Smart Strategy + Limited Resources = Vibrant Campus Ministry
Three years ago, the Unitarian Church of Montreal (UCM) hired me as the Campus Ministry Coordinator on a contract of just 3 hours a week, from September to May. The purpose was to set up a group for Montreal students to connect with each other, the UCM and the Unitarian movement at large.
Targeting ‘students’ was an ambitious goal, given that Montreal has four major universities and 14 junior colleges, totaling nearly a quarter million post-secondary students. This puts Montreal on the map as having one of the largest student populations in the world, and the highest proportion of any city in North America.
Clearly, 3 hours a week wasn’t going to go far. To make the most of our resources, the initial scope of our campus ministry initiative focused on two of the four universities: McGill and Concordia, each with about 40,000 students, and each with a dedicated multifaith office. These offices excel at providing opportunities for religious literacy and interfaith dialogue within their secular institutions; naturally, faith-specific activities are left up to the individual chaplains. I needed to figure out where to start, so I began by participating in as many interfaith campus activities as I could, providing a few drop-in office hours to allow students to get to know the Unitarian church, and slowly establishing a regular on-campus presence in addition to a Web presence through email and social media.
In the first two years, I saw that what Unitarian Universalist (UU) students needed was a way to connect with each other. Sometimes lost in a campus population larger than the town they came from, or simply caught up in the stresses of student life, I found that what UU students missed most was community and worship. I knew I couldn’t meet this need with the occasional workshop and drop-in hours that my contract allowed for. It was time to find a way to get some help.
Fortunately, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) offers an annual ‘Sharing Our Faith’ grant to UU churches seeking to increase their outreach efforts. Last Fall, we put together a proposal to fund two networking/social events for students, which would help break the ice and foster a student community within our church. Our request was accepted, and we hosted two catered dinners attended by about 30 people.
Our goal was not to simply provide a free meal for students. We wanted to bring congregants and university community members together. Part of the planning included sifting through the church membership list to find all the members who worked at one of the universities or colleges in Montreal. Invitations were sent specifically to these individuals, explaining that we wanted to multiply the connections between our church and the campus communities. This was not an ordinary church supper, nor just an ‘open house’. We wanted this shared meal to spark relationships and the invitation gave our church members a ‘mission’ to welcome students and connect with them. I highly recommend the specific-ask strategy, rather than wide-open invitations. It helps people feel that they have a special role to play, and that they are not just responding to an open call for help.
Our first dinner was held in early October, just far enough into the school year to be past the first hectic weeks but well before midterms. Our second event was late in November, before finals and the mass exodus for the holidays. In both cases, we had about 30 people attend, around 80% being students. Some people came to both events, but there were also many new faces. The events were meant to be small enough to be intimate yet large enough for mingling and networking. We drew participants from 5 or 6 different post-secondary institutions for each event. For three hours, people ate and talked and really connected. Everyone left with a smile on their face, wanting to know when the next event would be held. In the weeks following each event, I noticed a few more students at church, enthusiastically chatting at coffee hour after service. These were the sustaining social connections I had hoped for, ones that would support students spiritually in ways that a lone campus ministry coordinator cannot hope to accomplish.
Thanks to careful budgeting and some unexpected help, we had a little grant money left over from these events. It was used to provide two sexuality workshops on campus and subsidize a Unitarian Universalist Association Meaning Makers participant from our student population. We also invested in a button maker to generate some UU swag to give away at events on and off campus. These are strategic investments to help increase visibility and maintain momentum in the coming year.
The CUC grant has been indispensable to our growth. In fact, campus ministry has never been stronger at our church, and the enthusiasm generated by our in-church and on-campus events has set the bar high for our future. Despite a return to limited resources this Fall, I believe that these stronger campus connections will ensure that the spark survives. That spark, enabled by a grant of just $4,400.00, is where we start building the faith community that students crave in their busy lives.