Why did we chose the name “3rd Way Collective”?

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

A question I get asked fairly frequently is why we chose the name 3rd Way Collective for this Anabaptist campus ministry at Penn State. On our student club page for Penn State we wrote this as we began…

“3rd Way Collective is an opportunity and challenge to create a new alternative. An alternative to extremism or disengagement, an alternative to the left or the right, an alternative to violence or passivity. A way that is bolder and more enriching. A place of belonging. A community engaged in building relationships, peacemaking, partnership, and reconciliation. A third way.”

This is a helpful introduction paragraph but doesn’t capture our journey to landing on this name.

One of the early conversations at University Mennonite Church included what to call this new campus ministry. Some folks were interested in a denominational branding… perhaps calling it Mennonite Student Fellowship, or something along those lines. The downside of this approach was that it would deter students from other faith backgrounds or traditions from connecting. We learned in the early years that few Mennonite students had a desire to connect with their faith tradition. In the first year of 3rd Way Collective we held a monthly Mennonite student gathering event specifically to bring together Penn State’s (approximately) 500 Mennonite students. The most students who ever showed up was two… both non-Mennonite students who were curious about who or what Mennonites were. Our assumption has been that Mennonite students often choose Penn State specifically to step away from their tradition while they are in college. Mennonite students who want to remain closely tied to their denominational background often choose Mennonite colleges. The small number of Mennonite students who attend Penn State and want to remain connected to their denominational tradition often chose to attend University Mennonite Church, and connect with 3rd Way Collective that way.

Another option was to widen the circle and call this group Anabaptist Campus Ministry, or something to that effect. This would broaden our denominational outreach to others from that same tradition beyond Mennonites, however some of the same hurdles would be in place. It still limited the circle of inclusion to those who identified as Anabaptist. The word Anabaptist can also be confusing to those who are unfamiliar with its definition. Sometimes the word is misunderstood as anti-Baptist. It is not a word that is commonly used across the Christian tradition, and using this word could have been both confusing and also misunderstood.

We knew from the earliest moments that this organization would be centered on peace and justice, and some thought was given to a Greek/Latin word to link our club’s identity with other campus organizations, especially those in Greek life. If our aim was to provide a space of belonging, perhaps borrowing from Greek life where many go to try and belong or fit in would make sense in our context. The most popular of those ideas was the word PAX, a latin word meaning peace, which also has connections to the Mennonite tradition as Mennonite peace workers in the wake of World War 2 were often referred to as “Pax Volunteers.” Pax was an interesting idea, however Greek life on Penn State’s campus can be problematic and starting an organization with ties to that world could have come with unwanted baggage – especially since we had no firm plans on creating a fraternity-like living community. We also were aware that while Pax was an interesting word, it was not commonly used enough for students to immediately get a sense of who we were.

At one point we thought about being very literal with our name, and toyed with calling this new group the Peace, Justice, and Faith Organization (or Collective or Cooperative). This path would have been far more clear about who we were and what we hoped to be and do, but it also felt a bit clunky and overly-specific.

At this point I have forgotten if it was mentioned by someone on the search committee, the first 3WC Advisory Team, or myself, but someone brought up the Mennonite use of the term Third Way. Mennonites have long used the phrase to explain that they are neither Protestant nor Catholic, but some kind of “third way”. The website url “thirdway.com” is a landing page for those curious about who the Mennonite are. Our team liked the idea that in addition to this tie to our denominational tradition, a third way was also needed at a moment in time in which so many different things were becoming polarized and divided. We liked that any path leading toward a third way required a conversation on how to get there, and we hoped that the third way could continue to provide us with a road map in how to move about campus and our community.

Once we had landed on Third Way, the next part to figure out was if we needed something after that to provide more clarity. We thought about calling it Third Way Campus Ministry, or Third Way Organization or Club. We thought about just leaving it as The Third Way, but that seemed a bit mysterious and elusive.

