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2018 National Gathering Ignite: Mark Elsdon

Mark Elsdon, Executive Director and Campus Minister at Pres House, gives an Ignite presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Mark shares a story about how creative revenue generation and a major PCUSA impact investment turned a campus ministry on the verge of closing into a vibrant multi-million dollar ministry serving 750 students per year. How might church capital be leveraged for mission impact in other new and innovative ways in your own context?

2017 National Gathering Ignite: Presbyterian College

Rebecca Davis, professor at Presbyterian College, and students Joaquin Ross and Jacob Kennedy, give an Ignite presentation on racial unrest and reconciliation on campus.

Finding My Call on Campus, Finding My Faith in Interfaith

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box’? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Laura Brekke

My full title is Director of Religious Diversity.

It’s an interesting title as it doesn’t explicitly name me as a minister.

My job itself operates into two spheres – on the one hand, I am the campus minister for our Protestant Christian students. I have a Christian diversity intern, and lead a weekly Bible study. I advise three Protestant groups, I offer special Protestant worship opportunities. On the other hand, I am also chaplain to all religious and spiritual communities beyond the Christian umbrella. I am the chaplain for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, those who identify as spiritual but not religious, and so on. I lead bi-weekly interfaith dinner discussions that offer opportunities to engage in conversations from race and religion to religion and pop culture with peers from different religious and spiritual traditions. I support diverse holy day celebrations, advise the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on topics specific to religious diversity.

My parish extends to more than five thousand students; Catholic, Protestant and of many religious traditions. My preaching is less often behind a pulpit and more often in the form of a lecture. I lead groups through workshops on intersectional identity engagement and recognizing religious bias. And with one of my professor colleagues, I co-lead the Inter-Belief Floor – a floor in one of our residence halls focused on interfaith engagement. Not exactly skills on the average seminary checklist.

I served a traditional church before I became a campus minister. I loved my year as stated supply to a tiny church in rural Alabama, but my heart has been for college students. I grew up in a non-religious family. My faith in Jesus came to fruition in college – because of a patient and welcoming campus minister, Rev. Dr. Diane Mowrey at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. I was given space to ask questions and grow in fits and starts on my faith journey. I take those memories of encouragement into my ministry at Santa Clara University.

My biggest challenge is ministering to students of other religious traditions. We don’t have a campus rabbi, imam, or holy leader from non-Christian traditions. And yet for me, being a chaplain outside of my comfort zone has rooted me deeper in the grace and compassion of Jesus Christ. How do we preach the gospel always, yet use words only when necessary? How do we show the love of God to someone who has rejected religion? Where do we encourage questions as young people grow into their identities beyond the safe embrace of their family? These weren’t the questions I was taught to answer in seminary – but these are the questions which have given my ministry meaning and great joy.

Now, in the wake of executive orders which seek to ban my students and colleagues from residence in my country, these questions of compassion, of reaching beyond the tradition that roots me, are even more important. When people say Jesus wasn’t a refugee and refuse to imagine an entire religious group as a complex collection of real humans with real hopes and fears, I find my job as the director of religious diversity even more important. Diversity often means division, but it doesn’t have to. Diversity can mean unity without uniformity.

My greatest joy as a university chaplain is that I am surrounded by people who make me think hard on what and why my faith matters. They aren’t shy in their questions about Jesus and his miracles, or how I read and interpret scripture. I miss preaching weekly, but I get the joy of leading a Bible study with seven college students who are excited to be there each week. I don’t get to preside at communion regularly, but I do get to help plan the annual Passover seder with the Jewish Student Union – and learn a lot in the process. I don’t get to take part in youth service trips, but I do get to see my evangelical student group organize and run a weekly worship night with more skill than some new pastors!

Ministry beyond the church walls is challenging – it’s full of unforeseen pitfalls, and unexpected graces. There’s endless paperwork and program assessment, to be sure. But there are colleagues who ask tough questions. There are students who bring their whole selves to their worship. And there is the wonder of the way God is working through each crack and cranny of the human heart.


Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied history and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Masters of Divinity form Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Pastoral Care for College Students Over Break

By John Rogers

As I type this, students are sitting in our campus ministry center studying away for finals. Some are seasoned veterans who know just where to find the exam blue books, free snacks, and know who has swipes left on their meal plan cards. But many are just starting, and the stress levels are through the roof. Most of our students have rarely seen anything other than an A, and most of them are coming in to college with over a semester’s worth of credits from their high school AP courses.

So, the pressure of doing well (mostly assumed on their own) creates a level anxiety—even among those who are involved in one of our campus ministries. Hope, Joy, Love, Peace… Yes, anticipation is in the air, but not always one wrapped up in an eschatological hope. Rather, it is anticipation of the grade they will learn of sometime over break.

PCM Thanksgiving

Campus Ministry Thanksgiving Dinner

Granted, some are pretty laid back, doing well, and surviving the trauma of a changed major or two. But within all of this — all of them — we need to remember are young adults who are maturing into a theological approach to their life. They are all facing challenges and are beginning to newly understand what it means to discern what they are “called” to do in life. They do so within the context of choosing a major or a career path in this new day in which most adults go through at least one if not two career changes in their professional life.

What many of them need to hear from their pastors and church members at home is more than, “how is college life?” They need someone to ask them, “how are you hearing God’s voice in your midst?” Far too often, we fall into the easy misperception that the undergraduate years are little more than a hoop to jump through. When we do this, we miss out on the wonderful opportunities during these years to encourage and spiritual development and maturation. Using language of “gift” rather than “privilege” goes a long way in assuring that the conversation will go beneath the surface. Asking your college student about their understanding of call and vocation is a wonderful way to start.

Yes, most will be catching up on their sleep that they forwent during the exam period (and it is not because they were cramming and did not study throughout the semester — most of them did. When you set high expectations for yourself, the work is never done.) But, amidst the busyness of this season with all the responsibilities and opportunities of Advent and Christmas, reaching out to your students is one thing not to miss. This is a big time in their lives. A lot is going on. New things they are learning along with an abundance of new people and new ideas. Take them to lunch or coffee, and ask them about it. The college years won’t last forever, and if you don’t seize the opportunity now, it will be gone before you know it, and you will have missed the chance to engage with them at a critical time in their lives. Now is when and where they are laying claim on the land of who they are and want to be. From my desk in the campus ministry center and my interactions, I can tell you that if you think their time of confirmation was important, multiply that by a factor of 10. The world is opening up to them in new ways — what a difference it can make for them to hear that their church, their pastors, are interested in hearing about it.  I’ll be praying for them while they are on break — and for you, too.

I’d also invite you to keep in your prayers the 1000+ who will be gathering at Montreat for their annual college conference January 2-5. It is a powerful time for conversation, worship, and engagement with students from all over the country. These students are expressing a collective thanks for the freedom of a break where tests and exams are in the rearview mirror and new classes and spring break mission experiences are on the horizon for the spring. AND if you find that they are hungering for something that is missing in their college experience where they have not connected to a campus ministry — get them plugged in. Call or email someone on their campus and help them identify a ministry that will minister to them as they discern how God will use them.

RogersJohn Rogers it the Associate Pastor for Campus Ministry at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill.   As the campus minister John works with a congregation of students that ranges from about 70 – 90 students each year. Students at PCM come by for Thursday night dinner, fellowship, and program, and throughout the week for other activities and worship at UPC. Also John staffs the outreach committees at UPC. He’s husband to Trina and dad to Liza and Cate. Before all of that he coached golf and was a scratch golfer.

Faithful Millennials, Children, and the Steps In Between

Beginning today, we’re changing up the NEXT Church blog a bit. We’ll continue to post good content, but each month will have a different theme or lens for what’s NEXT. We’ve asked leaders across the PC(USA) to curate a month of blog content based on their own passion in ministry. This does two things:

  1. Allows us to delve more deeply into specific topics, and
  2. Increases the number and variety of voices from whom we’re hearing as we practice ministry in the church that is becoming.

Thanks to Steve Lindsley and Lynn Turnage for curating this first month as we talk about what’s now and what’s next in faith formation of children.

*****

It’s time to talk children!

Over the next weeks, you will hear from various folks who are pastors, theologians, advocates, educators, parents, elders – or some combination of these – all who are passionate about children in church, children in worship, and children’s faith formation.

