Christian Formation and Vocation
by Donald A. Wisner (March / April 2004 — Volume 20, Number 2)
This campus ministry helps students hear God's call to vocation through the art of mentoring.
U.S. News and World Report magazine has recognized the university that I serve as having one of the best undergraduate research programs in the country (September 1, 2003). At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, the key to this success is collaboration. Faculty, regardless of rank, work in partnership with students, regardless of class, on projects of importance to both. The result is excellence in learning.
At University Lutheran Church, the expression of campus ministry at UW-Eau Claire, we see ourselves as a teaching parish using the same collaborative model. University Lutheran is one of four constituted campus congregations of the ELCA under the sponsorship of the Division for Higher Education and Schools. We are a congregation of community members and university students learning together what it means to be the church not only in a wisdom (e.g., educational) setting but also in society as a whole.
Everything we attempt to do as a congregation and a campus ministry is subject to the Lutheran question, "What does this mean?" As students and members work together in worship, study, fellowship, or service, we consistently reflect on how this relates to an affirmation of our baptism and our being joined to the ministry of the whole church.
In the early church, Tertullian wrote that Christians are "made not born." At University Lutheran Church we are intentional about the task of being made Christian together. In that same early church, people were initiated into a process of discipleship in two ways. Christian "content" was learned through formal catechesis, sermons, and instruction. Christian "style" was learned through imitation and mentoring. To learn to pray was to be joined with someone adept at prayer. This early form of mentoring still holds much merit for those who are concerned with Christian formation and the exercise of vocation.
The following examples illustrate the mentoring experience through Lutheran campus ministry:
Each year over winter break, I travel to Washington, D.C., with 55 students and selected faculty. We work as volunteers in the inner-city schools and social agencies. Jason was a history major when he went with us five years ago. He never dreamed that, as a result of this trip, he would switch to history education and successfully apply for a teaching position in the Washington inner-city high school where he now believes he is putting his faith into practice.
Becca was a sophomore with an undeclared major who this past summer worked in the National Youth Sports program on our campus as a counselor with youth. She discovered, through a collaborative effort with her supervisor who is a kinesiologist, that she had a God-given gift for working with young people. Becca returned to school last fall eager to work toward a degree in school psychology.
Each academic year, nine to twelve university students teach Sunday school children at University Lutheran Church under the guidance of Rachel, a former elementary public school teacher. The teachers are installed each Fall during the worship service. They promise to be diligent in their use of Word and sacrament, be an example of grace for the children under their care, and use their talents and skills as gifts of God. Many of the students are not education majors but have a deepening commitment to Christian education. Many have graduated as teachers under the care and guidance of Rachel.
|If "vocation" means to respond to God's voice, then often in our setting God speaks through the mouths of our community members who are bold enough to form friendships with students and become involved in their lives.|
If "vocation" means to respond to God's voice, then often in our setting God speaks through the mouths of our community members who are bold enough to form friendships with students and become involved in their lives. This involvement often comes in the form of an invitation when community members ask students to join them in efforts of mutual challenge and importance.
Katy had never been to Community Table, a local food service for the poor, until Pat, a physical therapist and one of our community members, invited her to go along and serve dinner. Katy went because it sounded interesting, and she thought she could be helpful. Little did she realize that the dinner guests at Community Table would help her find her vocation in social work.
Jim, an attorney and member of University Lutheran Church, invited Michelle, a nursing major, to volunteer at Christ House in Washington, D.C., ministering to homeless people with medical needs. Michelle's vision of nursing was broadened as a result of that experience so that it now includes the possibility of work beyond traditional clinical nursing.
One of the ways that I often describe my campus ministry and the ministry of University Lutheran Church is that we are involved in confirmation. Confirmation all too often is seen only as an effort on behalf of adolescents rather than a continuous ministry of helping each other find ways to identify with the life and mission of the whole Christian community.