In conversations with other campus ministers and organizations we noticed that almost all of Penn State’s organizations struggled to get students to commit. They lamented that students like to participate in a variety of clubs and groups, and getting members to show up regularly was an increasingly difficult task. We came up with the term “collective” for this movement out of a hope we were creating something where anyone could find a home for any length of time. This wasn’t going to be a club that required regular attendance or membership dues. In fact, we were more interested in creating a network of connected individuals rather than an insular club that never moved beyond itself. We liked the idea that we could be a temporary home to students who were also part of another organization, club, or group – even if it was another faith-based organization.

One thing that we never considered was that the word “collective” has some socialist (or gulp… communist!) implications. Our intent was not to choose a politicized word, however in a politicized world this is almost impossible. In fact, there have been moments where we’ve wondered if we should have leaned in more intentionally to a politicized name. Most of the ~40 Christian organizations on Penn State’s main campus come from a conservative, traditional, or orthodox posture. Perhaps if we had called ourselves Progressive Christian Campus Ministry we would have created an organization for the progressive Christian students who did not see their kind of theology represented in the list of faith-based groups at Penn State.

When it came time to finally write down our new name on applications for club status, websites, and social media, we realized that we had another decision to make. Would we use the long-form “Third”, or the shorter “3rd”? I was somewhat indifferent to the two choices, however I liked the idea that our acronym could be 3WC instead of TWC (I’m not sure why, it just felt better to me). This seemingly-inconsequential decision turned out to be more lucrative than we could have imagined. Choosing “3rd” placed us pretty close to the top of the alphabetical list of the 1000 Penn State clubs and organizations (nudged out of the top spot only by the 3-D Printing Club).

When choosing a name, we did not consider that a faith-based peace and justice group had the potential to provide college students with a third way model for how to live life. As we moved about campus in those first few years we discovered that for many years students felt as if they had to choose between their faith and justice issues they cared about. This seemed especially true for students who had been brought up in more traditional or conservative Christianity. They assumed that they had to choose to hold on to their faith, or give it up completely to become more embracing of the LGBTQ community, active in environmental or racial justice, or gender equality. When they entered justice-minded advocacy groups, they were found many students who claimed no faith, or had rejected their faith. Likewise, they had ministry groups telling them that the issues they cared about were not important, or counter to what tradition taught. What they needed was an example of how to combine their faith tradition with a passion for justice. They needed a literal third way.

The other major discovery after settling on this name was that students from beyond the Christian tradition began showing up inquiring if they were welcome to be a part of the “collective”. We realized that it wasn’t just Christian students who wished their tradition was more interested in peace and social justice, and they were willing to check out this new movement (and tolerate that it was being led by a Christian minister) simply because it gave them a chance to hold their faith tradition while engaging the the issues that mattered most in their lives. Over our five years on campus our student leaders have included people from the Peace Church and Anabaptist Christian traditions, but also other flavors of Christianity – both Protestant and Catholic, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and even Atheist or Agnostic students.

In the five years since we chose the name 3rd Way Collective it has ended up being a great fit for this alternative kind of campus ministry, one that blurs the lines between faith and justice organizations, between campus and community organizations, and so much more. We did not realize how important it would be to create a network of connected people. Nor did we realize the power in creating a space where more could belong than simply those from a specific faith tradition or political posture. We’re glad we found a third way.

In The Beginning

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

No photo description available.

Starting a faith-based, peace and justice-centered campus ministry from scratch had to start somewhere. As far as we are aware, 3rd Way Collective was the first Mennonite campus ministry at a non-Mennonite college, university, or graduate school. We did not have a road map for how things should look or work, just some energy to try and see how things would unfold.

In June of 2014, after being selected by the search committee at University Mennonite Church as their first choice for a new Anabaptist Campus Pastor position at Penn State, I had my candidating weekend with the congregation. In the Mennonite Church, a pastoral candidate for a job opening is often brought in after being selected by the search committee for one final weekend in which the hiring congregation is introduced to this individual in a more face-to-face way. This is an opportunity for the candidate to be seen by the congregation, and for their questions to be asked and hopefully answered by the candidate in ways that confirm they are the right fit for the job. The weekend went really smoothly, and both my family and the congregation felt like this was in fact the right fit for me.

