Thursday, August 22, 2013

Back to School

Two years ago, in the Fall 2011, I began working with a group of clergy and lay colleagues in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts to put together a diocesan profile as we began our search for a new bishop. Little did I know at the time that two years later I would be serving on the staff of the man we elected - as one of his two Canons to the Ordinary in our diocese.

We heard it from so many people at the time: there are a lot of college students in western Massachusetts. By one count I have heard, more than thirty colleges from American International College in Springfield to Williams in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the eastern part of the diocese. Sorry, I wanted to go from A to Z but there are apparently no colleges that begin with the letter Z anywhere in the Commonwealth! (By the way, I took the picture above for that profile, and now live less than a mile from that main entrance of WPI.)

Next week my wife and I will take our younger son back to college in Boston for his sophomore year. Even as we do that, people from all over the country and indeed all over the world will be driving into our Diocese to drop their children off at college Some of those people are even, already, Episcopalians. Some of them even grew up singing in church choirs and acolyting and attending youth groups. Some of them, like my own kids are "PKs" (priest's kids). Some of them may even find their way into our congregations for worship. We can love all of them and we do - they grow up in an unsteady and confusing world. We can try to reach out to the "unchurched" and the "malchurched." But my point here is the easy one: some of them are well-churched, and they are away from home. They are our "peeps." 

As a diocese, we identified this as one aspect of the mission field. Yet while the harvest is indeed plentiful, it often feels as if the laborers are few. We do not have an Episcopal chaplaincy at all those institutions of higher education. In fact, while we had a diocesan-funded ministry for many years at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst we don't have that ministry anymore. 

And yet this creates an opportunity as well as a challenge. How can congregations in Adams, South Hadley, Northampton, Amherst, Worcester, Pittsfield, Fitchburg and so on swing their doors open wide to welcome in college-aged students this fall. And not just the front doors because let's face it, even when you are feeling "homesick" for church, it can be hard to walk in the front door of a church you don't know for the first time. And how do you get there if it's not within walking distance? Several of our parishes are finding other ways: and opening other doors offering pancakes at midnight during exam week and pizza and conversation on Sunday nights. Usually  anything that involves food sounds great about six weeks into cafeteria food, no matter how good it is. 

Sometimes I think we should think big. We should dream big. But when it comes to this kind of ministry I think we have to learn to think small. Ministry is about the cumulative effect of small actions. If you are part of a congregation in our diocese (Episcopal or not) the chances are good that you have college students nearby. Whether you happen to be the ordained leader or not, how might you begin to find ways of opening doors to these young people. Maybe it begins with awareness and prayer. I love this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer, page 824. I invite you to pray it daily for the next couple of weeks, and maybe in your public worship as well. It goes like this:
O Eternal God, bless all schools, colleges, and universities (and especially _____), that they may be lively centers for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom; and grant that those who teach and those who learn may find you to be the source of all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Perhaps this prayer may lead some of us to ask questions like these and others:
  • What is happening right now in our parish to welcome in young people? 
  • Are there one or  two things that might happen in the future that could welcome and invite college students in? 
  • Are there barriers (gates or walls) that are keeping these things from happening?
As a former Campus Minister, I can tell you that there is a great misconception about college-aged students. While it may be true that most of them are not dying to get up on a Sunday morning during college to go to church, some of them will do just that. They need that anchor, that support, that "familiar" place that reminds them of home. But I believe that most young people are eager to talk about their dreams, their passions, the meaning of life. Many of them are deeply interested in cultivating spiritual practices and encountering the Holy. So how can we find new ways of creating spaces where that might happen? 

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