When people find out that I’m a pastor on a college campus they usually say something like, “What a unique job. It must be fun to work with college students!”
I do feel incredibly blessed to be doing ministry with college students, and it is a lot of fun.
But truthfully I don’t just feel called to work with college students, I feel called to ministry within the theological context of Lutheran higher education.
It’s the distinctiveness of this educational vision, where both faith and reason are seen as gifts from God that truly motivates and inspires me.
What does this mean?
Let me demonstrate what I mean.
During my first year as campus pastor at Wartburg, some students asked me to accompany them on their spring break service trip as faculty adviser.
I jumped at the opportunity to work with them figuring that it would be a fun way to get to know students, but it also ended up being a vocationally edifying trip.
On the first day, we arrived at the work site and met a group of students from a prestigious college, which is no longer closely affiliated with a denomination.
The site supervisor had us go around and introduce ourselves. When it was my turn, I told the group my name and said that I was one of the campus pastors at Wartburg.
I didn’t think much about the exchange until a few days later when my students told me about a conversation they had with the group from the other college. They had been talking about what their campuses were like when one of them asked, “So, are you guys like really religious or something?”
Our students were taken aback. The truth is that we had students on the trip that were all over the spectrum when it comes to faith, so they told their counterparts that.
“Then why do you have a pastor with you?” the other student asked.
As the conversation went on it became clear that the students from the other college saw my presence as potentially threatening and restrictive, while our students couldn’t understand why they felt that way.
As I listened to the recap of the conversation, I was reminded of how theology has shaped our ELCA colleges. Perhaps because he was an academic, Luther didn’t have much patience for curtailing intellectual inquiry. Regarding academic freedom he once famously said, “How dare you not know what can be known!”
Faith and reason aren’t separated
Because of this legacy, ELCA colleges are not places where faith and reason are kept separated or a false harmony is constructed.
Although it’s often messy and difficult, we persistently live in this paradox. In practice this means that faith is a central part of our mission as a college of the church.
Yet we don’t require everyone to believe the same things or limit academic freedom. And because of the presence of Lutheran campus ministry on hundreds of non-Lutheran campuses, it’s not just restricted to the 26 ELCA colleges.
This unique approach creates a community in which God is let out of the boxes we often construct around our faith. Our diversity also bears witness to the truth of another of Luther’s convictions; God often shows up where we least expect: in the classroom, on the athletic field, in the rehearsal room and most certainly in our non-Christian brothers and sisters.
Abraham Lincoln once called democracy “the last best hope for Earth” because it brought together people of differing perspectives and backgrounds to try to figure out how to live together.
Lincoln believed that through the conversation and conflict of these different perspectives that truth would emerge. While my Lutheran humility prevents me from saying that Lutheran higher education is the last best hope for Earth, I do believe that it has a unique and vital role to play in our culture.
Break the growing divide
We live in a polarized age where people of differing perspectives tend to keep to themselves by engaging primarily with those who will reinforce our biases instead of challenging them.
Recent research suggests that this is especially true when it comes to faith. There is a growing divide between those who consider themselves religious and those who identify themselves as spiritual or non-religious.
If the church is to be the church, it cannot retreat behind its walls and turn inward. We must be in conversation with those whose beliefs are different from our own, not because they need to be like us but because God has made God’s home with them.
ELCA colleges and Lutheran campus ministries are the kinds of places where these conversations take place, and it’s for that reason that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!
Brian Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.