In July I began sharing this news with my colleagues, coworkers, mentors, youth, and youth sponsors at Salford Mennonite Church. In August of that same year I made an announcement in front of the congregation that I had accepted this new position and would be moving on to this new role later in the fall. Before officially moving to State College, I made the three-hour journey to State College to participate in on-campus events welcoming new students, and trying to spread the word about this new organization called 3rd Way Collective, even though we did not have any clear sense of who we were or what we would evolve into.

Early in October my family and I moved into our new home, and that month I began serving as the campus minister for 3rd Way Collective. I spent the first month meeting with students, faculty, and community members, and decided together with my advisory team that our first official event would be something we called “3rd Way Conversations”, an evening in which we would discuss a relevant peace, justice, or faith issue, inviting members of the community to be present as a way to connect students with older adults with more life experience.

Getting to this moment in time took several official steps. First we had to find students willing to be listed as members of the club and club officers. Next steps included finding someone to be a faculty advisory, write an official charter, apply for and obtain club status with Penn State, and then in order to be listed as a faith-based organization we had to apply to become an affiliate with the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on campus. Once all these things were accomplished we were able to reserve space for our first event which took place at 7:30 pm on Monday, November 3rd.

I was eagerly anticipating this moment. More than standing at a table at the Student Involvement Fair, or attending meetings with my advisory team or having coffee with students, a real event signified in my mind that 3rd Way Collective was real and active. It meant we could finally offer an answer to the question, “What exactly does your club do at Penn State?”

I was also expecting that this event would confirm that I was the right person for the job. I had a theological background that included peace and justice work, and classes on Christian ethics. I was a global traveler, and someone who had real life experience and many connections in faith-based activism. I spent a significant amount of time and energy in those first few months making sure we had the right organizational name, logo, status on campus, social media presence, advertising within the student body, word of mouth awareness, faculty connection, church support, and affirmation of my advisory team.

I had risen to the top of a national search for the right person for this unique campus ministry position, and I was hired because I was expected to be good at this kind of experimental work.

I reserved a modest space for our first event.  A multipurpose room in the Spiritual Center that could comfortably hold 20 people around a table, and be expanded to fit even more if we were surprised by the turnout.

It turns out there was little need to be in a room that was even that large. Just one community member and two students showed up – one who wasn’t sure exactly what or who we were, but was intrigued by the faith-based peace and justice focus, the other student and community member were both long-term members of University Mennonite Church. My hope was that this first group would help define what 3rd Way Collective would become, but the small size meant that little discussion took place that evening. Most of the conversation was a response to questions they had about what my vision was for 3rd Way Collective. I spent a decent amount of time that night worrying that this new student would never return, and wondering how helpful it was to invite community members if they ended up equaling or out-numbering the students I had been asked to serve.

That first event taught me several important things.

First, I must never assume that a campus of 46,000 students meant that every and any event would automatically be well-attended. My assumption was that simply being present on campus would lead to a decent number of curious people. Second, it confirmed a fear that had been nagging – that Penn State’s significant Mennonite student population were either not aware or not interested in what we were doing. Third, I realized that having the right club name, and social media presence made little difference on a campus with more than 1000 clubs and organizations. Just being different was not enough to separate ourselves from the hundreds of other choices students had with how to spend their evening time.

I also learned that night that while I may be qualified to launch a peace-, justice-, and faith-based campus ministry, I could not rest on that fact alone. Building connections and creating meaningful spaces for students to belong was going to take far more time and energy than I had originally anticipated. It was also humbling to learn that my ideas about what students might want were not as important as figuring out what they actually needed or wanted.

That night was not a complete failure. The two students continued to attend and were attracted to something that we created in that space. Both went on to be student officers for our club in its earliest years, and helped me re-imagine what a club like that could be.

I would go on to learn many new things in those first few weeks and months trying to start something new with 3rd Way Collective, but perhaps no memory crystalized how much I still had to learn about this work than that first event, and how different it ended up being than my own expectations.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 6

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Image may contain: one or more people, people riding bicycles, bicycle, outdoor and nature

Something is shifting in Washington DC.

