11 Apr

I tell students that this is real life.  Right now, in the midst of exams and papers and stress and weird relationships and doubts and faith.  This is it.  There is not some time beyond this moment, this college experience, when your “real life” starts.  This is your real life and it counts.  My point being, there is no easy or better or more ideal time to be who you want to be and live how you are called to live.

Exploring different expressions of faith, trying on new spiritual disciplines, making intentional choices about how to spend time, money, and love – these are the habits I hope students begin to develop now.  So as the academic year winds down and our new leadership team takes the helm, I’ve been thinking about the habits we have developed at Wesley.  When I think about what campus ministry has to share with or teach the church, these are two of our practices that come to mind.

Leaders intentionally step aside and mentor new leaders.  Over the course of several years, our Student Coordinating Council (SCC) made an intentional cultural shift.  Rather than “awarding” fourth-year students (that’s what we call “seniors” here at Mr. Jefferson’s university) with every lead position in the group, leaders in the group began to plan ahead for their own exits.  A third-year student heading up the spring break mission planning team might actively mentor a younger student on the team, teaching him the ropes all year, then step down from that position rather than keeping it until graduation.  Often the stepped-down leader stays on the team, offering support and encouragement to the new leader.  Rather than the lament of, “Wow.  I’m worried about the SCC next year.  So many of us are graduating,” we now have a proactive plan of mentoring, transition, and support.

In stark contrast to the problem many churches face, having the exact same leaders enthroned in their positions for decades, our students have graciously worked to make our leadership more dynamic and fluid.  It’s less about personal positioning and more about the leadership and ministry needs of the group.  On the surface this may seem easier to do in a campus ministry setting where there is a “natural expiration date” for most students – even if it ends up being 5 or 6 years instead of 4.  True, they will all eventually move on, but it’s easy enough to hold on tightly until the last minute and then relinquish leadership on the way out the door.  This was more common here a few years back.  It was a thoughtful, faithful, intentional change of habit that brought us to our new ministry rhythm.

We also make a habit of sharing our faith.  Out loud.  In public.  We visit area churches to thank them for their support, connect with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and invite their further participation in campus ministry.  Often I preach, some of our singers and musicians play, one student gives a “Life at Wesley” taste of what campus ministry looks like, and another couple of students offer the parts of the service we call “Sharing Our Faith.”  I don’t give them a lot of direction, usually something like this:  Talk about your faith journey and why/how Wesley has been part of that in college.  I assure them that there is no right way to do this, except to talk about their own particular stories and how God has been showing up.

I have heard stories that surprised me, from students I know well.  I have seen reserved students step up when asked to do this.  Most of the stories are not sensational.  Some have predictable elements.  But they are unique and utterly captivating.  Listening to these brave students stand up in front of strangers to talk about loneliness and break-ups and being far from home and how God intervenes in the business of majors – and how they are putting all of this together as part of their faith journeys – has been a great gift.  After hearing students share their faith this spring, one of our Board members commented on this habit of ours.  She used to work at a church where she tried and tried to get people to talk personally and specifically about their faith journeys, only to be told that they didn’t have anything to say.  She said, “They think they have to have a dramatic conversion story for it to ‘count.’  They haven’t heard any other type of faith stories, but this (what the students are doing) is what they need to hear – and do themselves.”

If what I tell students is right – that this is real life so hop to it – then I hope that what we do here is transferable to the next stage of real life, after campus ministry.  And, if not precisely transferable, then at least instructive for forming new habits in new places and stages.  These are two habits I hope they take with them, personally and for the life of the church.


Deborah loves hiking, cooking, reading, and a good strong cup of coffee. She believes that a rainy day is one of God’s great gifts and that When Harry Met Sally can never be seen or quoted too many times.  When she is not throwing pottery on the wheel, she also enjoys writing, sometimes for the online magazine catapult.   She is an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and serves as director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia.  She has been in campus ministry for 11 years and shares the journey with her husband and stepson.


One Response to “Habits”


  1. College Ministry: Conversations and Contexts – first day walking - April 14, 2012

    […] been pointed in the right direction. From the National Campus Ministry Association, this post is a great perspective on encouraging students in ministry to their peers as an expression of their own faith.  I have heard stories that surprised me, from students I […]

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