New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
One of the biggest challenges to starting a brand new movement is measuring whether or not that movement is thriving. This is particularly true with movements with a faith element. Faith leaders have long understood that their work is hard to quantify. They intuitively understand that the number of participants may be a helpful indicator that a movement may be doing well; however participation is definitely not the only factor. In fact, there are many examples of unhealthy movements with many participants. The inverse may also be true. A pastor may preach to a large congregation on Sunday but find more meaning, life, and pastoral value in the hours she spends sitting with a family or individual in need on a weekday.
Societal change may be used by some as a marker of whether a movement is thriving. The challenge with this marker for success is that societal change happens slowly, involves many different people and influences, and is typically not attributed to one movement or person.
Over-working may be used by others to demonstrate that a movement is thriving. When there is endless work to be done, perhaps this points to how much of a need there is to be creating a movement. This creates an unhealthy reliance on being busy to show success (something that I have fallen victim to during my first five years with 3rd Way Collective).
As I began my work with 3rd Way Collective, I asked how the church and faith community would be measuring the success of this new campus and community student organization. My Advisory Team suggested that measurements were going to be challenging but that they hoped they would be able to feel if it was working.
Living in to that ambiguous reality has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I know that I am not being judged based on how many students or community members connect with this organization, nor am I being asked to change society with this endeavor. Generally speaking, our first five years have come with a significant amount of affirmation. People have been outspoken in how much of a difference this movement is making in our community and how valuable it is to have a campus pastor committed to faith-based peace and social justice. Even though there have been moments where it doesn’t feel like we have a critical mass of students, we have been affirmed for the network of connections we are building and have built in our first five years.
But I also know that not everyone who supports this work feels the same way. Some folks at University Mennonite Church (our main supporting congregation) wish we spent more time focusing on Christian faith formation. Others wonder if it might be better if we operated and looked more like a traditional campus ministry (such as CRU, InterVarsity, Navigators, Disciplemakers, etc). Some think we are being too overtly peace-focused, while others wish we would focus more on the specific Mennonite denominational identity.
It is clear that we will never please every supporter, nor will we meet the expectations of every student or community member. Given that reality, I have found that I need to come up with my own measures to feel as if this movement is thriving.
One of my Advisory Team members suggested several months ago that the challenge we face is that when justice work is being done in our community, we hear fewer stories of hurting students and individuals. Put frankly, the fruit of our work ends up being that less people are in pain, which is very hard to assess or measure. But while this is challenging on a macro level, we have been blessed with many personal stories of the ways we’ve made a difference in student’s lives.
A few years ago an African American student thanked me for being willing to show up at #BlackLivesMatter events and other events focusing on racial justice. He admitted that while he had only been a Penn State student for a few years, he was noticing an increase in collaboration around justice issues and thought it had something to do with my willingness to simply show up in many different places. I lamented to him that we still had a long way to go to achieve racial justice in our community, but he pushed back and said that simply hearing a privileged community member (myself) say that was a sign that things were moving in the right direction.
Around the same time a student reached out to me to thank me for being a presence on our campus. She admitted that she had spent the first few years as a student on our campus pretending that she was not a Christian. She had noticed that the Christian organizations were generally more fundamentalist and conservative, and her passion for environmental justice and LGBTQ+ inclusion meant that she hid her faith identity from her classmates. Having 3rd Way Collective around allowed her to see that there were other people who were both people of faith and people who cared about justice issues. She had decided to re-embrace her faith identity because of watching our organization move about our community. (Also see my blog post about the unexpected ripples in our work with the LGBTQ+ community)
A student from the Jewish tradition met me for coffee a few months later to thank me for our presence. She had been frustrated with the way that the Jewish community was standing for justice in our community – especially around Israel/Palestine, and gender identity. She felt like 3rd Way Collective was making it possible for Jewish organizations to see an alternative to the way that they had always been doing campus ministry, and within a few years her Jewish organization had created a social justice position to specifically work at being a better justice-minded presence on our campus.
A few years later I had the honor of hearing a student share that our organization was one of the reasons that they had chosen not to complete suicide as a closeted LGBTQ+ person. They saw our presence as one of the factors that allowed them to more fully embrace their own identity, and move about the campus.
More recently we helped Muslim students continue their Free Pizza Friday initiative – a way of breaking down Islamaphobia by handing out free pizza once a month. They had run out of money to continue this powerful witness on our campus, but connecting with 3rd Way Collective gave them a different kind of network of support. Their student leaders have thanked us for standing in solidarity with them during this time of increased religious tension and offering them an example of Christians who are willing to work with Muslim students rather than belittle or try and convert them.
A recent student officer shared with me that she had basically given up on organized religion. She had decided that her church was the outdoors and to find God she simply went on a hike. She had started to wonder if perhaps she was not a Christian because of how differently she understood her faith and what was important to her. It was only in connecting to 3rd Way Collective that she realized that her faith identity did not have to be tied to a particular traditional experience of faith.
These stories are all bright moments of light when I become discouraged that we are not making enough impact on campus, don’t have a big enough group of active students, or aren’t making enough of a difference in our community. They provide me with real-life stories where our presence is changing the lives of individuals in a real and meaningful way. In the absence of a clear metric for success, these personal stories become the way that I know that this work is important and valuable, and must be continued.