Four years ago I rode in my first PA-IPL Bike Trip from State College to DC. At that time our Hill visits were almost guaranteed to go one of two ways. If it was a Democrat they would thank us for our time but admit that anything having to do with climate change was challenging due to partisan divide. Republicans would admire our efforts to ride our bikes so far, but almost always deny that the climate was changing.

Despite the ongoing (and on many issues increasing) polarization of the two parties, there is increasing awareness among elected officials of both parties that climate change is real and engaged.

There is still major division on the path forward. There are still trigger words that some elected officials refuse to use. There is still a difference in the urgency of this problem, but few people are left who outright deny that the planet is warming.

Our ride included 7 riders who had journeyed from Philadelphia to DC, and 8 riders who had traveled from State College to DC. Together (with the assistance of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light’s incredible staff team of Cricket Hunter and Alison Cornish) we were able to visit the offices of all 18 Representatives and 2 Senators.

Several times during our hill visits we heard staffers share that Republicans are coming around and admitting that they made a mistake denying that humans have been a cause of the changing climate. There were times when younger staff members would admit that they were personally concerned about climate change, even if it wasn’t something that was as urgent for their boss. It feels like we’re watching a generational shift happen in a short moment in time.

On our ride we heard more community members from Pennsylvania’s “red” districts talk about the way they are experiencing a different climate – either from the difficulty farmers are having this spring to get the crops into the ground, or the increasing change in the animals, plants, or tree pollen. We rode our bikes beside fields flooded with too much water, and heard that a local fly fishing shop was shifting the flies they sold because insects are emerging at different times than they used to. People who live in rural America are more intimately tuned in to how the climate is shifting.

One of my fellow cyclists shared that it feels as though the people fighting against climate change have been slowly walking toward solutions for many years – still moving forward, but painfully slowly at times. Now it feels like we’re on roller skates… still not moving as quickly as we should, but much faster than before.

There are still so many challenges in politics. Many people are still marginalized, underrepresented, or underserved. Progress on climate change does not equate to progress in all areas, nor does a decrease in political division on one topic have a trickle down effect to others.

Still, there were some small signs of hope for me. Two years ago Pennsylvania had zero women among their 18 Congresspeople and 2 Senators. This year there are four. Two years ago there was so much gridlock that no one we visited felt any optimism at all that any policies could be implemented. There are still many challenges, but generally speaking optimism seemed higher than before. A Democratic majority in the House means that they have been able to keep a stronger hold on some environmental policy that the White House is trying to undermine.

Wednesday’s experience in Washington DC gives me more hope than I’ve had during the past few years of being present with my state’s elected officials. I know that change will come only when our communities raise their voices even louder, but it is exciting to see that some of those voices are shifting the culture of our national politics.

I will continue to ride my bicycle – for the planet, for future generations, for the moral imperative that we are facing. I hope you ride with me.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 5

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Machloket – a Hebrew word meaning sacred argument or debate. It’s at the core of a sentiment in Judaism that sees conversation between differing opinions as being foundational to any system of belief.

We were taught about this wonderful word during a stop at Adat Shalom, a synagogue in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, during today’s bike ride into Washington DC. Rabbi Fred shared with us from their 200 year old Torah, pointing out that differing opinions are how we form our perspectives on what we believe. He referenced Jewish texts that intentionally include two contrasting opinions, holding both as sacred, side by side.

All of this is important as we approach Capitol Hill, knowing that this is also a place with many different opinions, ideas, and contrasting perspectives.

We arrived here in DC, enjoying our final day on the trail, with our heads filled with our experiences and the many stories we carry with us. Our hope is that we can be heard, and that the words we share will help shape how our representatives lead this country. We know we are not all of the exact same faith, mind, or heart, but we also know we share a desire that people of faith speak up and speak out for a better future for our planet.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 4

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Image may contain: bicycle and outdoor

Water. We can’t live without it, and too much is problematic.

