was possible to be both a person of faith, and also be open-minded, progressive, and willing to appreciate new ideas and concepts. Fuller’s multi-denominational context provided with examples of how people from many different traditions worked collaboratively, while also holding true to their own tradition, and as a young and still-forming progressive Anabaptist I was able to borrow from this model to figure out how to collaborate and coexist while still being true to myself.
As seminary drew to a close I realized one major barrier stood in my way in becoming a campus minister or campus chaplain: my denominational tradition. It wasn’t that Mennonite Church USA was against people becoming campus ministers, just that the system was limited to one particular pathway. In 2010-11, as I was completing my MDiv at Fuller, the only Mennonite campus pastor positions were those found at the seven American Mennonite colleges and seminary institutions. Almost all were occupied by ministers who had been in the role for several years, or planned to be in the role for the long term. There did not seem to be a pathway to a role with one of those schools.
My focus shifted to positions beyond my tradition, but in doing so I discovered another challenge. Every campus minister opening I could find required ordination in some sort of Christian tradition. The Mennonite ordination track works somewhat differently than other traditions in that the candidate is first called into a pastoral role, and then after years of service and experience ordination is granted at the request of the local congregation. I was not ordained, and without a job chances were slim that my denomination was going to ordain me.
This winding road was how rather than starting my pastoral journey in campus ministry I ended up at Salford Mennonite Church, in a more traditional role of pastor for youth and young adults. I figured while waiting for ordination to be granted, I would continue to work with young adults and wait patiently for a time when ordination could allow me to apply for campus minister or campus chaplain positions. I arrived at Salford excited to begin that role, however with the thought that if a campus pastor role opened for me, I would consider moving on.
It was with some surprise then, that after a few years at Salford, before being ordained, I learned about this new Mennonite Campus Pastor position possibility at Penn State University.
Before the seminar had even ended I sent a text message to my wife Meredith - would she ever have interest in moving our family to State College for me to do campus ministry at Penn State? Her response was a single word with just two letters: NO.
To be continued....