Chaplains Encounter Faith in Campus Community

Renee Elder
August 15, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series examining the different kinds of ministries on campus involving United Methodists.

Emily Hoffman cleans the grave stone of Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, an abolitionist poet who settled in the Michigan woods during the 1830s. Hoffman was member of an Adrian College class on human trafficking which restored Chandler’s gravesite.

The Rev. Christopher Momany draws his college-age flock from the 1,600-student campus of UM-related Adrian College in Michigan, where he serves as chaplain and teaches courses in philosophy and history.

Momany said he began to think about a career in the ministry while he was still in school at Adrian.

"In some ways, our chaplaincy is a throwback to the model of college chaplaincy from decades ago – and I mean that in a good way," said Momany, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, who added that he also has an academic background and teaches part-time in addition to his clergy work. "So I would say this college chaplaincy is thought of as an intellectually grounded ministry that is both academic and student oriented."

The Rev. Bridgette D. Young Ross, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's assistant general secretary for Campus Ministry and College Chaplaincy, said chaplains are usually employees of a United Methodist-related or other private college or university. Chaplains serve the faculty and often represent the college outside the campus, too, Young Ross said.

"Campus ministry organizations provide an alternative to focusing exclusively on self-satisfaction and that's attractive to a lot of people who are looking for more meaning. It gives them the opportunity to live out their faith through service work," Young Ross said.

That's how Jamie Hollingshead got involved at Adrian.

Hollingshead, 22, first encountered Adrian's chaplain in a class Momany was teaching. "I had Pastor Chris as a professor my freshman year and started attending some of the meetings," she said.

She was moved to become involved with the campaign against human trafficking.

"A lot of people don't realize it still goes on today," Hollingshead said.

Adrian's heritage is rooted in social justice. Shortly after its founding, the campus became known as a friend to the Underground Railroad that was leading slaves out of the South before and during the Civil War. Today, a strong outreach on campus educates the public about human trafficking, a modern version of slavery.

Other activities include men's and women's Bible study groups, a religious life council, and a chapel service that takes place every Wednesday at noon.

Students from the multidenominational United Student Ministries of Fargo-Moorhead go caroling.

"Chapel is lively and student-led," Momany said. "I'm there and other staff and faculty participate, so it's intergenerational. Probably only 13 percent of our students are United Methodists, so it's a unique big-tent worship time – there's no Eucharist."

Momany's office employs 14 student staff members who do much of the planning and organizing of student initiatives.

"We like to think we offer a pretty high-octane intellectual environment, yet it's still a down-home, colloquial place."

Adrian also tends to turn out more than its fair share of students who wind up in ministry.

For example, Adrian sent 12 students seriously considering seminary to Exploration 2011 – far more than any other campus its size, Momany said. GBHEM sponsors Exploration, an event for young adults exploring a call to ordained ministry.

This chaplain sees his job not as ministering to a particular age group, but as shepherding a congregation that happens to be living and studying in one place.

"It's a ministry with a community of people just like any other, even though most of them tend to be younger," he said. "Still, they come in all sizes and shapes, just like church folk."

The United Methodist Church is affiliated with college programs in 520 locations throughout the U.S. Several generations have connected with the church through Wesley Foundations, the first of which was founded in 1913 as a place where students could not only explore Christian leadership opportunities and find fellowship but seek answers to tough theological questions, as well.

While many campuses still support the traditional Wesley model, others are partnering with similiar denominations, forging strong ties with local churches, and even expanding their target audience from merely "college students" to everyone in a certain age bracket.

Ecumenical Alliances

A performance of Godspell by members of United Student Ministries of Fargo-Moorhead, a group that draws from six faith traditions: American Baptist, Presbyterian U.S.A., Episcopal, Moravian, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist. The group is in Fargo, N.D.

A slightly different approach to campus ministry is the ecumenical alliance.

The Rev. Theta W. Miller, a UM clergywoman based in Fargo, N.D., is director of United Student Ministries of Fargo-Moorhead, a group that draws from six faith traditions: American Baptist, Presbyterian U.S.A., Episcopal, Moravian, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist.

Bringing together this theologically similar but traditionally diverse group requires an open and supportive atmosphere that encourages dialogue and a common mission of peace and justice, Miller said.

About 30,000 students attend public and private campuses along the Minnesota-North Dakota line. About 45 percent of those students are Catholic, another 45 percent are Lutheran, with only about 10 percent from other Christian traditions – so it made sense to form an ecumenical alliance.

The group is based on the North Dakota State University campus but has an aggressive outreach to students at the other schools.

"Our Facebook group is very active, and we also use Twitter, fliers, banners – we do whatever we can to make our presence known," she says.

Beginning with "welcome week" when students return to school, the ministry's lineup of activities often will include Bible study, Sunday night worship, prison ministry work, small group get-togethers, and an array of seasonal programming. Miller describes the group's focus as "Christ centered," and as such makes an effort to serve Communion at the Sunday evening worship service each week. Clergy from various member denominations also attend whenever possible.

Another important tradition for the organization is baking the Communion bread by hand.

"The bread for Communion is made by the community and shared by the community," she said. "The students connect with that."

While differences in theology rarely pose problems, finding steady sources of income from six denominations and two different states can be difficult, said Miller who has served as director of the ecumenical group for the past 14 years. She said she devotes at least half her working hours to development and fundraising projects.

"I wish everyone could open their eyes and see just how important this age group is for the church in the future – and now," she said.

*Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.

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