New Anabaptist ministry starts at Penn State

by Lora Steiner, managing editor

As college students head to campus this fall, one congregation, University Mennonite Church in State College, Pennsylvania, is beginning a new initiative: an Anabaptist campus pastor, called by the church to minister to students.

University Mennonite Church is located just a few miles from Penn State University. It began over 50 years ago, when faculty and staff of Penn State began gathering in a classroom on campus.

Until about four years ago, the congregation was involved in an ecumenical effort known as United Campus Ministries. But it dissolved, and the congregation began talking about the need for an Anabaptist presence on campus. For about three years, University Mennonite worked at how to make it happen, clarifying the vision for that ministry, figuring out how to fund it, and also determining how it connected larger denominational needs.

Ben Wideman
Ben Wideman

This year, they hired Ben Wideman as Anabaptist Campus Pastor, and helped to establish an officially-recognized Penn State club known as the 3rd Way Collective.

The goals are varied: To connect with Mennonite students at Penn State who want to stay connected with their faith tradition; to connect with Christian students who may be frustrated and looking for an alternative like Anabaptism; and to connect with those who are interested in peace and justice but don’t necessarily know how faith connects to that.

“There are a lot of groups [at Penn State] talking about faith formation,” says Wideman, “and a number of groups talking about peace and justice issues. But there’s almost no one pulling these two groups together.”

Wideman hopes that the 3rd Way Collective will be a bridge for such groups, and help make something new in the gap.

Wideman will have office space at the church, and is on a waiting list for an office at Penn State’s Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, which offers meeting space to some 65 multi-faith student organizations on campus.

He isn’t worried at this point about having an office to call home: he won’t need a desk to write sermons or respond to emails, and, as he notes with broadly accepted truth, “You can do a lot with coffee.”

He says that the position is so new, and so outside of the traditional box of pastoral ministry in the Mennonite church, that it still isn’t clear exactly what it will look like. One of the biggest challenges is building awareness: There are 46,000 students at Penn State, and no particular way of knowing who the Mennonite students are unless someone lets Wideman know, or shares about the 3rd Way Collective.

Pastor Marv Friesen says that University Mennonite is committed to covering all expenses for the first three years, and is exploring ways to expand that support. They’re also talking about how the initiative might be expanded in the future: owning a community house, or creating a collaborative structure where Mennonite-related university communities could connect to each other.

Wideman is finishing his role as youth pastor at Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, and will start his new position in State College at the end of September. He says he’s excited to see what the transition brings.

“I’ve been thinking about [campus ministry] for a long time, but never expected it to look this way.”