Because we are located in the midst of a public institution, we mainly focus our attention on the students who will be seeking work in the public sector. However, our congregation also has a long history of encouraging people to prepare for ordained and rostered ministry. The university has a Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and at one time offered Greek language study. In the past twenty years there have been no fewer than two students affiliated with our congregation who have entered seminary each year. Once again we feel that University Lutheran Church is an incubator for seminary preparation.
Many years ago when I was a university student with only a theological curiosity and no vocational plans, an Episcopal pastor asked me a question that changed my life. "Would you like to make a difference?" he asked. No one had ever put it that way before. It is now a question I often ask students who I think might possess the gifts for rostered ministry. Often I find that these students have given the possibility serious thought but have not known what to do with their questions.
|One of the ways I often describe my campus ministry and the ministry of University Lutheran Church is that we are involved in confirmation.|
Jeremy came to worship every Sunday. He was easy to spot because he stands 6 ft. 6 in. and hovers above everyone else. One Sunday he asked to speak to me after our worship, and in the course of our conversation I asked him how he thought God wanted him to make a difference in the lives of people. Shyly, he answered that he thought God wanted him to be a pastor. For the next two years we offered Jeremy opportunities to teach Sunday school, assist in worship, and lead discussions. Jeremy is now completing his second year at Wartburg Seminary.
Heidi was a part of University Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Student Association from the beginning of her freshman year. During her tenure at the university, Heidi became the Coordinator of Liturgy, presided at weekly Evening Prayer, assisted at weddings and funerals, taught confirmation, and accompanied me on hospital visits. While Heidi knew she wanted to be a pastor, her experience here only served to sharpen her vocational goals. Heidi, now serving a parish, knows well the role a congregation can play in vocational formation.
According to the September 8, 2003 issue of U.S. News and World Report, many university students are leaving college with more than $19,000 in debt. Our congregation has come to realize the effect that debt has on students who would consider four years of seminary but cannot imagine (1) incurring more debt and (2) paying off the debt they already have incurred.
University Lutheran Church has been invited by the Fund for Theological Education (Lilly Foundation) to become part of an experiment to assist students in their first year of seminary. If we are to play a role in guiding students toward professional ministry, we also must find ways to make that journey possible. Through the generosity of one of our member families, we are in the process of establishing a ministry fellowship so that we can join with the Fund for Theological Education and the seminaries to offer financial assistance in at least a student's first year. This gift is a tangible example of how a congregation can become a part of the church's future.
The Northwest Synod of Wisconsin offers a Lay School of Ministry that is a way our congregation encourages lay vocations. Each year for the past 10 years, two members of our parish have joined 22 other individuals for a two-year course of study that includes Bible, theology, and liturgy. Lay School graduates can be found throughout the synod in ministries of teaching, visitation, and pulpit supply. Members of University Lutheran Church who have completed the Lay School have been very important in the mentoring of students because they can engage them in theological reflection.
I am pleased that now, as a part of the newly published (provisional) Renewing Worship resources, congregations will continue to have available a rite for "Affirmation of Christian Vocation."1 The introductory rubrics describe the preparation for this service with these words: "... such preparation would certainly include reflection on how God's gifts of baptism, absolution, and communion shape the life of the Christian in the world."
The promise included in the rite is as follows:
"Will you endeavor to pattern your life on the Lord Jesus in gratitude to God and in service to others, at morning and evening, in work and in play, all the days of your life?"
If, at the conclusion of students' academic career at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire through the ministry of University Lutheran Church, they were able to respond, "I will, and I ask God to help me," I would rejoice and delight that we have been a voice used by God.
- In Occasional Services (1982) a similar rite is included, "Affirmation of the Vocation of Christians in the World" (pp. 147-49). This rite was republished, with a few revisions, in What Do You Seek? Welcoming the Adult Inquirer (part of the Welcome to Christ catechumenate series), Augsburg Fortress, 2000, pp. 99-101.
Donald A. Wisner is the Lutheran campus pastor serving at University Lutheran Church at the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire. He is also adjunct faculty at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, in the area of worship.