Who are the primary shapers of children’s faith? The church, the pastors, the officers, the teachers, and we know parents are the primary educators.

This series of blog posts brings together all of these voices as we think about forming the faith of children in the church, and most importantly in worship.

We know we are blessed to have children in our churches (what church doesn’t want more of them?!), and still we encounter people who could care less or “don’t know what to do with them” or are weary (or scared?) of children’s energy.

So now’s the time to think about the issues, attitudes and perspectives we juggle, what parents are thinking, what children have to say, and WHY we care. Enjoy these gifts of God!


Faithful Millennials, Children, and the Steps In Between

By Adam J. Copeland

parent child smallWatchers of religion online in recent months will likely have seen Rachel Held Evan’s CNN Belief Blog piece flying around the internet, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” (Most classify millennials as those born between 1980 and 2000.) After Rachel’s post was shared thousands of times via social media, other bloggers penned responses to Rachel’s piece.

Brian McCracken wrote in the Washington Post that the way to keep millennials in the church is to keep church “uncool.”

A Lutheran bishop, James Hazelwood asked, “Is Rachel Held Evans Right?” and Rachel linked to the post on her blog. Christopher Smith called for a “Slow Church” way forward, emphasizing dialogue with one and all.

Though the hubbub about millennials has died down for now, I’ve continued to ponder faith development and children.

I teach at a church-related college and am working on a book in which 20-somethings share essays about wrestling with faith and college. As I read through dozens of submissions for the book, a theme surfaced.

Too many millennials have reflected on their faith saying, in part….“I just went through the church motions until college. I mean, my parents took me to church growing up, but it didn’t mean anything. My parents didn’t seem to care. Not until college did I being to wonder, ‘What is this faith stuff anyway?’”

The millennial writers share deep, meaningful, diverse, beautiful stories. Certainly there is much more to the essays than this thread. And yes, certainly, there are some developmental issues at play here.

But, with all the millennial-related blog posts swirling around the Internet, what might parents to do to prepare their children for the transition to college or a workplace? How, today, do we raise a child in the faith?

If the essays that have come across my desk are any indication, a good start is a simple one: talk about faith.

Faith communities are essential, of course, but for many of us a solid faith foundation is first built at home. So parents, do your best to connect all of living to faith. Talking about God’s blessing—and God’s call— at home, in the car, over meals, even online.

One simple way to support the faith of our children is to teach prayer practices. And, as is true with much of the faith, sometimes it’s best to learn by doing. Praying at meals and before bedtime can begin a lifelong practice of prayer. Silence or sabbath, too, can be prayerful if approached in a meditative, thoughtful way focused on God. (See MaryAnn McKibben-Dana’s new book, “Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time.”)

In my family growing up, discussing the sermon after worship was a sort of Olympic sport. Most young children won’t be up for debating the finer points of the sermon each Sunday, but they will gain a lot if parents model engaged, thoughtful reflection on worship and Christian education. Inviting children into a conversation about the Bible stories encountered on Sunday shows that faith matters beyond Sunday at noon.

One of the recurring themes of the essays I’m working through is millennials’ faith struggles when met with pain, suffering, or loss. After all, what does God have to do with disease or natural disaster?

When parents are honest about their faith lives—the joys, sorrows, and struggles—they can model for their children a resilient, thoughtful faith that embraces the ups and downs of live.

Faith is a head thing, after all, but it’s also a direction of the heart.

At the risk of being flippant, if parents believe it’s worth the trouble to take their children to church in the first place then it behooves them not to stop there. Veggie Tales, though fun, don’t substitute for a committed life of discipleship.

Christianity, after all, is a holistic faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ matters not just for an hour on Sunday, but for the whole of life, for the whole of the world.

Why are millennials leaving the church? Who knows and, let’s be real, many of the reasons are probably beyond our immediate control. What we can control, though, is our commitment to living out the faith we teach our children, the faith in which we baptize.


Adam Copeland CCAdam J. Copeland is Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota where he teaches in the department of religion. He blogs at A Wee Blether (http://adamjcopeland.com) and tweets @ajc123.

Image Credits: steeple: Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock; parent and child: kuma/shutterstock