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Campus Ministry Takes Many Forms

Those Unitarian Universalist (UU) young adults who go off to college each fall sometimes are fortunate enough to find a UU group to connect with when they get there. And sometimes they’re not.

Kayla Parker is on a campaign to create more UU campus groups. She began work in September as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Campus Ministry Associate. She estimates that around 150 colleges have UU groups.

“We’d like to see a lot more,” she says. “Think about what you’d like your own high school graduates to find when they go off to college and then decide if there’s a way you could provide a welcome at a local college. Students are some of the most amazing individuals you’ve never met. It’s important to reach out to them.”

A UU campus presence can take many forms, she notes. It can range from a weekly meeting and a monthly worship to simply sending welcome notes to the students.

When Margaret Sequeira became director of Lifespan Faith Development at Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists (WUU) in Virginia in 2008 she also took on responsibility for the congregation’s ministry to students at the College of William and Mary.

She holds weekly office hours at a campus coffee shop, makes herself available at other times for one-on-one meetings, coordinates a monthly Sunday afternoon worship, and arranges rides for students wanting to come to WUU on Sunday mornings.

She has about 96 students on a mailing list. The college itself has around 5,500 students. Events draw an average of seven to 10 students, and sometimes up to 20. One of the challenges of campus ministry is knowing how to reach out to find interested students. It helped that at William and Mary incoming students are asked to indicate a religious preference. About 12 students identify as UU each year, says Sequeira.

With those names in hand, Sequeira next contacted the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender group on campus and had a booth at the annual student activities fair. She also spoke at an event held by the local Lambda Alliance. “As an openly queer religious leader I am providing an important witness just by my presence,” she says.

“The rewards of working with young adults are amazing,” she adds. “They’re very interested in issues of spirituality.” Two moments stand out for her. “I spoke on a panel about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) issues. One young man asked a lot of questions. Now he’s a member of our group. It was clearly the right moment to connect with him.” The second moment was when she and several members of the group participated in making an “It Gets Better” video in an effort to prevent suicides of GLBT youth and young adults.

The congregation supports her by funding the program. She has a budget of $1,000, which goes primarily to pay a student accompanist for worship services and to buy snacks. Congregants donate other funds. Twice a year, at final exam time, she and congregation members assemble “care packages” of food and candy. This year they’re sending them to 90 students.

“As a movement we miss so much opportunity when we don’t engage in this ministry,” says Sequeira. “Other people have told me, ‘Well, we tried campus ministry, but only got three students.’ But you don’t know how that ministry may have affected the lives of those three. We also try to remember that each student we connect with probably has a UU family somewhere else.”

There is no lack of resources for congregations wanting to connect with a campus. Most are included on the UU Campus Ministry home page. Those resources include:

  • Two new Facebook groups, Campus UUs, where members can share information and experiences on campus ministry and those new to the faith may learn about Unitarian Universalism, and Unitarian Universalist Campus Ministry Professionals, for group coordinators.
  • ConnectUU, an online site to help young adult UUs communicate with one another, has also been updated. Participants may add young adult events to the site as well.
  • The Anchor Congregation program, which recognizes congregations with strong young adult and/or campus ministry programs, is a good place to learn how others do campus ministry.
  • There is also an eight-page Campus Organizers Handbook (PDF).
  • Parker can be reached at ya-cm [at] uua [dot] org or 617-948-4629.

Don’t expect every college student you contact to come regularly to your congregation, says Parker. “They have busy lives too and their schedules can be very different. But if they do, be sure to welcome them.” And don’t ask too much of them. “Some students I’ve heard from say they walk into a church for the first time and right away someone ‘invites’ them to start a young adult group. This would be very exciting for some, but it prevents most from coming back. Just as we don’t ask other new folks to volunteer right away, let’s do the same thing for young adults. Let’s give them a few months.”

In San Diego, Alice King works half-time with young adults at the First UU Church of San Diego and half-time managing two campus groups, one that just started at San Diego State University and one that’s four years old at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The groups meet weekly. “We do a chalice lighting and readings plus a personal check-in,” she says. Discussion of a spiritual or personal growth topic highlights the meeting. And always there are snacks. The weekly gatherings are called “Pause,” says King. “They are a place where your soul catches up.”

The groups are publicized on Facebook and through listserves and she has a table at the annual student organizational fair in the fall. “We hand out chocolate, condoms, and information,” she says. “The chocolate is the most popular.” She meets with student groups that may have UU values—like the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Student Union. “Some of the students are surprised to learn there is a church that is affirming of them as an Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Questioning Intersex and Allies (LGBTQQIA) person.”

She also checks in with the Ecology Club “to let them know we have shared values. We give them our pamphlets with attached tea bags of organic fair trade tea. They want to know who we are that we’re conscious enough to use fair trade products!” She encourages congregations to make a minimum of $1,200 available to support a campus group.

King says that when she started the ministry at UCSD there were nights when only one student showed up. “But it was important to that one person that I was there. Now we have anywhere from four to ten. Campus ministry is a ministry of presence, about being available. This is a time when young people are wresting with the central spiritual questions of their lives—who am I, why am I here? To be present with them as they do that is to stand on holy ground. My wish is that more and more people will feel called to this ministry.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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