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Valparaiso pastor equips students with more than ministry skills

Rev. Jim Wetzstein, Valparaiso University campus pastor; photo provided by Valparaiso University

Asking for money is not easy. But at Valparaiso University, campus pastor James Wetzstein tells students quite the opposite — that people want to give their money to missions they support. Students just need to know how to ask for it.

In addition to his traditional roles of preaching and pastoring, Wetzstein helps students do exactly that. Through his personal mentoring and his role with the Social Action Leadership Team (SALT), Wetzstein equips students with useful fundraising, nonprofit management, and community organizing skills. While many students at Valparaiso — and other similar colleges of the church — are passionate about issues of social justice and service, Wetzstein helps translate those passions into concrete skills that students exercise during their college years, preparing them for lives of service beyond their years at the school.

“In order to fundraise, you need to understand and cater to people’s self-interest; and self-interest, money, and power are often perceived as antithetical to the Gospel,” admits Wetzstein. “But in order to actively make positive change and reach your vision for the world, you need to develop your ability to organize people and their resources.”

As much knowledge and energy as Wetzstein gives to the students, they give back to him. “College campuses are fertile ground for this kind of work because students come to campus with an earnest desire to change the world and make it a better place,” says Wetzstein. “We tap into that native idealism that the students bring to the table and help them create the motion and results they want to see around issues they care about.”

Passing on his knowledge

Wetzstein arrived at Valparaiso in 2003 after serving in urban Gary, Indiana, where he pastored a church, founded a preschool, and served on the board of directors for an arts nonprofit. In all of these roles — both religious and secular — Wetzstein helped with fundraising, strategic planning, and community organizing.

Valparaiso University students volunteer during flooding in Minot, North Dakota, in the spring of 2012. Participants are, left to right: Lauren Zager, Alissa Kretzmann, Megan Robbins, Sarah Peters, Laurie Kenyon, Marci DeVries, and the Rev. James Wetzstein. Photo provided by James Wetzstein

“College campuses are fertile ground for this kind of work because students come to campus with an earnest desire to change the world and make it a better place.”

Wetzstein landed at Valparaiso in the middle of a fundraising campaign where students had raised less than half of their monetary goal. While many were confident in their ability to reach their goal, none had a sense of how to do it.

“I looked at this situation and asked, ‘What could these students accomplish if they had a better understanding of fundraising?’” recalls Wetzstein. “So I told them, ‘Here’s my background, and here’s what I think could happen.’ This was an opportunity [to use] my skill set in fundraising, community organizing, marketing, management, and networking, and they were learning it.”

Since that campaign, SALT, the faith-based social activism group that Wetzstein heads, has been shaped and reshaped into what it is today: a 50-plus member organization led by a core group of 15 students. SALT meets weekly to practice bottom-up issues identification and one-on-one organizing. They volunteer, both on and off campus, organize the annual World Relief Campaign, produce SALT’s newspaper, The SALT Shaker, along with their annual travel magazine Valpo Interaction (VIA). Lately, they’ve been working on developing an experience-based curriculum that describes SALT’s model so that other universities can adopt it.

“Pastor Jim was constantly encouraging us to be creative, to try something new, and to change things up,” says Hannah Cartwright, former SALT chair. After graduating, Cartwright worked with a number of nonprofits doing voter education, fundraising, and volunteer management. She continued on to earn her Masters of Social Work and Juris Doctor and hopes to one day do holistic legal services with immigrants and refugees who have experienced trauma. “I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of an organization where we are encouraged each year to change our mission statement, though it is definitely my goal to find one.”

Preparing for one’s vocations

Valparaiso graduates who have worked with Wetzstein have become educators and administrators in schools, teachers that promote social justice in underdeveloped nations, legal advocates for those on the margins of society, managers at nonprofits, and engaged members of their churches and communities.

“Pastor Jim is one of those rare persons who brings together pure creativity and talent — ranging from his artwork to his sermons — with a passion for social justice, practical skills for making a difference, and the desire to share all of those things with the students with whom he works,” says Cartwright, who credits much of her upcoming job as a legal clerk at an immigration court to what Wetzstein taught her. “There is already a generation of students indebted to him for this training and mentorship, and I know those numbers will only grow as he continues his work at Valparaiso.”

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