Campus Ministers Engage Spiritually Curious

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

BOSTON – Jamison Dunne of Hartland, Vt. knows first-hand how hard it can be to help college students get connected to church life. An Episcopalian and rising senior at the University of Vermont, he says many at his school take offense when students gather on campus to study scripture or any time religious art is shown in art history classes.

But he’s not discouraged. Instead he’s joined forces with those seeking to preserve and grow Episcopal campus ministries despite challenges ranging from religious disaffiliation trends to funding cuts.
Dunne recently spent a misty June day at Boston University, huddled in classrooms with Episcopalians and Lutherans who share his passion for sustaining campus and young adult ministry. He hopes to work with local congregations around Vermont to establish an Episcopal Church presence on three other college campuses.

“There a lot of people who, when they think of Christianity, they think of really kind of scary evangelicals who come and preach in the middle of campus,” Dunne said during a break at the three-day “Uncharted” conference. Religious literacy on Vermont campuses is low, he said, and students need exposure to a broader swath of Christianity, including those that bring a more liberal lens to interpreting scripture.

The Boston meeting marked the first time campus and young adult ministers from the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America met jointly for a national conference. The event showcased efforts to find efficiencies without diminishing impact. Shrinking diocesan budgets have led to reduced programmatic funding in some areas, according to Shannon Kelly, officer for young adult and campus ministries in the Episcopal Church.

Meeting ecumenically allowed the two churches to take advantage of Lutheran resources earmarked for this type of event. Funding came from the Philip N. Knutson Endowment in Lutheran Campus Ministry, which calls for “incorporating both heterosexual and homosexual perspectives” at conferences that address human sexuality. Keynote speaker Micah Meyer relayed his journey from losing his father, a Lutheran campus minister, to becoming the first openly gay man to appear in an advertising campaign for outdoor gear.

Participants explored prospects for similar collaborations in the field. One workshop unpacked the logistics for developing a joint Episcopal-Lutheran campus ministry.

Drawing some 250 staffers and volunteers from across the country, “Uncharted” provide space to discuss what’s working and not working amidst shifts in America’s religious landscape. National surveys suggest the soil can be rocky for those reaching out to young adults. For example:

  • Thirty-four percent of adults under age 40 now have no religious affiliation, versus only 17 percent among adults over 40, according to a June 2018 Pew Research Center survey.
  • A January 2019 Lifeway Research survey looked at people age 23 to 30 who attended church regularly in high school. Sixty-eight percent now say they attend church once a month at most or do not attend at all.

Against that backdrop, participants told how ministries are being broadened to convey openness to everyone, regardless of personal belief systems, sexual orientation or posture toward Christianity.

“In college, you kind of have to put on a persona – ‘I’m a this major or I’m a that major’ – and build up who you are,” Kelly said. “But in these [ministry] spaces, they can just be who they are. They can wonder. They can say things like: ‘I’m a nuclear engineering student, but I think I might be called to the priesthood. Don’t tell anybody because that’s really weird!’ They can really admit what’s going on in their hearts.”

Being open to everyone sometimes means expanding entryways into classic dimensions of church life. Take Bible study. Some college students had positive Bible study experiences, while others are itching to confront or argue with Biblical passages they find troubling or offensive. All need a campus ministry that gives them a chance to engage.

“They are looking for Bible study,” said Elizabeth Friedman, pastor of Lord of Light Lutheran Church on the University of Michigan campus. “Because even they’re in an area where they’re such a minority, there will be people who are looking for this word of grace that they haven’t heard.”

The Bible study workshop hashed out how to get past common stumbling blocks, such as students who insist on proof-texting by taking verses out of context, or who get stuck on a verse they find particularly objectionable.

Campus ministers shared tips for how they make Bible study approachable. For instance, at the University of Chicago, Episcopal Chaplain Stacy Alan sends out a Biblical passage in advance. She invites everyone to bring something – a poem, recorded music, a photograph – anything that illustrates their response to the text. Response is consistent enough to offer it every six weeks, she said. One reason: it lets participants be authentic, be creative and feel understood while engaging with holy scripture.

In other areas, being open to all comers means leaving the Christian particulars aside, at least at first. A workshop on “decision-making from the soul” walked participants through an exercise developed by Sarah Moore, a former corporate lawyer who now helps others learn to thrive. She specializes in working with people who regard themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Moore led attendees to close their eyes and think about an aspect of their lives in which they want to improve but don’t know how. Then she asked them to ponder a possible step they could take. Her method involved testing that step. How does it feel to the intellect? How does it feel to the emotions, to one’s physical body and to one’s own being? Participants were led to imagine a calming environment, engage with descriptive words and emoji, and also think about supportive companions (human and animal).

Though the method was not explicitly religious, Moore said group leaders can incorporate Christian elements, such as devotional prayers to help frame reflections. The exercise piqued curiosity in the room. Adam Conley, director of the Seattle Service Corps at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, said he planned to use the method with a group of six Episcopal Service Corps members this summer and again with a new group next fall.

“I think the universality of it has a lot of appeal,” Conley said. “I’m not exactly sure how they will respond to this, but I think it will spark some interesting questions and curiosity that might otherwise not be there.”


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