Milwaukee congregation’s ministry sees college students as neighbors in ‘mission field’

By Sara Bitner
Posted Sep 24, 2018
Dinner and Dialogue

Students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee participate in a Dinner & Dialogue session through an ecumenical partnership that involves St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Matt Phillips

[Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee] For some, deciding to start a campus ministry from scratch may not seem like the most logical step to grow their church community. After all, college students are by nature transient and unlikely to become sustaining members of the parishes they attend while in college.

But for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on the east side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it seemed the right choice because of its location just a few blocks south of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, or UWM.

“I thought it would be irresponsible not to develop a ministry for our closest neighbors,” said the Rev. Ian Burch, St. Mark’s rector. “These students are in our mission field.”

Burch began serving at St. Mark’s in January 2016, so he was relatively new when he initiated this campus ministry. “Any time you have a transition is a good time to reassess your strengths and weaknesses,” said Peggy Bean, Diocese of Milwaukee canon for congregations, who serves as the diocesan transition minister.

St. Mark’s already had a working relationship with UWM by hosting several of the university’s cooking classes. “Building and strengthening those relationships made good sense,” Bean said. “When you have good staff plus a relationship, that’s exactly when you do it.”

St. Mark’s hasn’t offered a full-fledged campus ministry at UWM for at least 20 years, Burch said. Previously, the parish had dedicated a house and a full-time priest to that work. Burch thought it deserved another try.

“There are 22,000 undergraduates, 4,800 graduate students, and 61 percent of undergraduates live in on-campus housing – that’s quite an opportunity for ministry,” said Burch.

UWM has evolved from being a primarily commuter campus to a more residential setting. There are more residential halls and more campus activities available today compared to 30 years ago. “I happen to think the Episcopal Church generally, and St. Mark’s specifically, have something to offer to young people,” Burch said. “We are a warm, vibrant and quickly growing parish ready to offer God’s love and justice to young people in an incredibly exciting and formative moment in their lives.”

To support this ministry, Burch applied for and was awarded a $29,800 Young Adult and Campus Ministry grant. “These grants help the Episcopal Church live into an expanded understanding of what it means to be in ministry with young adults on and off college campuses,” said the Rev. Shannon Kelly, officer for young adult and campus ministries for the Episcopal Church. “This is a growing ministry, one that shows the church how to engage mission and the Jesus Movement in new, innovative ways.”

Burch also received a grant from the Diocese of Milwaukee. With the money St. Mark’s has received, it hired Matt Phillips as director of campus and youth ministries in July 2017.

Phillips was raised in the Episcopal Church, and while a religious studies student at the University of Illinois, he participated in the campus ministry program there. “I worked most Sunday mornings, so the Wednesday night services at my university Episcopal campus ministry house was my point of connection with the church,” Phillips said.

He sees campus ministry as an entry to the church. “It’s the time in [students’] lives that they have to make a conscious effort to go to church, or even to stop in a church for the first time,” Phillips said. “College can be a time to return to the church or to decide which churches align with their beliefs.”

A challenge for campus ministry is that you have to spend a lot of time building relationships with students to get them to step into your church building. Phillips said committing to taking that time with students gives a “greater chance that they will be the church going forward.”

St. Mark’s has been providing direct programming for young adults and college students. It offered a six-week wellness program with Living Compass Wellness last fall, and plans to offer it again next spring. St. Mark’s also hosts a monthly Sunday evening Eucharist specifically for UWM students.

St. Mark’s has partnered with Better Together, an interfaith organization at UWM whose mission it is to bring awareness to various faith and non-faith communities, and with The Corner House, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America campus ministry, to run a program they call Dinner & Dialogue.

“It started with a suggestion from a grad student who had participated in this type of engagement while an undergrad at another institution and was looking for a way to experience these conversations and engagement at UWM,” Phillips said.

The three organizations knew they had a good idea: to gather together over dinner to discuss a variety of topics (faith, belief, doubts, liberation theology, queer theology). They put the word out through Facebook, Meetup and word-of-mouth and were delighted that 20 people showed up for the first session. They continued to meet twice monthly to the end of the semester, sharing food and talking about faith and doubts. They are resuming these sessions this month.

In addition to his work at UWM, Phillips also serves the Marquette University campus as the interim affiliated minister for the year and will be leading a weekly Evening Prayer and fellowship, as well as a six-week Living Compass Wellness series.

What will these types of ministries become?

“I told the vestry that campus ministry is a lot like ministry to the housing-insecure. Rarely would they become permanent members of our worshipping community. They may be with us for a season and then move on,” Burch said. “My hope is that their experience at St. Mark’s will instill in them the love of a local worshipping community and that, when they do put down roots somewhere, they might find themselves looking around for their local Episcopal church.

“It’s also been my experience that campus ministry is a place where young people work out their sense of vocation, and I expect that we will see young people considering holy orders more frequently because of our efforts.”

Bean echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t think growing our average Sunday attendance is what our task is,” she said. “Our task is to build disciples of Christ and to be the hands and feet of Christ every day.”

– Sara Bitner is communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee.