Making the Congregational Connection
by Nancy J. Conner and Dennis G. Sepper (March / April 1998 — Volume 14, Number 2)
Students, while away from their "home" congregation, are still a part of your community. Here are some guidelines to help your congregation minister to them
Got the invitation to breakfast, I will be there over spring break. Things sound great at St. Martins. This semester has been a challenge. I look forward to our visit. Off to class. Miss you all. :-) Mary
The transition from high school to college and from "home" to a resident hall room can be a very challenging, and for some, a traumatic, one for our college-bound students. Congregations can help make that transition easier by striving to keep in touch with them during their years in higher education.
The following three suggestions are meant to be "thought" starters on how you might accomplish that goal. Some ideas are rather obvious, but their importance to the students cannot be over-emphasized.
Other suggestions are ones which students have told us they appreciate.
Our final thoughts are based on the new computer-based technology which has now become a normal part of young adult life.
Part of Congregation
As a congregation, strive to embrace your college students as a continuing part of your church community.
Students enjoy receiving the parish newsletter and, when possible, the weekly bulletin. This seems rather obvious, but many parishes fail to put their college students on their "mailing list." The congregation should not assume that their parents are keeping the student informed of parish happenings. Besides, everyone likes to receive mail!
Also, remember, a student subscription to The Lutheran, which covers the school year, is available. This subscription can be especially meaningful if the student is studying in another state (and thus another synod) because the synod supplement can keep them informed of local events.
One parish we know sends care packages to their students. The package includes letters from some of the members (perhaps a women's circle or a men's group) and the all important "study snacks" which could be candy or cookies or whatever else would make for a nice study break. With the U.S. Postal Service offering "priority mail" at $3, what an inexpensive and easy way to let your students know that you care and that you miss them.
When students come home for holiday or semester breaks, invite them to be a part of worship, the education program, or the music program. In short, remind them that they are needed in your church community and that you appreciate their being there. They might not always accept the invitation, but the gesture alone speaks volumes about your congregation's desire that young adults be involved in parish life.
Issues of Faith
Give these young adults the space and support to struggle with issues of faith and surprise them with the grace of God to engage in that struggle.
Depending on the personality of the student, the college years can be a stressful time in terms of their faith life. They will be challenged in many ways with new ideas. This is necessary for growth into adulthood and mature discipleship. Keep your students in the weekly prayers of the church as they engage in this struggle. Pray for them, their professors, and their campus pastors!
Pastors can share in this transition by talking to the students about their faith struggles when they are home. We heard of one pastor who hosts a "pastor's breakfast" every Christmas and Easter break. The pastor invites students to breakfast and lets them share their insights and struggles with faith and ethics.
Pastors with students in church-related colleges and universities where religion courses are often required, could ask the students to share their thoughts on the books they are reading for classes. This can serve to keep the pastor sharp too as she/he hears of current theology and theologians being discussed in higher education!
E-Mail, E-mail, E-mail
Remember to use the latest technology, or to put it simply: e-mail, e-mail, e-mail.
When prospective students come to visit Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) where we work, they no longer ask if the rooms in our residential halls are linked to the Internet. They really what to know what hardware and software make that link.
Students today are in conversation with each other and with students around the world through the Internet. We are only beginning to learn about the possibilities and potential of this form of communication.
At PLU, the student congregation now has an e-mail prayer chain. Instead of individual telephone calls to each member of the prayer chain, the student in charge sends out a group e-mail with the specifics of the prayer request. Since we started this, we have more people involved in the prayer chain and more prayer requests.
Most college students today have a free internet address through their college or university. Pastors, youth ministers, and church staff can easily stay in touch with students if they too have the technology or, better yet, if the church has the technology. The beauty of this form of communication is that one can type a message and send it to all of your college students at once, as a group.
We have heard of youth directors who e-mail a weekly devotion to their college students. If one of the students replies to the devotion, the youth director can respond personally. A pastor or church staff worker might do a weekly or a monthly letter to all college students with a devotional message and newsworthy items from home.
Computer technology is new for many of our churches. Hence, you can be creative as you use it to stay in touch with the congregation's college and university students.
In conclusion, when congregations take the time to reach out and keep in touch with their college students, it is greatly appreciated. It means more than a student might ever tell you. But as you do this, it will help them make the transition into college and adult discipleship.
As campus pastors, we appreciate and value our partnership with congregations. We do want to assist you in ministering to your students while on our campuses.
ELCA pastors Nancy J. Connor and Dennis G. Sepper are campus ministers at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington.