Story Magazine

Second Quarter, 2002

Raising pastors, training leaders: ELCA campus ministries nourish the Church

by Robert O. Smith M.Div. senior/M.A., Islamic Studies

When did you answer the call to ministry in the church? For most of todays seminarians, that call was confirmed during their college years. By building deep, challenging relationships, the campus ministries of the ELCA seek to help young adults discover their vocational identity in God's world.

In 1997, the ELCA's Division for Higher Education and Schools oversaw a study by Pastor Sara Massey-Gillespie that documented the undergraduate alma maters of the current clergy roster as well as of people then involved in the candidacy process. For many, the results were surprising.

Of the 17,211 rostered leaders surveyed, close to 55 percent were products of Lutheran colleges. However, when the field was narrowed to those then in preparation for ministry, only about 31.6 percent were from Lutheran undergraduate institutions. That means that 68.4 percent of the seminarians in 1997 were products of non-Lutheran schools. By all accounts, this trend continues.

This is where ELCA campus ministries come in. Of those 703 students surveyed who had come from non-Lutheran colleges, 335 of them came from schools with a Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM) presence. Through providing an ELCA presence at roughly 120 private colleges and universities and with partner congregations at over 600 campuses nationwide, LCM understands itself as providing a ministry crucial to the future of the church.

"The church needs to recognize the position of campus ministry in the lives of young people," says Brett Jorgensen, an M.Div. student who was involved with the Lutheran Campus Center during his undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "College is where most people will make the decision to go to seminary. Some might make the decision in high school, but that's rare."

Experiences like Jorgensen's affect the shape of today's campus ministry."On many state university campuses, many students haven't heard someone say, ࡈI think your gifts are just about right for work in the church.' So many people wind up in seminary because someone has done that gift identification for them," said Galen Hora (D.Min., '99), assistant director for campus ministry advancement and deployed director for Iowa.

"If you make up your mind in high school [that you are called to enter the ministry], you may go to a church school," Hora added. "On the campuses of state and large private universities, there come a number of students that have not yet done a lot of work in vocational discernment."

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, in his column for the May 2002 issue of The Lutheran, noted that "we now have 2,300 ELCA congregations without a called pastor." Given this shortage, it is clear that campus ministry is important for the immediate future of the church. But producing ordained ministers isn't the sum of what campus ministry is about. Instead, vocational discernment has become a hallmark of LCM.

"That we are involved with vocational discernment means that we're also helpful to future lawyers, engineers and teachers," Hora said. "I don't know anywhere else in a university setting that a student can hear a word of affirmation for their gifts in the church. Identifying those gifts is one of the most important things we can do."

Certainly, that's what Stephanie Larson, first year M.Div. student, found during her time at Christus Rex, an LCM site at the University of North Dakota under the leadership of Pastor Tim Megorden ('73) and AIM Kathy Fick.

"In college, I knew I needed to continue my involvement in the church," Larson said. "There was a student from my hometown who had attended Christus Rex and he invited me."

At the time, Larson didn't see working in the church as a part of her professional future. "I wanted to go into governmental affairs or public relations--some kind of political work," Larson recalled.

But her involvement at Christus Rex transformed those interests. "I began to understand that the social statements are political statements," she said. "My love of politics was not lost or left behind; it was integrated into my faith life. When I understood that I could be both a God person and a politician, then it was okay to come to seminary. They helped me, as a young person, to identify and name my gifts."

Larson has taken the lessons of vocational discernment learned at Christus Rex into her seminary years. "How do you fit as a child of God in this world? We tend to separate the two, but campus ministry doesn't do that," she said. "When you can say 'I am that and I am this' and see how those fit together, you not only have an occupation but a vocation."

Larson sees that sort of vocational emphasis as crucial for today's church. "We have people crying for a purpose," she said. "God has given each person a gift; the church really has to help people find their gifts and, once they've found it, to help them use it as part of their call."

Jerie Smith is an associate in ministry on staff at the LCM University Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Additionally, she served on the Minneapolis Area Synod candidacy committee for over 20 years and is an ELCA-trained discernment guide.

"I'm in the middle of people considering ordination and people considering making their life a total vocation," she said of her position as a rostered lay leader in campus ministry. "It is important that we communicate that people who don't enter ministry are no less a part of the church."

Lutheran Student Movement (LSM) has long encouraged the lay involvement of young adults. "LSM lets students be involved in an organization of the church that is also parallel to the church," Smith said. "It doesn't matter if they're pre-sem or pre-engineering, they can still be a leader."

According to Larry Meyer, pastor at the Lutheran Student Center in Lincoln, Neb., products of campus ministry often make for active parishioners. "What I see happening is that those really active here usually become leaders in congregations," he said. 

The Student Center's tradition of hiring students as music directors feeds this legacy of leadership. "When they graduate, they usually go out and become a choir director or organist for another congregation," Meyer said. "That gives me great pleasure."

Congregational leadership from alums of campus ministries occurs in more subtle ways as well. "One time, I got a call from an alum who's now a professor in North Dakota serving on a worship committee asking about using one of our worship settings he remembered," he said.

And recently, when a couple who had met and been married at the Student Center joined a congregation in Lincoln, Meyer told their new pastor that the young husband had a beautiful singing voice. "It wasn't but a week later that I got a call from Brian saying, ࡈHe's asking me to be the cantor!'" he laughed. "That kind of thing is where we really show partnership with the greater church."

LCM has always valued its companionship with the church, both regionally and church-wide. "It's really a ministry for the entire people of God," said Hora.

This strong connection is manifested in the products of campus ministry now attending Luther. Even if they are in their second or third years of seminary life, these students still use words like "we" and "our" when speaking of their campus ministry homes.

"I think I use those words because such a huge part of that ministry is about building relationships," Larson shared. "They're a part of me and I know I'm a part of them."