In a time when college students are sheltering in place in dorms, or attending school remotely from anywhere in the world, or something in between, what does campus ministry look like? How does it continue? Our Communications Director, Kristen Parise, sat down over Zoom with two people in the diocese to learn how they minister to college students through different means.
Leah Hornfeck is Associate Director for Youth and College Ministry at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA, and a Campus Ministry staff member at the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO). CCO is a para-church organization that ministers through churches to students on college campuses.
CCO’s campus ministry through Ascension is called Venite and invites college students into a deeper understanding of the Gospel, a broader vision of God’s Kingdom, and richer relationships within the diversity of Christ’s body at the church and beyond. Psalm 95, titled the Venite in the Book of Common Prayer, invites us to “come to the Lord.”
The Rev. Michael Niebauer is the Rector of Incarnation Anglican Church in State College, PA, where the church is "a community committed to growing in Christ and worshiping God in Word, Sacrament and Spirit.” This Anglican congregation is planted on a college campus, with worship space in the Eisenhower Chapel at Penn State University. The church is recognized as a Penn State student organization, allowing access to university facilities and events. But the congregation includes not only college students but also members of the State College community.
Kristen Parise (KP): Mike and Leah, please describe what your ministry to students is like day to day.
Michael Niebauer (MN): Most of our student leaders participate in Bible studies and church on Sundays. These Bible studies are in lots of places. One is happening in a fraternity on campus, there is a coed Bible study with a mix of students and community members, and I’ve been leading another men’s Bible study for a while.
Our hope with a large part of our ministry is to get students involved, not only in small groups and other activities, but in Sunday worship as well. To that end, we have students on the worship team and participating in the liturgy in other ways. We also have a nursing home congregation. Pre-pandemic, students had been had been helping out with that, too.
Then, in the next couple of weeks (from the time this conversation was recorded in late-March), we're starting student leadership training, which will dovetail into the fall.
Leah Hornfeck (LH): In some ways, Venite has been able to function a bit more normally during COVID. We have the advantage of having a church that is off campus, so we don't have the on-campus restrictions. The church has some big spaces where we can meet safely indoors, socially distanced, or outdoors. We’ve still been able to do weekly gatherings and social outreach events. This winter, we haven't been able to do quite as much and have had to hop online, but we managed to be flexible.
Our ministry is largely run through our student leadership team. We have three great student leaders: two from Pitt (University of Pittsburgh, Oakland campus) and one from CMU (Carnegie Mellon University). They really are the face and the heart of the ministry. They are the ones spearheading a lot of our work: meeting with other students one-on-one, leading weekly gatherings, and inviting their friends to come, even in these times when it's harder to reach people. My co-worker Chris Kirkland and I don't have the opportunity to go on campus in the way that we normally would, so we are relying on our students in this season. They have stepped up to the plate, and we’re happy about that.
KP: Leah, CCO has a unique partnership model with churches to reach college students. Would you describe that for our readers?
LH: CCO's vision is to partner with churches that are located on or near campuses because CCO values the church. They believe the church is the means by which Christ is doing his work in this world, so they want students to be connected to the church.
CCO staff are thoughtfully placed with a church that becomes the home base for ministry to that campus community. Day to day, I function much more like an Ascension staff person, receiving their resources and support, but I’m officially employed by CCO. These partnerships are specifically tailored for every campus and church context. My role includes work with the Ascension Youth Group as well. But some people could have administration roles, or worship roles. Some staff partnerships enable them to work strictly in campus ministry—it’s all determined in the partnership process.
KP: What motivates you both to serve and do this work?
MN: College is just such a pivotal time for people's faith. It is a fantastic time to be working with people. It's amazing to see that growth in their lives, when they're encountering Christ. We get to see some of them make those first steps, open a Bible for the first time. We have been blessed to see many students involved in our church who wouldn't be actively Christian if we weren't around. That is why you start a church.
I started in ministry at Northwestern University in 2005. And I feel like there's more openness to Christ now [on college campuses] than there was when I started.
LH: CCO says frequently the college campus is the most strategic mission field, and I do think that that's true in many ways. Like Mike said, it's like such a pivotal time. Students are wrestling with the big questions: Who am I? What is my role in this in this world? What is the purpose of my life? Who are the people that I'm doing life with? I think they're really open to hearing about the different options, including Christianity and being involved in the church.
College students are the future leaders of our world, and it's important to invest in them up front. They are going to go on and do incredible things one way or another, and we want to see them do those incredible things for the Kingdom of God. Getting to see them grow up and be formed more into the image of Christ is beautiful, and it is an honor to witness that and walk alongside them in the process.
KP: Let's talk about this this pandemic situation. We've all had to do our own pandemic pivots. What has that been like for you two, ministering to students during a pandemic?
MN: It has been difficult. Historically, our ministry has been mostly made up of new Christians. At any given time, we have only had a handful of mature Christians involved. We've never had a strong student leadership contingent going for a long time. That has made the pandemic difficult, because most of our new students come through with campus events that we can't do anymore.
I don't think we have any new freshmen coming. Talking to some other campus ministries at Penn State, I think they're having similar issues. I feel like there's a lost class of students at Penn State and that's a real challenge.
In general, we see some growth with friends inviting friends. I've been doing a Bible study for several years now. It's online now. But it started with one person I met at the activity involvement fair. Then he brought his friend and that one brought another friend. It's been great to see these people with almost no background in Christianity going into the Scriptures. It's some of my favorite times to see them read Scripture passages for the first time and take those first steps of faith. That's been one of the highlights.
Moving all these things online has led to interesting opportunities, too. [Last] summer, we were able to continue doing a lot of events. We had a functioning summer Bible study which we've never really had before. I’m hopeful some of these new opportunities will stick with us long-term once we get going back.
LH: Last spring, we were exclusively online. It presented a cool opportunity to mold together these two elements of the Venite community that don’t often intersect. Our ministry at Pitt and CMU takes place during the school year. But during the summer, there’s another side that’s more for the kids that grew up at Church of the Ascension and are now college students, home on break. And these two groups rarely overlap. But as we started moving stuff online, we could bring both groups together and they formed some new relationships.
Of course, being online posed some challenges, and we, like a lot of people, lost some students that just fell off the map and never really turned up again. That is a heartbreaking reality of the [COVID] season. We pray for them and trust them to God at this point.
Like Mike, not having the same access to campus has been rough. Ascension has had campus outreach throughout its history. But this iteration [with CCO] is only in its third year. I think momentum was starting to build at the end of our second school year. And the pandemic has felt like the wind was taken out of our sails.
However, we've had the opportunity to invest more in individual student relationships than we would have in the past. And with the more mature Christian students, we're seeing exponential growth – more than we would have if our attention were more broadly focused. We’ve also seen some students come who don’t know what they believe anymore. They’re looking for meaning, for purpose, for community connection. It's exciting to have these students that are dipping their toes in the water. Last month, one student made a declaration of faith and came to Christ for the first time. That was an exciting moment for us.
These ministers help students "in humility of heart that they may ever look to [God], the fountain of all wisdom (Occasional Prayer #49, BCP 2019)." We are grateful for Rev. Mike, Leah and all who minister to students in our diocese. As graduation season is here, we pray for and bless all those in transition to the next chapter of their lives.