New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
Starting a campus ministry from scratch was not something I had given much consideration to until I learned about the creation of 3rd Way Collective. Being hired as the first campus minister allowed me to jump into this consideration with both feet – baptism by fire if you will. One of the easiest ways to immerse myself in the early years was to try and spread myself as broadly as I could across our campus and community. I did this by showing up in many different places, but also by saying “yes” whenever I could.
At times I’m guilty of operating under the self-inflicted pressure of “FOMO” – a Fear Of Missing Out. I say yes because I don’t want to experience missing out on something I could have been a part of. I still have a memory of a moment during my high school years when I took too long trying to decide whether to join a group of friends for a concert of one of our favorite bands. By the time I said yes the show was sold out and I had to spend the next few weeks hearing my friends talk about how great the concert was and wishing I had been there with them.
Being guided by FOMO as a new campus minister occasionally worked out to my benefit. When I was asked if I would participate or help plan, prepare, or lead an activity or event in those early years, my only parameters were whether it fit under the broad umbrella of peace, justice, or faith, and if my calendar had free space available (sometimes even that parameter was stretched beyond its limits). I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be present in the community in some kind of meaningful way, so I just said yes to everything in hopes that I wouldn’t miss those early chances.
Above, a street scene in State College, PA.
This aggressive willingness to say yes allowed me to build many different kinds of relationships and connections. My network continued to expand as I found myself in many different kinds of spaces – participating in community organizations, campus panels, collaborating with other clubs and groups, leading workshops, mentoring, counseling, and many other different things. I discovered and became an active part in many movements in our area built around racial justice, LGBTQ advocacy, environmental justice, poverty, interfaith collaboration, peace, and so much more.
At a community meeting during one of my first years I bumped into the Mayor of State College. She greeted me by name and congratulated me on showing up. “You know Ben, I think you are present in more spaces than I am!” she remarked with surprise. I don’t think she knows just how much that sentence has stayed with me. I took her words as the ultimate praise, that I was doing my job to the best of my capacity.
Unfortunately my FOMO also became a crutch. I realized early on that if I was ever scrutinized over whether 3rd Way Collective was “working”, I could at the very least point to my robust calendar and all that I had been a part of. I didn’t want to ever be accused of not trying hard enough, so overcommitting and overworking became my standard operating practice.
Since our first event I’ve tracked each event and activity in a spreadsheet. Our second school year at Penn State (2015-16) 3rd Way Collective created or collaborated on 138 different projects during those two semesters. I also showed up to numerous community meetings/committees/panels/boards not included on that list – at times as many as four or five additional meetings per week. The Penn State school year has 30 weeks of classes, and during that year I somehow averaged out to more than four events per week, plus other meetings. There were a few weeks where I was away from my family four or five evenings each week. There was a moment near the end of that year when my wife Meredith looked at me and said, we can’t keep this pace up. Something needs to change.
Saying yes to everything was a difficult thing to correct. The more I did, the more positive affirmation I received from my community and supporters. My value and affirmation was all tied up in an unsustainable process. It was like a boulder that had been pushed down a hill. Once I got going, I had set up a precedent that came with momentum. The more connected I was, the harder it was to say no, and the more aware I became of all the different ways I could be involved.
One of the major weaknesses of this system was that my over committed pace made it very difficult to react and respond when unexpected things came up in our community. I remember having to say no to an impromptu community vigil because I had already committed to some kind of scheduled event. I remember having to say no to a last-minute request from a student who wanted to get coffee because I was supposed to be a part of a panel discussion.
But perhaps the biggest weakness was that I wasn’t able to offer adequate time to my family or myself. My partner was a solo-parent far too often, and my kids missed out on more time with me than they should have. My over-committed-FOMO-mentality also meant that I had less time for my own quiet time to reflect or do the things that I love to do on my own – riding my bike, taking a hike, or playing disc golf.
Marv Friesen was the pastor at University Mennonite Church when I began this work. His presence in my life was a real gift as I was getting started with this process. During one of our conversations he asked what would be different if I cut back on some of my commitments. I told him that I felt anxious just thinking about doing less, but that it also sounded wonderful to slow down a little more. He wondered where the anxiety was coming from – was I afraid of letting someone down? I realized that a significant part of the pressure I was putting on myself was self-inflicted. I was the one who was not willing to let myself slow down. The imaginary crutch of a robust calendar was not necessary because the church who hired me and the board who guided me were very supportive of the work that I was doing. We realized in these conversations that a core part of the work of 3rd Way Collective was being a community presence. My hunch was that this was only possible by being busy, but the reality was that I needed to be less busy in order to be more responsive to the needs that came up in our context. By putting less on my calendar, I could be more adaptive when students needed me to be there for them. I could show up in places and spaces that ministers rarely went because I’d have less programming and planning that I had to do.
It was an epiphany that I deeply grateful to have been blessed by, and a posture shift that has allowed this work to be far more sustainable than the path I had originally taken.
I still have FOMO, and I still occasionally fall into the trap of overcommitment, but in the three years that followed the 2015-16 school year I have lowered the number of 3rd Way Collective events and activities in each consecutive year, while also being more adaptive and flexible. Each year I still feel some anxiety that less on the calendar will result in less impact in the community, but the reverse continues to be true. This past year was our lowest event total since our first year at Penn State, yet we connected with more people than ever before, and I personally found my work to be far more fulfilling than any previous year.
I still struggle to honor my time and my family by first considering those two things before saying yes, however this practice has been live-giving – more than I could have imagined.
I know this will continue to be a part of the challenge of creating something new, but I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to figure this out as I go. The surprising realization for someone who began thinking that it was best to always say yes is that there is more balance and fulfillment – perhaps even more worth – in saying no from time to time.