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At Lutheran colleges, vocation talk is inevitable

Colleges of the church face quite a challenge today. According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, increased secularization and retreat from formalized religion are most visible on college campuses, where young academic minds question Sunday school certainty and students’ commitment to sustainability and social justice sometimes trumps church.
So, how can colleges shape the lives of today’s students in a culture of what seems to be increasing disinterest in religion? That’s the $64,000 question.
St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, is rooted in the ELCA tradition, and approximately 40 percent of its student body identifies as Lutheran. Whether students are daily chapel-goers or have never set foot in the chapel — and there are plenty of both — encountering religion at St. Olaf is unavoidable.

St. Olaf College campus pastor, the Rev. Jennifer Koenig; photo provided by David Gonnerman

“Some use [vocation] to just mean occupation; for others, it necessitates finding meaning or serving others; and some students understand it through a Christian lens as a divine calling from God.”

This is not to say that students must adopt religious beliefs by any means. But, they must confront them. This confrontation occurs in part through the two required theology courses. These courses introduce students not only to the Christian tradition, but to other traditions and perspectives as well.

So do students say?

I asked a few St. Olaf seniors, all of whom come from non-religious backgrounds, about what the school’s religious identity means to them. While these accounts may not represent the entire student body, they do exemplify the different ways a college of the church can affect students.
“I grew up atheist,” says Michael Rahman. “But after my time here, I would call myself agnostic. One of my religion courses showed me a way of thinking about religion that I respected. It challenged my previous ways of thinking and made me realize I knew less than I thought. It taught me to keep challenging myself throughout the long process of finding a fitting belief or lack thereof.”
Scott Krepsky comes from a similar background, but his story ends a bit differently. “Upon coming to St. Olaf, I explored religion considerably more, attended daily chapel, and participated in a Bible study. My first year, I became a Christian. Last year, I was confirmed at a service in [St. Olaf College’s] Boe Chapel. And now, I’m a religion major and consider myself ELCA Lutheran, and I hope to become a pastor one day,” says Krepsky.
For others, the school’s religious identity isn’t influential, but the consequent values it promotes are. “While I don’t identify with a religious belief, I appreciate the college’s tie to the church because it instills in students the value of service and defines success not as an independent process, but rather, as something that involves making a difference for others,” says Amelia Schoneman.

Vocation — it’s not just for religion majors anymore

The impact of religion is also evident in the conversation about vocation. “Discussion about vocation here is multi-layered,” says Jennifer Koenig, campus pastor. “Some use it to just mean occupation; for others, it necessitates finding meaning or serving others; and some students understand it through a Christian lens as a divine calling from God.”
The school’s Center for Experiential Learning (CEL) offers various programs encouraging students to think about their careers in light of vocation, including a workshop series and retreats. “As a career counselor, my goal is to reach students where they are at,” says Assistant Director for Career Connections Miriam Samuelson. “If this means just giving students the resources they need to help land a job, I’ll do that. But if it means discussing vocation in a more religious, existential sense, we do that too.”
Students might also hear the word vocation in the classroom, and not just in religion classes. “It is important that both my religious and non-religious students are familiar with the way in which religious people, especially Lutherans, talk about vocation,” says Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson. “Yet I believe that they should also be familiar with some of the criticisms of this moral language and some of the alternative vocabularies that both religious and non-religious people employ.”
The “college of the church” identity can be visible in class discussions, in the conversation about vocation, in the practice of daily worship, and even in the fact that the library is locked Sunday mornings to honor our Christian tradition. However, if students are to deepen and strengthen their own religious convictions, some active seeking is required. For those who seek it, rich opportunities to grow as a student of religion and as a person of faith are readily available. Personally, as a religion major, person of faith, and someone who has actively sought religious engagement on campus, St. Olaf has stimulated me, promoted me to ask challenging questions, and ultimately strengthened my faith.
But the challenge for St. Olaf, and similar colleges, going forward will be to foster in students the same sort of passion, interest, and pride in their religious identity that they have toward issues like sustainability and social justice. While these currently can seem separate — even opposite for some — I’ve discovered that a Lutheran understanding of vocation leads us to believe that they not only intersect, but inform and stimulate one another.
Alexandra Wertz, from St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is a January 2012 graduate of St. Olaf College. She majored in religion and political science.

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