Blogger Laura Kline is the Director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University and serves on the NCMA CoordinatingCoordinating Committee Committee. This blog post talks about the value of storytelling in campus ministry.
I don’t remember when I first heard an episode of The Moth podcast, but it was love at first listen! For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, The Moth shares “thousands of true stories, told live and without notes, to standing-room-only crowds worldwide.” Stories range from the horrific (a refugee recalling their flight from war-torn homeland alone as a child because their parents prioritized the child’s safety over their own) to the very mundane (a forgotten grocery delivery service cart causing embarrassment when a single apple is delivered). There’s something very voyeuristic and fascinating listening to intimate details about complete strangers’ lives. At the same time, it can also be affirming to hear our own struggles, mistakes, heartbreaks, and successes echoed in the lives of others. Those common threads unite us, binding us closer together in a time when our society and media outlets scream constantly about all the ways in which we are divided.
Storytelling is a quintessential human practice, which has been used since the dawn of time. Across national borders, in every language and culture, we find stories in our homes, in our schools, on our televisions, and in our houses of worship. As Campus Ministers, many of us were raised on these religious stories. In fact, every major religion utilizes storytelling to help followers understand where we came from, who made us, and how that Maker wants us to live. Our religious stories may be historical retellings of prophets and their teachings or imagined parables meant to help us better understand the unknowable nature of God and God’s Kingdom. And throughout the ages, these stories continue to move us, inspire us, and teach us.
Incorporating storytelling into our ministry, then, seems like an obvious move. In fact, as I began looking around, there are a number of churches already implementing part-time or full-time staff in storytelling ministry. Many of these look like coordinating witness testimonials and/or social media campaigns in congregational settings. Additionally, any good preacher could school us all in the use of storytelling as a means to lead and teach congregants. And so we find many natural extensions into the ministry we do on college campuses, of which I’d like to share just a few.
Our trifold mission statement in Campus Ministry at Bellarmine University is committed to creating opportunities for students to encounter God, their true self, and others. In this encounter of others, we hope to build and strengthen faith communities and a larger sense of Bellarmine community. Again, there are so many things that divide us – from denominations or political affiliations to race and sexuality – that when we can focus in on that which connects us, that shared humanity, we are reminded of the Thomas Merton quote, “we are already one, but we imagine we are not…” One such program we implemented at Bellarmine is the Everyone Has a Story monthly evening of storytelling. Each month, we select a theme – home, fear, love, destiny, etc. – and invite students, faculty, staff, and occasional community members to share their personal stories around the given theme. Faith is always an underlying motif, which sometimes is brought to the forefront of a given story, other times left less explicitly-stated. Following the 3-4 stories for the evening, a facilitator begins a Q&A discussion with the group, including storytellers and attendees, and will often try to zero in on where God or faith was present in the story. We also ask attendees to reflect on how they saw themselves reflected in the story or what it spoke to within them. In other words, how do our stories connect us, one to another? It has been an intimate program and one that often ends in tears and hugs all around. This is the ministry of encounter!
Another aspect of our mission of encounter is to encourage authentic engagement with the ways in which many of us orient around religion differently. I am of a mind that I cannot be firm in my own faith until I have been exposed to worldviews different from my own, challenged to critically evaluate that which I was taught as a child, and either embrace or move away from those teachings into a more adult understanding of and commitment to my own faith. We have explored a couple ways for students, faculty, staff, and members of the larger Louisville community to share stories of their faith beliefs and what that looks like in personal practice. Two worth mentioning are "speed-faithing" and Human Library events. While neither of these are original programming, we have found their implementation to be beneficial in broadening students’ worldviews through exposure in a way that feels both personal and authentic. In speed-faithing, which we have done with Res Life and other staff trainings, students pair up with a peer for quick 2-minute speed-dating-esque conversations with each other about values and topics with some spiritual depth. What happens is that students report having conversations with their peers that are more substantive than the topics usually broached with each other in day-to-day conversation, many times for fear of offending or disagreeing with each other. All speed-faithing is, at its core, is storytelling in a Q&A format that draws from the students’ own experiences and belief systems: Who is a faith leader that inspires you? How do you recharge spiritually? Does your current worldview match the one in which you were raised? At our Human Library event, which we presented for first-year students during their week of welcome activities in August, human “books” were able to be “checked out” by small groups of first-year students, whereupon they told the story of their own particular worldview. For our event, the books had a short time limit so that the students got the opportunity to hear from at least three different books. Titles of our books included: From Trinitarian to Unitarian, Syro-Malabar, and Bi-Religious Baha’i. Even books reflecting similar worldviews presented very different lived experiences (ie: two cradle Catholic male-identifying students had very different faith experiences as out-gay/straight men – both still finding beauty and truth in their shared tradition in different ways!) Again, what resulted was a desire by students to know more about each other and about religions or spiritual practices different from their own. The point of these activities is not to persuade or evangelize each other, but to grow in our understanding of and respect for the variety of thought and practice, recognizing that we all find meaning and connection to the Divine in different ways. Again, these events have led to the creation and deepening of relationships between students and others in our community, helped students in crystalizing and naming their own values and beliefs, and opened the door to further panel seminars on interfaith topics due to growing student interest.
These are just a few of the ways that we have utilized storytelling on our campus to promote the mission of Campus Ministry and provide opportunities for spiritual growth for all of our students. Our stories, afterall, do more than simply inform us; they can take us on a journey. Done well, a good story can make us FEEL the experience of another person and force us to adjust our own experiences accordingly to make room for new understanding, spiritual stretching and growth.
So, as we say to our students here, Everyone has a story, what’s yours?
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.
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....