Commentary

Shaping our future

Dan Heath

Six lutefisk cookers, elders of the congregation, peered under the kitchen pass-through window divider at 120 confirmation kids worshiping in fellowship hall. As I stopped to fill my coffee cup between activities, one of the elders stood up, looked at me and asked “who are all these kids?”

This scene from a large congregation I served over a decade ago has replayed in my mind often in the last few months. I am all too aware of how many of those middle-school confirmation kids are now absent from worship and will continue to be through much, if not all, of their adult lives. Many will be unable to find the space they need to become part of a worshiping community that will have space for them to be who they are now as adults.

LCM does not provide a place to “practice” being church members.

I have recently returned to ELCA Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM), serving as the part-time pastor in a full-time ministry “assisting persons in institutions of higher education to discern their vocation in Christ” — my paraphrase of the old LCM mission statement. In short, LCM is engaged in mission on behalf of the church to make space for these incredible persons to become the church, as it in turn becomes the church these persons will need in their lives.

LCM is not an extension of a high-school youth group nor does it provide a place to “practice” being church members. The students who gather for worship each week support one another and their community through Bible study, fellowship, prayer, and service. In turn they serve as missionaries, carrying the good news each day into their parish, a community of over 14,000 students plus staff and faculty.

Campus ministry in a “new” era

Campus ministry has been through many transitions since I last staffed a ministry site. Local LCM boards have negotiated these changes including the loss of most of their churchwide funding as a part of the mission of the ELCA. Perhaps more tragically the majority of the support structure that sustained and supported this ministry has been reduced or eliminated.

These challenges have been difficult. Many sites have had to reduce or eliminate staff positions. The ongoing financial support of synods and intentional fundraising has become more critical. Campus councils and local directing boards have changed from support structures to operating entities. As a local board president through these years, I reminded the members that changes this defining provide an opportunity for the ministry to imagine its future and affirm its mission even more clearly so that LCM will continue to serve its purpose to those looking for their space in the church as they shape the church they will need in their lives.

Several opportunities have emerged among Lutheran Campus Ministry sites in the ELCA’s Region 3 (North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota) in response to these challenges. Representatives of LCM sites from Region 3 and beyond will gather this summer for the third annual board development conference, an opportunity to share experiences of guiding ministries through change and to learn new tools to strengthen and develop the shared mission. A monthly conference call allowed local board chairs to share ideas and concerns.

Ongoing conversations between LCM and outdoor ministry partners around their shared mission was established, shaping the Northwestern Minnesota Synod (ELCA) “Next Generation” mission table. Students in Region 3 have initiated new plans to strengthen and expand participation in Lutheran Student Movement (LSM).

Each Wednesday we gather around the Word and the Meal at the site I serve and I am reminded of the question of the lutefisk cookers years ago. Many of those in the community I serve were confirmation students not long ago; they are now, as they were then, the church in mission.

They are the voices of faith and values that will guide and inform as the church wrestles with “future” issues such as genetic biology in relation to health and life; they live those “future” questions today. I am grateful to serve with the students as missionaries on campus, to share in making space for all to find their place in faith, and to shape the church they need.

Dan Heath is an ELCA pastor in Blackduck, Minnesota, and the Lutheran Campus Ministry pastor at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota.

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