Vibrant Life on Campus

The little building that houses the University of Georgia’s Wesley Foundation is not overly impressive. The sign outside is faded and slightly crooked, the pavement in the parking lot is cracked and lumpy, and the offices inside are cozy but sparse.

The quiet, cramped structure is last place you’d expect to be the powerhouse of a ministry that involves more than 1,000 students each year, that has more than 70 people on staff (all but one of whom raise their own salary), and that sends young adults all over the world on mission projects. I pestered the leaders constantly with one question: How did they grow a ministry this on fire?

After a slightly blank look, every single one of them had the same answer (and I know they didn’t get together and plan this answer beforehand, because I asked):

“Well, I guess we just pray a lot.”

If you build it, they will come

The Wesley Foundation Director Bob Beckwith is not the plump, boisterous, overgrown frat boy type you’d expect to lead a college ministry. He doesn’t have an earring or spiky hair and he doesn’t scream, “Are you excited today?” at his students.

He is, instead, a leader with a quiet sort of poise, an air of humble wisdom, and an outward expression that it’s not about him. Beckwith began his tenure at Wesley in 1999. The program was in great shape  –  it had about 350 students, a freshman ministry of 50 people, a handful of interns, and two associate directors. Even then, it was the premiere ministry of it’s kind. It’s only gotten better  –  today, those numbers have more than doubled.

“The year before Tom [Tanner, the previous director] left, I had a few really profound dreams that maybe this was what God wanted,” he said. “I felt a definite calling. I told my superintendent and he said, ‘Well Bob, the bishop has already decided who he wants there.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, I just want to tell you.’” The bishop changed his mind, and Beckwith was there a few months later.

Photo courtesy of Eva Claire Schwartz.

Photo courtesy of Eva Claire Schwartz.

“In those days, we were 5,000 dollars in the red each month,” Beckwith said, “We knew something had to change. We went to a missions staff where they would raise the bulk of their support. At the time I didn’t realize it, but what we did with that was take the lid off.”

Beckwith said he meets so many Wesley directors who complain about not having enough money for the staff they need to really set their program on fire. “I would never expect the Church to give me the money to have this huge staff. We just decided to take that off the table and trust that God would provide their support.”

The program consists of a Monday night freshmen service – “Freshley.” There is also a Wednesday night worship service that all students are invited to. About 30 students make up the worship team, and they rotate and take turns doing the Freshley service, Wednesday night service, and prayer services. In addition to the two main worship services, students are able to join small groups and participate in one-on-one discipleship. Wesley also sends hundreds of students on mission trips nationally and globally each year.

Photo by Jessi Emmert

Photo by Jessi Emmert

Daniel Simmons, the lead associate director for Freshley ministries, said the goal is to build relationships for incoming students right off the bat. “Every one of my groomsmen who I wasn’t related to I met at Freshley,” he said. “That’s what we want. We want them to have community like that.”

The first Freshley service of the 2013-2014 had more than 580 people involved, and the second week had 650. The service averaged around 400 people throughout the year. Simmons also works with other staff members to make sure all the freshmen find a small group of students to interact with.

“The biggest way to grow is not when old people are telling them about Jesus, it’s when their peers are telling them about Jesus,” Simmons said. “So I think every freshman who comes into UGA, they want to be a part of something, they want that community.”

The foundation also has outlets for students with different interests to plug into. Charissa Pipe, a first-year intern, said she has seen God do amazing things through a dance ministry that is part of Wesley. “It wasn’t even the area I originally wanted to focus on, but now I love it,” she said.

Fun is a core value

Clay Kirkland, the lead associate director of staff development, does not have an extravagantly decorated office. There is a desk, a couch that sags in the middle, and a few bookshelves. But next to one of the bookshelves is a framed yellow Inc. magazine cover from July 2007 that proclaims in bold letters “Fun! It’s the new core value.”

Kirkland was sitting in his house one afternoon in 2007, praying about the “core values” he had been developing for the ministry. So far, he had three: intimacy, community, and mission. Yet, something was absent. “We had been praying through them and it just seemed like something was missing,” he said.

Kirkland said as he was walking around his home praying over the core values, he felt a stirring in his heart and, without even thinking about it, the words came out of his mouth: “Fun, it’s the new core value.”

After he finished this prayer, he glanced out the window and saw that the mailman had just come. “I went outside to get the mail and when I got the mail, that magazine was sitting on top – and it said the exact same thing that had just come out of my mouth. So I came to work the next day and I told Bob,” he said. “From then, we just started to look at our ministry and there was this marked difference.”

Kirkland said the ministry had focused on serious subjects, serious prayers, and serious topics. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But what we began to see after we added fun as a core value was that God provides joy for us through these serious things. And there was such a marked difference in the joy we saw in our ministry.”

Kirkland said it’s especially important to find joy for today’s college student. He emphasized that today’s college student struggles with a tremendous amount of anxiety. “The dynamic of a typical college student has changed,” Kirkland said. “Life is lived through a cell phone. That’s so different. The two biggest things I’ve seen change in the last 15 years are technology and anxiety.” Lindsay Atkinson, lead associate director for discipleship and leadership, agreed. “So many of the students I meet and work with struggle with anxiety and just depression,” she said.

Wesley’s core value of fun allows the students to find a security in Christ and to build an identity in their relationship with him. “I think they need identity as much as anything. The ones who are Christians, they need to know their identity in Christ. The family struggles in our culture – so many of our students come from divorced parents,” Beckwith said.

