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Tending the vineyard of campus ministry


by Rebekah Thornhill


"I’ve been feeling it a lot recently," reflects Pr. Becca Seely. "I can’t believe that this is my job and what I get to do day in and day out." She started as the pastor of The Vine NYC and Executive Director of Lutheran Ministries in Higher Education (LMHE) a mere four months ago. "It has taken me time to understand all of our branches and see ways that this ministry unfolds in a unique area."


Pr. Seely is referring to the far-reaching branches of The Vine, a new and exciting Lutheran student community that brings together undergraduate and graduate students from throughout New York City, Westchester County and Long Island. "Right now we are best able to use our resources by not limiting ourselves geographically. We can’t necessarily have a campus pastor on every single campus in New York, but we can still build a thriving community. People are already incredibly mobile in the area and we are trying to take advantage of that."


selfie_from_The_Vines_first_gathering_in_September_at_GAStudents are meeting for monthly gatherings planned by a steering committee. As an emerging community, they embrace that the ways they gather, worship, learn, and work for justice are still unfolding and developing. They also strive to embrace new ideas, gifts and leadership in their community.


The Vine also has begun to form ecumenical partnerships in groups like LaMP at Columbia (Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians). Meeting at Broadway Presbyterian near Columbia University, they have weekly meals and worship together. Pr. Seely is starting to foster similar relationships with other ecumenical partners like the Episcopal Campus Ministry found at NYU.


Vine_Queens_College_booth_at_the_New_Student_Orientation_Activities_FairThe Vine at QC (Queens College) works in partnership with a nearby congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS). Students from Concordia, Bronxville, an LC-MS affiliated campus, have also found ways to participate in The Vine’s gatherings and events. "We will always be linked by our Lutheran heritage and longstanding relationship with the Atlantic District," says Pr. Jonathan Linman, MNYS Assistant to the Bishop for Faith and Leadership Formation and LMHE board member. "We want to continue to find ways to work together when able. Uniting on things like faith formation for students is one way to strengthen our common bonds."


Aside from her pastoral role with the students, Pr. Seely also serves as LMHE’s Executive Director. "I see this part as imagining how we might more forward in sustainable ways. Right now we are simply working through the strategic and administrative challenges of serving a geographically and economically diverse group of students."


While she found her way to this ministry through experiences in college, it wasn’t in campus ministry. While attending college at Wesleyan University, she took a course in Judaism to find herself utterly captivated by the readings and assignments. Eventually she minored in Jewish studies saying that this was her first real encounter with organized religion. After growing up in a secular household, this helped her to explore religion and explore her relationship with God in a safe space.


The_Vines_dinner_with_YAGMAfter graduating she moved to Brooklyn and felt more like an intellectual Christian that was happy reading alone and not feeling the need to attend regular services. A friend invited her to St. James-St. Matthew-Emanuel Lutheran Church in Brooklyn for their Reconciling in Christ Sunday. Immediately she fell in love with the liturgy and the home she found in the Lutheran church. She was able to connect on a theological, intellectual, and "gut" level.


These experiences helped to form the driving narrative for her current work. "I am passionate about campus ministry," she says "because I was once the person asking the big questions about why we are here and why our lives matter. I managed to find ways to piece things together, but I know that I am not alone—I can’t be alone in exploring and understanding faith matters."


And Pr. Seely is finding she is not alone. Many ministries are driven towards thinking more about scarcity: that there isn’t enough time, resources or people. Although she had prepared herself for no one to show up, they did. Students are taking active leadership and investing in the growth of the ministry. "They come because they need to be fed, but they are also looking to help feed others."


LaMPs_weekly_dinner_worship_gathering_near_Columbia_UWith over 175 colleges and universities in the five boroughs, Long Island, and Westchester, there is huge room for the branches of The Vine to grow. Congregations that are near a campus or have students in their congregation can always find simple ways to welcome and engage students. "Find ways to open your doors," says Pr. Seely. "Host an ice cream social or post a sign welcoming students to worship. All congregations are called to create a space where everyone can come and hear the gospel. Many campuses have Evangelical Christian organizations, which is good, but Lutherans also have a distinctive message to be offered."


What is the one thing Pr. Seely would like students to know? "Your internal worth and your beloved-ness is not conditional to God," she says. "We are enough. Even if we are huge hot messes."

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