By Kara Witherow, Editor
Transformational. Inclusive. Loving. A home-away-from home.
In a word, life changing.
As a sophomore in college, away from home for the first time, Savannah Buice was looking for a community of believers. Invited to a worship service at Valdosta State University’s Wesley Foundation, she went and immediately felt welcomed and at home.
“I feel like when you go to college you’re out on your own for the first time, and, for a lot of people, they look to join the first thing that gives them community,” said Buice, who graduated from VSU in May. “For me, Wesley was a place where I felt like somebody was always in my corner, where somebody was always praying for me and encouraging me. I knew that I always had people who cared for me for the right reasons and encouraged me to do good things.”
VSU’s Wesley Foundation is one of 16 Wesley Foundations and 9 UM-related campuses in Georgia. Campus ministries serve as the bridge between church and college, offering God’s grace and love in a new and often foreign world.
The missional presence of The United Methodist Church on college and university campuses around the world, Wesley Foundations seek to give college students the space to discover, develop, and deepen their walks with the Lord.
“Wesley Foundations are uniquely positioned to reach out to college students and offer Christian community,” said Rev. C.J. Harp, director of VSU’s Wesley Foundation. “Our tagline (at VSU Wesley) is that transformation best happens in the context of community. The communities that college students place themselves in will greatly shape the trajectory of their lives.”
It’s critical that students connect to a community of faith before they arrive on campus, or as soon after arriving as possible, says Rev. Lynn Meadows-White, Minister of Discipleship at Pierce Chapel UMC in Midland and the parent of a 24-year-old graduate of Berry College and an 18-year-old rising freshman at Georgia Tech.
“I think it’s really important that we try to prepare our high school graduates to get connected to campus ministry when they reach their destination in the fall,” Rev. Meadows-White said. “To have a group that you connect with, where you can make friends and feel safe, and to have a place where you can struggle with questions and doubts and issues and fears is crucial to the faith development of any person of any age, but particularly for college students when their environment is so new and often so challenging in so many ways.”
Rev. Meadows-White has encouraged each of Pierce Chapel UMC’s 17 high school graduates to find and connect with a ministry on their future college campus. For those attending college where there is a Wesley Foundation, she sent their names and contact information to the UMCommission and asked that the campus minister contact the student in advance of their arrival on campus.
It’s an easy but important step pastors or church staff can take to help ensure recent graduates feel loved and cared for.
“There are so many options when the students go to orientation and get to the schools, and the first few days and weeks are overwhelming,” she said. “I know from my own experience and from watching other students that very often what they commit to the first month is what has their heart, if not for their whole experience, then for a long time.”
Studies show that more than half of the students who participate in youth ministry will leave the faith or become nominal Christians after high school. It’s imperative, say campus ministers, that pastors and congregations help connect and introduce students to Wesley Foundations and campus ministries.
“Anything we can do to help students continue their walk with Christ after high school can make a major impact on their faith in the future, the very least of which is to introduce them to campus ministries or their local campus minister,” said Dr. Jonathan Smith, director of Georgia Southern University’s Wesley Foundation. “If our churches truly care about the continued faith development of their youth after graduation and believe that their youth can make a difference in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then it is essential that we give them the opportunity to continue their walk with Jesus Christ in college by connecting them with a Wesley Foundation or campus ministry.”
Because Rev. Meadows-White had shared the names of Pierce Chapel UMC’s graduates with the UMCommission and asked that they be contacted, folks from Georgia Tech’s Wesley Foundation contacted her son and they arranged to meet while he was in town for orientation. She hopes all the church’s graduates were reached out to in this way.
“I think that if we, as pastors, are not willing to go the extra mile for the sake of our students then we are missing part of our pastoral duty and responsibility,” she said. “The faith of this generation is fragile, and I think that we need to do all we can to help connect them to the body of Christ in meaningful ways wherever the body of Christ is. We have a ready-made opportunity in our campus ministries, and we need to take the time to connect them. I want to encourage every pastor to at least make the effort to connect our students to a college campus ministry.”
The UMCommission makes it easy. All a student, parent, or pastor needs to do is visit the website (umcommission.org) or fill out the simple contact form.
College campuses are the most critical places for the future of the denomination and the faith, said Dr. Smith, and should not be neglected.
“Wesley Foundations and campus ministries produce the present and future lay and clergy leaders of our church,” he said. “They meet students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that transforms, not only their college experience, but the rest of the lives.”
While not all church members have a student in college, all can help support college students and campus ministries in three ways:
Pray for college students, that they might have wisdom and guidance from the Lord as they discern who they are and who they are becoming. Pray for God to move on college campuses and to bring an awakening among young adults. Pray for campus ministers and campus ministries to be attentive to the spiritual, physical, and psychological needs of their students so that they might be formed into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
Now more than ever, campus ministries need support from individuals and local churches to carry out their mission and ministry. Partnering with your local Wesley Foundation can be as easy as providing a meal or snacks during midterms or exam week or adding your local Wesley Foundation into your church's discipleship or missions budget. These may seem like small things, but they help campus ministers keep their focus on being a part of God's transformative work on campus rather than fundraising for the ministry.
Every United Methodist campus ministry in the state of Georgia has a website and a presence on social media. Take time to follow their ministries on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) to see the transformative work they are doing on their campuses and in their communities, and follow @umcommission to see what's happening at Wesley Foundations across the state. Then share those stories with your local church! Talk about how students are actively growing in their faith and transforming their campus by sharing the Gospel.