A chain of discipleship

Photo courtesy of the UGA Wesley Foundation.

Photo courtesy of the UGA Wesley Foundation.

One of the main features of Wesley today is the emphasis on discipleship. Beckwith said one of the main things he wanted to see when he joined the ministry were the leaders personally investing in students. He also wanted to see the core staff members stay for longer tenures.

“It’s hard to build a ministry when your staff turns over every three years,” Beckwith explained. “Now we have people who have been here for more than 10 years because they really believe in it. It just allows your level of excellence to really grow.”

Kirkland and Atkinson have both been at Wesley for more than 10 years, and agreed that the level of experience on staff allows them to work at a higher level of excellence. The staff remaining consistent also has made it easier for relationships to be built among the staff and students.

Kirkland manages the interns at the foundation and said that one of his main goals with the program is for the interns to be discipled while they disciple others. Kirkland was an intern himself in 2000 when he developed an idea for a more in-depth internship program. “The whole point of this is to raise up the men and women who come through here to be able to go out and serve the Lord by serving other people,” he said.

Kirkland said he works hard to not make the internship program feel like a ministry school. “I don’t want to exclude those who may have a different vocational goal. This is about training our interns to experience as much of the abundant life as possible.”

Atkinson said there are about 450 students at Wesley who are being discipled by an older student or an intern. At the end of every school year, students sign up to be a part of the Lead/Grow discipleship program. “If they sign up to be on Grow, they are committing to be discipled by someone and to attend the Wednesday service each week,” she explained. “If they sign up to be on Lead, then they either disciple another student, participate in prayer groups, or they’re involved in a ministry area.”

Atkinson said one of the most amazing things to watch is students’ transformation from freshmen in the program to upperclassmen. “Some of the kids who I’ve seen as 18-year-olds, to then watch them grow up and see some of them become interns, the transformation is crazy,” she said.

From the top down, Wesley tries to constantly create an atmosphere of discipleship, Atkinson said. Beckwith meets with the lead associate directors to disciple them, they meet with the directors, the directors meet with the interns, the interns meet with students, and students meet with other students. “It’s so important to have that person,” Atkinson said. “It has to start with us as leaders to search out those relationship and set aside a time to really invest in relationships.”

The streets out there

Another emphasis of the Wesley program is a mission outlook. Both globally, nationally, and on their campus, the leaders encourage students to consider the greater Kingdom of Christ and allow God them to move them wherever he chooses.

Amber Wilson, a first-year intern, said that after graduating she spent several months traveling around Thailand. This missions experience gave her a unique perspective when she returned to UGA to intern at Wesley, she said.

“I think it’s allowed me to see all the unexpected ways God can work,” she explained.

Beckwith said that the mission trips can serve as a gateway for a student to have a deeper understanding of American materialism and a deeper relationship with Christ. “I think for young people especially a mission trip can be an amazing experience because it allows them to see with a Kingdom perspective,” he said. “So even if a student goes on to become, say, a banker, he’s had that view of this bigger world and an encounter with God about that.”

Beckwith also said the mission trips are powerful for their own community because it builds relationships between leaders and students. All the leaders emphasized that the mission aspect of Wesley means more than taking mission trips every year. It also means students living out the gospel on their campus, and, in turn, becoming adults who will live the abundant life.

“I think one reason campus ministry is so strong here is because the churches in Georgia do a good job with youth ministry, so a lot of kids come to UGA already having a relationship with Christ,” Beckwith said. “I think our United Methodist churches do a much better job with youth ministry than they did 20 or 30 years ago. I know around the country Methodism is dying and is going to die an ugly death in the next 20 years, but the church still has a fair bit of life to it and I think we benefit from that. The hardest part is putting the kids back into the church. That is where we still struggle. It’s hard to get the kids to go back to The United Methodist Church when they leave here. ”

Beckwith said he hopes that an entry point back into The United Methodist Church will be created. “I would say get outside the box, don’t ask everybody to be an ordained elder, just find people who are called and who are gifted,” he said. “Learn from the churches that people are being drawn. Let’s ask ourselves ‘How can we begin to raise up churches that these kids want to be a part of?’ Because they don’t have denominational loyalty.”

Despite these challenges, the leaders at Wesley are hopeful and confident in the work God is doing among the students to raise them up as adults for Christ. “College ministry is transitory. College itself is transitory,” Kirkland said. “You’re not here to stay, you’re here to get ready to leave. So that’s what I say that first day of intern training, ‘You’re here to leave. Let’s get you ready.’”

For decades, Atkinson said, there has been a sense among the staff and students that God really had something special to do on their campus. It goes back to prayer. “There has been a history here of a vision that God had something unique here,” Atkinson said. “There was a group back in the 90s that really prayed for that. I think that prayer has been one foundation. That’s the driving force of who we are. Whatever we do, we want God to be a part of that.”

This prayer force is lived out every Tuesday morning in the tiny chapel in the Wesley building. A group of interns, leaders, and a few students gather every week at 7:30 a.m. to pray for the Wednesday night service. The small band plays a song softly, but the singing is not soft. It’s loud, an anthem, a battle cry: “Let what we do in here fill the streets out there, let us dance for you, let us dance for you.”

Jessi Emmert is the editorial assistant at Good News.

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