Compassionate Connections

McCormick Alums in Campus Ministry

By Alicia Leonardi

Outside of the world of theological education, many assume that seminaries only graduate traditional church pastors, but at McCormick a significant number are called to roads less traveled. Among them are campus ministers, whose job it is to offer a spiritual space for young adults often in the midst of spiritual and vocational transition.

For the Rev. Jesse Larson (M.Div., Class of 2008), campus ministry is all about connections. As one personally drawn to liberal arts and international travel – especially to Africa – he has spent the past two years with engineering students who like living in Iowa, are busy with their studies, and don’t feel particularly compelled to leave their home state.

Larson’s fellowship of would-be engineers, agricultural specialists, and veterinarians at Iowa State University is intentional about connecting with international students and giving them a taste of American traditions - such as pumpkin carving. Likewise, Larson rejoices at seeing those born and bred in farm country exposed to fellow students whose perspectives and experiences originated halfway around the world.

“It’s fascinating to see who comes through the door,” Larson said. “Only one-tenth of all international students ever enter an American home. It’s a huge help to offer Christian hospitality.”

Though he is technically a campus minister, Larson doesn’t spend all of his time on Iowa State University grounds, nor does he spend it exclusively with students. Jesse is a member of staff at Collegiate Presbyterian Church (CPC) in Ames, Iowa, where current Doctor of Ministry student Rev. Whit Malone serves as pastor and head of staff and Betsy Thompson (M.Div., Class of 2008) is Children and Youth Coordinator. As a church in a college town, the congregation is an interesting hybrid of students and members of the local community.

This means even more liaison work for Larson as he tries to help older adults understand contemporary student life. 

“Older church members want to return to the glory days,” Larson said, in reference to the 1950s, when more than 100 students were involved at CPC. Today, Larson’s fellowship ranges from 10 to 20 students.

Considering that fewer and few young people are attending church these days, this isn’t a surprise. Larson said it is common knowledge that many young people leave the church after high school and don’t return until they have their own children.

“Full-time students today are busy,” Larson said. “They are working 20 hours a week and don’t have as much disposable time or money as students did back then.” 

Some of what Larson does is explain to the rest of the congregation why it is important to serve meals and utilize other outreach activities to encourage student attendance. He says portraying them as a domestic mission field of sorts helps others to stop looking down on students for not cooking their own food and have more compassion and understanding about the demands they face.

Overall, Larson said that a diversity of ages in Sunday worship is more of an asset than a liability. 

“Some students come out of more college-centered churches because they want to be in a more intergenerational environment,” he said.

At work, in conversation with friends and especially during her devotions; life for the Rev. Shaun Whitehead (M.Div., Class of 2003) is all about the journey.

The Chicago native moved to upstate New York eight years ago to work as an associate chaplain for St. Lawrence University.

Whitehead has learned that part of living in rural America means forsaking big-city amenities and living life alongside those who are there.

“My journey with God has everything to do with my journey with you,” Whitehead said. “I want to let people know that they are loved by God and not on the journey alone.”

Whitehead has become especially known for her love of Gospel music. She not only directs the campus and community Gospel choir, but also preaches weekly at what has become known as The Gospel Service at the campus chapel.

Since Whitehead believes the radical love of God reaches beyond those who bear Christ’s name, she doesn’t require anybody in her congregation to fulfill doctrinal requirements before allowing them to fully participate. One of her most faithful choir members – singing for four years – is a Hindu.

Rather than running into students who practice other religions, Whitehead says most students don’t identify as being particularly religious in any way. Though students may consider themselves spiritual to some degree, the campus feels very secular, Whitehead said.

St. Lawrence University takes its name from the nearby St. Lawrence speedway and isn’t affiliated with Catholicism or any other faith tradition.

“Students come to college and see it as an opportunity not to have to belong,” Whitehead said. 

During Whitehead’s college years, she struggled with depression and walked away from the church. In addition to being transparent with students regarding these issues in counseling, Whitehead’s past experience informs her current ministry.

Though she strongly believes that religious ritual can bring joy, she understands how young people might want a break from rituals as they figure out who they are. She also understands how off-putting religious messages filled with prescriptive behavior can be rather than an affirmation of God’s love.

Whitehead offers students a different kind of church. She knows the lives of students and faculty are transitory and that her congregation is constantly changing. She doesn’t preach for those planning to worship in the same place for decades, but for those on a spiritual quest who seek The Gospel Service as a meaningful stopover. Whitehead said the chapel doors are as open to everybody on Sundays– even those who are not Christians or who don’t know certain things about the Bible – because everybody is made in the image of God and loved by the Divine.