Two days of rain makes a cyclist feel many different things. When rain begins it can be refreshing on a warm ride. A light mist can be cooling on a sunny day, and a passing shower can be a minor inconvenience. But two days starts to feel downright frustrating. Water in our shoes, water in our clothes, soaking wet gloves, and water trickling down our backs. Rain so soaking that it pushes its way through raincoats and rain pants. Rain that makes us shiver when we are standing still, and makes any decent both treacherous and also stinging in the way it pounds exposed skin.

Long days of riding in the rain also makes us grateful for the way it greens our lives. It makes us grateful for warmth at lunch stops and our final destination. It makes us appreciate the small things like wringing our socks and gloves, and the feeling of climbing off the bike at the end of the day.

I am always grateful for hospitality on a long trip like this, but the past two days have increased that ten-fold. Today’s lunch was an incredible meal at a local Middle Eastern restaurant in Brunswick, MD. Our hosts at Am Kolel Retreat Center, and Joyce and other local friends from the Poolesville area have provided us with incredible warmth and welcome (including a vegetarian meal provided from a local farm-to-table restaurant. Water has been present in these spaces too – from the food prep, to the warm showers, to the green and growing spaces, water has been involved.

All that to say we have experienced water… the best parts and the hardest parts. We are ready for less water, and we are grateful for water.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 3

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue album has become an important piece of music for me for several reasons. I find her voice and songwriting skill to be incredible, and it doesn’t hurt that we share a homeland (Canada), but what I’m most drawn to is her ability to sing with a vulnerability and transparency that acknowledges the ups and downs of life.

Our ride today was mostly miserable due to chilly temperatures and a constant drizzle. This day of the trip is typically my favorite but the beautiful scenery was lost behind fog, and the thrilling downhill stretches were precarious due to the water on the road. The weather made us less conversational, and more insistent on getting to the destination rather than enjoying the journey.

But the day was wonderful despite all of those things because of the very real and raw reminder it provided for me that bike trips, just like life, have days like this. These are the days that challenge and stretch. These are the days that add fatigue to life, and challenge us in ways we don’t expect. These are the days that remind us that life is not all sunshine and wind at our backs.

The frustrations we felt today also had this unintended side effect, in that we ended up appreciating the small things even more. The moments where the rain would stop were to be savored, the food at lunch time and dinner was spectacular simply by the inclusion of simple warm drinks, and the warm showers at the end of our ride have never felt better.

Our group also finished the day with a much greater sense of accomplishment than we had felt previously. We named simple things as the highlights of our day – hand dryers in the public restrooms, towels, dry socks, and hot chocolate. We felt admiration for our fellow cyclists for completing the journey, and we felt stronger having survived our most difficult day together.

Tomorrow’s journey will include surprises, no doubt, but we continue on, feeling the full range of emotion that life brings. Just like Joni Mitchell’s incredible music, we ride not because every day is easy, but because life is about both the ups as well as the downs.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 2

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Our bike trip experience today grounded us to the earth in some special ways. After a pleasant night at Huntingdon Presbyterian Church we loaded up our bikes and rode just a short distance to a local park where we helped with invasive species removal and the planting of native trees and shrubs. We got to trade our bike gloves for work gloves, and got our hands connected to the earth and it’s plants. In the process of clearing away invasive species we uncovered some native species like Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Tulip Poplar, and Trout Lillies… plants that grow slowly and have been choked out by invasive species. The hope is that efforts like the small one we made are providing these plants with a better foothold to be more fully present again.

We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Standing Stone Coffee before climbing into the saddle again for a meandering ride down to Orbisonia. This stretch includes some beautiful scenery, but also some obnoxiously busy highway stretches with rumble strips. We also made the annual stop along this stretch at a Dairy Queen part way along the journey.

Orbisonia is a tiny town along a river that had its glory days during the late 1800s. It feels depressed, but the people we’ve met are full of a desire to be hospitable to our traveling group. We were fed well and after dinner crossed the river to visit an old rail yard, which still operates old trolley tours during the summer.

I found myself thinking today about what it means to be rooted – both in terms of the plant species we connected to, but also the people we interacted with. What does it mean to be connected to a region or place, and how do we find that connection when we are just passing through? Our conversations today also included an ongoing question about what humanity’s role is in solving some of the ecological issues – especially when humanity is the root problem of so many of these things.

