Participants at Student Forum Urged to Find Their Passion
By Betty Backstrom
Director of Communications, Louisiana Annual Conference
SHREVEPORT, La. (GBHEM) - The chaplain at Centenary College of Louisiana urged participants at Student Forum 2009 to discover their passion in order to be more effective church leaders.
"What is your joy and satisfaction? Where are you effective? And what do people tell you about yourself in those areas?" asked the Rev. Betsy Eaves, co-leader of a session on young adult leadership that was held during the four-day event at Centenary in Shreveport, Louisiana.
More than 253 United Methodist college students from across the country, along with 123 campus ministers and workshop presenters, explored leadership development at the May 21-24 event.
Student Forum is the national leadership conference of the United Methodist Student Movement, sponsored by the Campus Ministry Section of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The annual event is planned and organized by a steering committee made up of college students, and by GBHEM staff. In addition to workshops, speakers, and worship, the students volunteered at service projects in the community.
The theme of the conference was "Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges."
Keynote speaker Eboo Patel, founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based institution which focuses on building a global interfaith youth movement, urged his audience to work together to establish strong interfaith ministries.
"A college campus is the perfect catapult for interfaith work. Building houses, feeding the hungry, and other outreach projects serve as ideal settings for people of different faiths to come together. To build bridges, build a relationship on something else other than politics," Dr. Patel said, adding, "Look for the common characteristics, like compassion and hospitality."
Patel, who was recently appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives, is a self-described "theologically progressive" Muslim. He quoted chapter 49 of the Koran saying, "God made us different nations and tribes that we may come to know Him."
Patel challenged the students to be a part of building a "beloved community of all faiths" and to identify that energy that drives them forward. "What is it as a United Methodist that makes you want to be a leader? What inspires you?" he asked.
The Rev. Valerie Robideaux, q co-presenter for the workshop on young adult leadership, confessed that she has a "hard time" with the phrase "young adult." Robideaux, 27, believes that "ageism" is not only directed at older church members, but can affect young people, too.
"Many of us have longed to be given the opportunity to put our vision into place in our local churches. Sometimes, it feels like there is a glass ceiling when trying to acquire positions of church leadership," Robideaux said.
Robideaux, who serves as the theological studies coordinator for Centenary's Christian Leadership Center, recommended that young adults develop relationships with people who have influence in the church. She said those people can mentor them and help them find their spot in local church leadership.
Joyce Wickstrom, a student at Armstrong Atlantic State University and a member of Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Savannah, Georgia, said local churches need to be intentional about including young adults in church leadership.
"My home church does a great job of this. There is a young adult on every committee. The church, as a whole, gets it," she said.
Matt Rhea, a member of the Wesley Foundation at Midwestern State University, said serving as one of the small group leaders "has been an awesome experience which I highly recommend to other Student Forum participants. I received great training beforehand, which I know will help me in teaching my Sunday school class at home." Rhea attends a non-denominational church in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The students were also able to volunteer in one of 28 different service projects on Saturday afternoon in Shreveport. The projects ranged from painting murals on Sunday School room walls to feeding the homeless.
Jen Heald, a student at Candler School of Theology and Emory University in Atlanta, where she is working on a joint M.Div. and J.D., was chair of this year's steering committee. Heald is gratified that the event is planned and organized by college students.
"The United Methodist Student Movement and Forum have helped me and others realize that we can step up to the plate in ways we never imagined. Serving as chair of the steering committee has been such a blessing, a humbling experience. I have definitely learned to let go and to trust. Things do work out, and it's an amazing blessing to see it happen," said Heald.
"College students are full of passion. It is exciting to watch all of that energy directed and funneled into a project," she added.
Heald pointed out that students representing every jurisdiction participated in Forum. "We had contingents from as far away as Hawaii and Rochester, New York."
The Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of Student Ministries, Vocation, and Enlistment for GBHEM, said the 15-member steering committee is made up of two college students from each jurisdiction of the national United Methodist Church, with five additional appointed positions.
"These students are leaders in their churches and campus ministries now, and will lead the denomination into the future. Through Student Forum, they are exposed to new ideas. This event is the perfect tie-in with the first of the four churchwide Areas of Focus - developing principled Christian leaders," Lassiat said.
Eaves echoed Lassiat's sentiments in concluding her workshop on young adult leadership: "You [the students] have an energy that the church has to have. You are freshly committed to issues like peace with justice and environmentalism. You are already leading us."
The Rev. Michael McCord, campus minister at the Wesley Foundation at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, believes the church has a chance to capture and benefit from the energy of young people.
A related event, the Retreat at Forum, provided an opportunity for professional development for campus ministers, chaplains, and Annual Conference staff and was held in conjunction with Student Forum.
Previously, the Forum event focused entirely on the students' experience and left the campus ministers and chaplains with little to do. A year ago, with tighter budgets and increasing demands upon campus ministry professionals, a group of campus ministers - aided by the staff of the GBHEM - organized a retreat for campus ministers and chaplains to find community, support, and ideas for serving the nation's college students, within the Forum event.
"It just seemed smart to invest in the professionals who were already at Student Forum and to strengthen the community for those who serve college students. The last two years have offered opportunities to be engaged and grow together professionally. It enriches the work we do," said the Rev. Eric Stone of the University of Michigan Wesley Foundation.