In 1994, God called me away from serving as associate pastor at First Church, St. Petersburg, Fla., to become chaplain at Agnes Scott College, my alma mater. My vocational shift prompted good Presbyterian church people and friends to ask, “Why do you want to leave the local church to work with students? They don’t even care about the church, do they?”
The obvious answer was that the church’s mission has never been wrapped around people’s interest in church but in the One who loves all — especially those sleeping in on Sunday mornings. If we Presbyterians hold any hope of reaching and nurturing the faith of the late-sleeping college students, we must adjust our expectations and ministry approaches to their needs and points of connection.
In my years at Agnes Scott many students sought me out for help to find ways to grow in faith, though most would not have described what they were asking in that way. Some sought faith communities for worship and came to me as freshmen asking for help in finding a church. Others sought ways to serve as volunteers meeting human need. Others wanted to be part of forming a structure for campus religious life. Some wanted my help in learning about the beliefs and practices of different religious groups. Still others sought a listening ear when they were troubled by doubts and questions too deep for them to bear alone.
After three years, I left Agnes Scott to accept a call to a church next to a college campus and a few years later was called to serve on the staff of Charlotte Presbytery. In all three calls, I had opportunity to learn from students about what nurtures students in faith. What they taught me became the focus of my D. Min. project. I have discovered that chaplains and campus ministers on other campuses have similar experiences to mine in ministry with students.
The church’s mission to college students is work of both evangelism and nurture. Some students have never heard the good news before they arrive on campus. Those students engage in the young adult tasks of forming adult identity without the resources of the faith unless the church learns how to share faith with them in ways that engage their hearts and minds.
Students who have grown up in the faith have entered a life stage of critical reflection that challenges the church to provide a different kind of nurture from that they have needed previously. All need space to question, to explore, and claim a faith that shapes their lives as adults in today’s world.
The students in my study identified three key components in ministry that meet their needs: mentoring, communities of meaning, and opportunities to serve and lead.
In every case, a chance to share each student’s gifts, a community where they are valued and can grow, and someone ready with questions and connections to help them realize their hopes and plans provided the keys that encouraged these and many other students I’ve known claim their faith and values and serve.
At the Richmond General Assembly, I found myself in the Marketplace with six Scotties from those years I had served as chaplain. We all laughed together when one of them pondered out loud, “Who would believe that all us Scotties would draw our paychecks from the Presbyterian church?” There we were, Ministers of Word and Sacrament and elders together all serving God in congregations, presbyteries, and the General Assembly office.
Planning for ministry that nurtures students’ faith involves people on campus and people in congregations. It must involve students directly, but it involves a host of others as well. At its heart it is mission that involves the church at every level. Leaders on campus and in congregations have specific roles in providing mentoring communities that engage students in practices that result in lives of meaning and service. Local pastors offer a bridge between home church and campus when they send the names of incoming freshmen to the campus pastors of the schools they will be attending so they can be welcomed when they arrive. Pastors and members who have had a significant relationship with young people can continue to help them grow in faith and at the same time expand their understanding of what that community means as they regularly stay in touch through the years with the students away in school.
The church is called to witness God’s love to persons and to nations. Today’s college students will be leading the way in a few short years. Is the church leading them in the right way? Is the church investing the resources and effort to help nurture a faith in them that will change the world?
Paige M. McRight is executive presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery, Orlando, Fla.