Tomorrow’s journey will bring even more of the same, as we make our way down to Hagerstown, MD.

PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 1

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

This morning I began making pedal rotations, slowly moving my bicycle from State College to Washington DC with a group of riders from Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light. Today’s journey took us 36 miles, climbing more than 1200 feet of Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, to Huntingdon, PA, home of Juniata College.

Our group includes eight riders, and we have at least one person in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 70s, with a broad range of riding experience. Seven of us have made this trip before, with just a single new rider. We are supported this week by a handful of SAG vehicle drivers, and dozens of people who have supported this trip and the work of PA-IPL by making a donation to this cause.

Our plan is to arrive in DC on Tuesday evening after 200 miles of riding, and to spend Wednesday on Capitol Hill talking with our congressional representatives from Pennsylvania about our journey and explaining why and how people of faith care for the earth and work against climate change.

Today’s journey was a beautiful mix of rolling farmland and wooded areas, with a few long climbing roads.

I continue to be struck by how valuable the pace of cycling can be – both in terms of stepping away from the busy (and occasional frantic) pace of my life, but also to be granted the space to breathe deeply and more intimately connect with geography. Today we were joined on our journey by different birds, livestock in fields, scampering woodland animals, and many more creatures we couldn’t see. We felt the wind on our faces and the clean air fill our lungs. We felt the warmth of the sun, and the sprinkle of a few raindrops. We felt the groan of our tired muscles as we downshifted to get up one more hill, and the exhilaration of a long descent.

The car and truck drivers that passed us so quickly missed the tiny streams and budding trees. They were moving too fast to notice the subtle changes of the grasses and flowers along the road, or the quality (or lack thereof) of the pavement. It may have taken us four-plus hours to travel as far as a car could have done in less than an hour, but during that time we moved slow enough to share life stories and reflections of other bike trips. We waved and were greeted by the people we passed who were out waiting for the school bus, holding a yard sale, or walking along the road.

We ate lunch at a tiny country bakery, and were reminded that there are people living their lives in spaces far more rural than State College. Next door was a fly fishing shop, and someone pointed out that those who walk our streams for recreation have a more intimate awareness of how climate change is impacting the those spaces. These are stories and moments that a car may not have provided us.

I find myself wondering what the pace of cycling can remind us about how we live our daily lives. I wonder what we might gain if we moved slower though the world from time to time, and savored our physical setting.

Tomorrow our journey takes us to Orbisonia, PA, a small former mining town struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of the changing mining industry. I’m sure more stories and slow moments to breathe deeply await us on our journey.

Beginnings (Part 2)

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

So… Meredith wasn’t thrilled with the idea of moving to State College.

And frankly, I can’t really blame her. Our two-plus years of ministry had not been easy, nor had our transition to southeastern Pennsylvania. We left behind our community and a rich and vibrant southern California for rural suburbia. We had expected our transition to be a homecoming of sorts… we had both grown up in country close to the city, and assumed that it would feel familiar even if it wasn’t the exact area we grew up in. What we did not count on was how much Pasadena had changed us.

Before we left for Pasadena the largest town either of us had lived in was our college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. We were still trying to make sense of what we believed, and also trying to make sense of living in a marriage commitment (we had only been married for one year). We left behind Virginia’s rolling green mountains for the arid and rugged San Gabriel Mountains beyond Pasadena. We arrived not knowing, or having never been clearly challenged by living in a diverse community, never thought much about the extent of our ecological impact on the earth, had rarely considered the politics of immigration, had little interaction with people from other faith traditions, and had yet to determine what we really felt about LGBTQ inclusion in the church.

We met many people during our four years in Pasadena that challenged us to think differently on these things, and many more. We experienced what it meant to be a Mennonite in an area where few people had ever heard of that tradition. We became friends with people with different religious ideas, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and sexual or gender identity. We ate and fell in love with foods we never knew existed, explored cultures we’d never experienced, and met people from all over the world. We expected to be ready to leave Pasadena after a quick three year program, and ended up staying for four years, and left feeling like we were leaving part of ourselves behind.

