This blog is part of our Faith Formation Roundtables series.
Andrea Wall is pastor of Faith Formation at Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska. She has served her home church on the ministerial team for 13 years, and prior to that, she worked in marketing and public relations for educational institutions and a large tech company. She currently serves on the MC USA Faith Formation Leadership Team. She and her husband, Mike, have three girls under the age of seven.
I must admit that every May, while everyone is celebrating graduation, I grieve just a little bit. Although I am not the parent of a senior, I have claimed these graduates as my own, and on this day, I too must send them off on their next adventure. Over the years I have experimented with ways to stay connected with our college students and encourage them in their ongoing faith journey.
As a church, we embrace the joy of graduation, and in May, we invite the youth to participate in a church service, we offer a congregational meal (or in the case of 2020 graduation, we delivered cakes and balloons door to door), and we gift Faith Journals — church scrapbooks of the student’s faith journey throughout their years at Bethesda Mennonite Church.
Between May and August, many of our high school seniors transition into being college freshman, and their confidence and excitement transform into uncertainty and anticipation for what this new world will be like. This has become the most important moment of spiritual connection for me. I make it a point to take the college freshman out for coffee and let them talk about their schedules, their roommates, their fears and excitement. We pray together and I offer to continue to connect with them virtually throughout their first year.
They are generally the most willing to meet during the first couple of months, and I have found that, during this time, I have the greatest opportunity to help influence their faith life at college. It has been fun to hop on Zoom and see them in their “natural habitat” — their dorm room, the gym floor or the library. We chat about their transition. Are they making friends? How are classes? How is the food? How is the church search going — what are the barriers and how can they find their way around them?
I have found these times to be especially meaningful, as I have the chance to enter into their world for a moment and let them know that I care and that they are not alone.
While each year has been different in terms of how long each youth need this regular more intimate connection, I also try to make personal connections with all of our college students over the holidays, during the summer and throughout the year on social media. We also publish a prayer list every fall from our college students for the congregation, which is a great reminder to connect with the students and their parents and see how they are doing.
When I find myself in a situation in which I can engage in a deeper conversation one on one, I have asked the student how their relationship with Jesus is doing – do they find themselves walking towards him or away from him? This question allows for them to be honest — it creates a space for them to ponder how they are growing in their faith and to name the challenges. It is these conversations that I can follow up on down the road and generate more meaningful conversations.
It always seems that the day-to-day church tasks demand priority and can easily snatch up my time from tending to the college students. I have found it helpful to identify the most important moments of connection, and then, everything else is icing on the cake.
Faith Formation Roundtables focus on faith formation in Children’s and Youth Ministries.
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