“It’s a relief for people,” Whitehead said. “The average person is reaching out for God.” Though Whitehead is involved in the lives of many who do not regularly attend The Gospel Service, between 60 and 75 students and community members do attend each week. 

As a young woman, Whitehead didn’t expect to be a pastoral ambassador for Gospel in a small-town where diversity is a struggle. In fact, she didn’t expect to be a pastor at all.

Before accepting the chaplaincy call, Whitehead worked in radio for 14 years. Since her church of origin doesn’t ordain women to the pastorate, vocational ministry was something Whitehead initially tried to avoid – but her vocation was clear.

 “I didn’t choose it, but it chose me,” Whitehead said of her current position. “Friends tell me, ‘You didn’t just walk through that door – you went and kicked that door open.’ God really made room for my gifts.”

Whitehead received this call specifically because she was a person of color and has been pleased to be able to be herself. Doing ministry in a context where she is a minority didn’t require her to morph into somebody else. She may live like an upstate New Yorker – collecting baskets made by the nearby Amish and eating entire meals grown from sustainable gardens – but her grounding in the Black Baptist tradition remains unshaken.

“Every gift I have was birthed and honed in the black church, but the black church couldn’t officially acknowledge those gifts,” she said. “It’s been a gift and a surprise to be here and have my voice seen as legitimate – not isolated or marginalized.”

The Henry Copeland Chaplain and Director of Interfaith Campus Ministries at College of Wooster, the Rev. Linda Morgan-Clement (M.Div., Class of 1984) sees herself as an interpreter on a mission.

Depending on with whom she is working, that mission might look very different.

Sometimes, it’s praying at a graduation ceremony or the dedication of a new building. Other times it’s helping students who don’t come from religious backgrounds understand what it means to have faith. Occasionally, it’s helping faculty, students and family members understand why a young person would commit suicide.

Frequently, Morgan-Clement’s mission is articulating good news to a skeptical world.

“The reason I do what I do is that I am a Christian,” Morgan-Clement said. “I talk about what it means to have that core commitment of faith – a lot of it is action and not just words.”

For some who’ve been burned by legalistic churches, Christian interpretation means proving she really cares through avoiding dogma and showing respect. For others who are learning to assemble a faith that’s separate from their parents, Morgan-Clement gives students tools to analyze their beliefs and make them their own.

“Unless students are able to let go of what they bring in from their parents, look at the pieces and pick and choose from what’s there, they’ll never find a faith of their own,” Morgan-Clement said. “I help them ground themselves and find a faith they can live in.”

Morgan-Clement said she does a lot of dispelling stereotypes and explaining that the media’s version of Christianity isn’t accurate for all Christians – she isn’t telling anyone they have to follow certain rules or face condemnation.

As a chaplain and a 20-plus-year Presbyterian, she often finds herself on the edge of organizational expectations. Schools are geared toward teachers and students, and denominational activities are geared toward parish ministry. Before she can help people through life’s struggles, Morgan-Clement needs to help them understand what she is about.

“People will ask me why I don’t have a church of my own – as if that’s where I should be,” she said.

In fact, Morgan-Clement did work in Parish ministry for eight years before accepting the call to Wooster in 1996. She thinks that time in more traditional ministry provided her with administrative skills which were absolutely necessary for her to develop.

Since she is the first chaplain at Wooster, Morgan-Clement has had to cast much of her own vision and build her position from the ground up. While she found this extremely rewarding, she didn’t think she would have been ready for so much challenge right out of seminary.

While pastors expect to perform funerals as part of their duties, Morgan-Clement thought entering campus ministry might give her a break from eulogies for a while. Sadly, she has performed several funerals for students. Part of her interpretive duty is showing those who may have never faced death before how to reconcile with mortality.

During specific incidents, as well as national tragedies such as September 11, she encourages mourners to give themselves permission to grieve, share memories and prepare for healing to take a while.

“This community is not immune to death,” Morgan-Clement said. “People who ordinarily aren’t religious want somebody to talk with to make meaning out of it.”

Spiritual and emotional triage notwithstanding, Morgan-Clement oversees a fairly established set of religious activities throughout the academic year.     

Ten groups meet weekly for fellowship, meditation and dinner. Recently, she has been working with other campus organizations and academic departments to bring Beyond Tolerance author Gustav Niebuhr to Wooster as a plenary speaker. In large and small ways, Morgan-Clement creates space for those of different belief systems to have a conversation.

“People want to know what the reasonable and effective role of religion is,” Morgan-Clement said. “It gives me hope, and keeps me on my theological toes. Their questions re-enliven my questions."