It isn’t surprising then that southeastern Pennsylvania felt different and challenging. We went from having only one car that we used infrequently, to having to depend on two vehicles for pretty much every aspect of our new lives. We shifted from having almost every culinary food at our fingertips to limited restaurant offerings of pizza, hoagies, and meat-and-potato dishes. While we found many wonderful new friends, most people seemed similar to who we were – white, middle class people from a Mennonite or Swiss-German heritage.

Salford Mennonite Church was an incredible congregation with a great depth of resources, but those first few years of ministry were challenging in ways we did not expect. We didn’t anticipate feeling a cultural disconnect – both with the transition from Pasadena, as well as a new area that had a deep rootedness that was hard for an outsider to connect right away. We also had several circumstances that were unexpected. I lost a close friend from college due to cancer in my first year. We moved in to our first home, and then had to move again within months due to a complication in our living situation. We got pregnant with our second child and then experienced the pain and trauma of a stillborn daughter. I had some incredible experiences with the church and our youth group, but also some painful moments of tension and pushback to the way I fit with the broader community.

My reaction to all these complications was to start to think about what else we might do, and where else we might go. Meredith, on the other hand, was more inclined to stay put and wait for a calmer moment in our lives.

When University Mennonite Church posted the campus pastor position we talked with friends and mentors and tried hard to discern what was best for us. We decided to let the process help guide us… I decided to be fully transparent with the hiring team about my sense of call, but also some of my reservations with a transition like that, and if they still felt as if I was the right fit we would consider that to be a sign that we were meant to move in that way.

In the meantime, we started to see small signs that a pathway was unfolding in strange ways. Friends were forwarding the job description to me, asking if I knew about the position and wondering if I had applied. Folks at Salford seemed to have a decent number of connections to folks at University Mennonite Church, and were able to get a strong sense of what I might bring to the job. My visits and candidating went really smoothly, and before we knew it the position had been offered. After making the announcement that we were leaving for State College, there were many people who were sad to see me go, however many of those same people told us that they totally understood why I was being called in that direction. THere was almost a sense of lament that the congregation hadn’t been a better fit for me to lean in to my unique set of pastoral gifts. A few of my youth were curious about why I was leaving and assumed it was for more money. When I assured them that I was actually taking a pay cut to leave, they were really surprised. It gave me an opportunity to talk with them about a sense of call and purpose, and to get them to imagine that there may be more to life than wealth.

One of the most touching moments for me was that the lead pastor at Salford spoke at my ordination service at University Mennonite at the end of my first year. Pastor Joe explained that I had a unique calling to use my faith to stand up for peace and justice, and he commended UMC for being a congregation that was willing to hire me to be their prophetic voice in the community, speaking out when it was called for. People from Salford made the journey to my installation service, and then again to celebrate when I was ordained by the congregation and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.

I had a lot of ideas about what I was being called to, and some of those have turned out to be true. But many of the aspects of this unique campus pastor role have turned out to be far more surprising and unexpected than I could have imagined.

Beginnings (Part 1)

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

During the summer of 2013, in my role as Salford Mennonite Church’s pastor for youth and young adults, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona for Mennonite Church USA’s biannual national gathering with my youth group in tow. Our week of service, learning, worship, and networking were all deeply moving and meaningful. We got to spend some quality time together attending the Youth Convention workshops and activities, and our hotel had a rooftop pool. I lost and found (and lost and found) my wedding ring while at a local water park with our students, and on one of the hottest days some students tried frying an egg on the sidewalk during the heatwave hitting Phoenix that summer. It was a great week, exemplifying the experience of being in youth ministry and walking with young adults.

Despite all that occurred, one experience still stands out above the rest.

On a whim I decided to go check out a seminar presented by Jim Rosenberger (a person I had never met) from University Mennonite Church (a congregation I’d never heard of) in State College, PA (a town I knew little about). At the heart of that seminar was an important question for the denomination to consider – why was it that Mennonite campus ministries only happened on Mennonite college and seminary campuses?

