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Reaching students the Wesley way

Reaching students the Wesley way

It’s after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and Vance Rains is driving through the streets of Tallahassee to a Goodwill store to pick out a cheap wedding gown.

The dress is intended to illustrate a biblical concept in an upcoming Wesley Foundation worship service at Florida State University. A student will wear it and then deliberately get it filthy and torn to portray “a fall from innocence.” 

FSU Wesley students in front of Fountain
FSU Wesley students kick off a new school year at the Westcott Fountain on the Florida State campus.

“The church is the bride of Christ,” explains Rains, FSU Wesley’s longtime pastor. “A lot of young people are struggling with the church and its failings and are giving up on the church.

“It’s still the bride of Christ, and He loves her.”

It’s a creative concept designed to reach college students, and Rains is excited about it. But his mind is not totally on the mission at hand.

“Just today, my last appointment was a student dealing with depression,” he says. “The student before that had a breakup with her boyfriend, and they had been talking marriage. The student before that, her mother was in a car accident and now is a quadriplegic.”

“Every year, I have students who lose a parent, and lots of parents are getting divorced. … There are a lot [of students] who are dealing with things in college.”

And so the school year kicks off for Rains, Wesley pastor at FSU for 10 years, and his counterparts at eight other campus ministries supported by the Florida Conference.

Less than two weeks after classes began, with the whirlwind of student orientations, dorm move-in days, and other fall semester hubbub barely behind him, Rains is happy to report that his first two worship services drew around 600 students. About 800 came to a Wesley campus barbecue.

Even discounting those who just came for free food, Rains is encouraged. Last year, services typically drew 450 to 500. He’s hoping that number will edge up this year. 

Rev. Christine Holden and students at Florida Gulf Coast University
Rev. Christine Holden, left, meets with students Amy Clark and Chris Mosteiro, who are interested in forming Florida Gulf Coast University's first Wesley Foundation campus ministry.

Meanwhile, about 300 miles to the south, Rev. Christine Allen Holden is working to get the newest Florida Conference campus ministry up and running at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

She has secured commitments from about 15 students and lined up four to be officers, as required for campus student organizations to be recognized by the university. With no building to meet in, the group is planning to gather in a common area at one of the dorms.

Holden’s initial recruitment plan? Cookies, baked from scratch, fresh out of the oven.

“We’ll use the aroma as advertising,” she quips.

Whether by cookies, barbecue or bedraggled bridal attire, campus pastors are dogged in their zeal to help students navigate paths to adulthood and, optimally, to God.

Each approach is unique. Every student is different. What works here won’t work there. That’s the challenge, and the thrill.

Rev. David Fuquay, who led the Gator Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida before becoming executive director of the Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry in July, says college enrollment is exploding across the state, but not always in ways that point to a bricks-and-mortar Wesley program.

“In the new landscape of higher education, where there are multiple branch campuses, being a little more nimble and able to go where the students are is becoming increasingly important,” Fuquay says.  

FSU Wesley students at Wakulla Springs
Outings like this one for FSU Wesley students at Wakulla Springs help keep young people engaged in UMC worship at the college level.

While FSU and the University of Florida cater largely to students who live and study on campus, he explains, newer colleges often enroll large numbers of commuter students who also take classes at different satellite locations.

Thus Wesley Foundation pastors based in Jacksonville and Miami don’t necessarily hold weekly services at a central site but make themselves available at different campuses at various times and coach students to lead worship services as well.

At Florida Gulf Coast, Holden is not even contemplating a Wesley headquarters.

“Our vision is actually to be a facility-free ministry for as long as possible,” Holden says.

Finding convenient campus spaces for meetings and activities has become an important part of the Wesley pastor’s job description, Fuquay says.

“It’s the same mission of reaching students and making disciples of college students … but it’s being adaptable to a new context that we find ourselves in,” Fuquay says.

“What’s interesting is that both models seem to be relevant in their [respective] contexts.”

The Methodist Church has long championed higher education through its church-sponsored campuses, including such Florida institutions as Florida Southern College and Bethune-Cookman University.

Nearly a century ago, the idea of establishing ministries to serve public colleges and universities took root, with the first Wesley Foundation established at the University of Illinois in 1913.

In the 1920s, the First Methodist Church of Gainesville bought land for a facility at the University of Florida. Later, the Wesley Foundation program became a mission of the Florida Conference, which pays the salaries of campus pastors and supplies about a third of the program funding for each ministry.

Fuquay estimated that about 1,500 to 2,000 college students regularly participate in worship through Florida Wesley programs each year.  

FSU Wesley residents
FSU Wesley Pastor Vance Rains, far left, with Wesley Foundation resident students.

Mission trips in the U.S. and abroad play a big role in Wesley programs, but offering a sense of belonging and a safe haven may be the most important roles of a campus ministry, Fuquay says.

“We know that college is a place for a lot of temptations,” he says. “We believe and trust that Jesus will change their life.”

For Rains, being the sympathetic ear for students who come to him with troubles like alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders, date rape or cutting oneself out self-loathing is not the highlight of his job.

“I hate that,” he says simply, noting that he often must refer them to professional counseling, knowing there’s not enough to go around.

On the other hand, campus ministry has its rewards.

“This summer I married eight couples from my ministry,” Rains reports. “We’ve got a lot [of students] in seminary. To be a part of their calls has been a big deal.”

Providing a guidepost on the path to godliness may be the biggest payoff for a college-based pastor.

“This is a time of self-discovery and learning how to be an adult,” Rains says. “I get to be a part of that, and that’s huge.” 

-- Susan Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.