Jim shared that UMC was considering trying something new on the campus of Penn State. Their hunch was that the unique Anabaptist tradition may have something valuable to offer the campus ministry landscape in their community.

I was intrigued for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I had been interested in campus ministry almost as long as I had been considering a call to pastoral ministry. After graduating from Eastern Mennonite University I got a job in the EMU admissions office, working to recruit high school students to my alma mater. In that role I felt honored to be walking with students as they made big decisions, and as they stepped away from their families and home communities to try and define who they were becoming. Even though my job was not to be a minister to the students I worked with, it felt deeply pastoral. I realized during those years that if I was going to become a minister some day, I really wanted to work with youth and young adults.

From there my journey took me to Pasadena, California and the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary. Los Angeles County was a really interesting place to study theology. It provided a backdrop that illuminated many society complexities, and prevented me from assuming there were easy answers to my questions – both theological and societal. In southern California I watched cultures collide. I marveled at the weird way that part of the country could be both passionately progressive, and staunchly conservative. It was home to some of the wealthiest people in the nation, and also some of its poorest. It was a melting pot of cultures, and a home for many people who were just passing through the region. Highways were clogged with gas-chugging oversized SUVs, and tiny eco-friendly hybrid vehicles. Just about any kind of food, music, religion, art, or sporting event was within a short drive.

Fuller provided me with an incredible theological training, and it also afforded me the chance to explore some options for what ministry could be. I found an incredible opportunity at Occidental College to immerse myself in religion on college campus. Rev. Susan Young mentored me for a year as I watched the amazing way she directed the Office of Religious and SPiritual Life, moving with sensitivity between various religious groups and the students who found homes there. Susan taught me that there was a way to be authentically true to yourself and the tradition you represent, while also being present for students from other faith traditions and backgrounds. Occidental College also gave me a chance to see how religion was changing on college campuses. Fewer and fewer students identified as “religious”, and the Christian label was becoming synonymous in the minds of many young people with being narrow-minded, conservative, and fundamentalist. Being present in students lives as an alternative to that assumption was exciting. It provided a unique challenge to flip the script… to demonstrate that it was possible to be both a person of faith, and also be open-minded, progressive, and willing to appreciate new ideas and concepts. Fuller’s multi-denominational context provided with examples of how people from many different traditions worked collaboratively, while also holding true to their own tradition, and as a young and still-forming progressive Anabaptist I was able to borrow from this model to figure out how to collaborate and coexist while still being true to myself.

As seminary drew to a close I realized one major barrier stood in my way in becoming a campus minister or campus chaplain: my denominational tradition. It wasn’t that Mennonite Church USA was against people becoming campus ministers, just that the system was limited to one particular pathway. In 2010-11, as I was completing my MDiv at Fuller, the only Mennonite campus pastor positions were those found at the seven American Mennonite colleges and seminary institutions. Almost all were occupied by ministers who had been in the role for several years, or planned to be in the role for the long term. There did not seem to be a pathway to a role with one of those schools.

My focus shifted to positions beyond my tradition, but in doing so I discovered another challenge. Every campus minister opening I could find required ordination in some sort of Christian tradition. The Mennonite ordination track works somewhat differently than other traditions in that the candidate is first called into a pastoral role, and then after years of service and experience ordination is granted at the request of the local congregation. I was not ordained, and without a job chances were slim that my denomination was going to ordain me.

This winding road was how rather than starting my pastoral journey in campus ministry I ended up at Salford Mennonite Church, in a more traditional role of pastor for youth and young adults. I figured while waiting for ordination to be granted, I would continue to work with young adults and wait patiently for a time when ordination could allow me to apply for campus minister or campus chaplain positions. I arrived at Salford excited to begin that role, however with the thought that if a campus pastor role opened for me, I would consider moving on.

It was with some surprise then, that after a few years at Salford, before being ordained, I learned about this new Mennonite Campus Pastor position possibility at Penn State University.

Before the seminar had even ended I sent a text message to my wife Meredith – would she ever have interest in moving our family to State College for me to do campus ministry at Penn State? Her response was a single word with just two letters: NO.

To be continued….