by Keri Willard-Crist
By 2004 the student involvement at Pres House, the Presbyterian ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had been dwindling for some time. When clergy couple Erica Liu (M.Div., 2005) and Mark Elsdon (M.Div. 2004) visited the campus during their senior year at Princeton to interview for positions as campus copastors, they were intimidated. “The ministry wasn’t just stagnating, it was dead,” says Elsdon. “There wasn’t a single student. Zero.” Now, just five years since they accepted the call, Liu and Elsdon have witnessed the revitalization of Pres House, in part through the completion of a seven-story residential facility.
The story of Pres House’s growth and decline is familiar. According to the Pres House web site, the Presbyterian campus ministry began in a house in the early 1900s, but soon demand arose for a church building, and the congregation grew dramatically. In the 1950s several hundred college students worshipped in Sunday services each week as congregants, deacons, and elders of what by then was called University Presbyterian Church. Then came the 1960s, and the decline in institutional religion. The congregation was dissolved in 1969, and in the late 1990s the Presbyterian synod planned to sell the property that held both the church building and the residence that served as a Presbyterian student center. But students and local pastors made their case to save Pres House. Now the church building is being refurbished, Pres House Residence is home to more than 250 students, and Liu and Elsdon are bringing Pres House campus ministry back to life.
Though they share the work of campus pastor, Elsdon has taken over the responsibilities and title of executive director, and Liu focuses her energy on planning the weekly worship services. A large part of their ministry is the housing. The students who choose to live at Pres House Residence represent the campus at large; faith is not a requirement for living at the residence, but Elsdon and Liu offer opportunities to pursue faith and spirituality to all. “We’re just trying to be faithful…and create space for students to explore and journey,” Liu says. The shape ministry takes in the residence varies, from baking cookies for students or creating small groups, to watching a Packers football game together, or simply meeting for coffee—the ministry of presence. To help build relationships among students, Liu oversees two interns who live and work in the residence. Recent PTS graduate Sarah Iliff (M.Div., 2009) begins a two-year internship with Pres House this fall.
Liu and Elsdon envision apartments set aside for intentional communities, whether returning vets, interfaith groups, or for people interested in social justice. Only two other similar housing opportunities exist through the PCUSA—Westminster House at the University of California, Berkeley, where Carol Antablin Miles (M.Div., 1991; Ph.D., 2000) is executive director and Presbyterian campus pastor, and Presby Hall at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “There’s no conference on this yet, no models,” says Elsdon of combining traditional campus ministry with student housing. “We’re just scratching a tiny surface of what I think can happen with a residential option.”
College chaplaincy requires fluidity. These pastors try to stay light on their feet, and unlike ministering in a traditional setting, where much of the congregation has been worshipping together for years, Liu and Elsdon react each year to changing dynamics of student matriculation. No year is the same: Their “congregation” evolves with the personalities, gifts, and interests of the student body. “Five years feels like orientation to me,” Liu says of her tenure as a copastor at Pres House, “but it’s long enough to know that God will bring people.”
Liu and Elsdon are passionate about the impact that ministries on college campuses can make on the future vitality of the church. “[College] is where people are making life choices” on issues from vocation to how they approach money, tithing, relationships, and habits in their spiritual lives, says Elsdon. “If [students] have no relevant church experience in college, they may come back [to the church] when they have kids, but that won’t sustain us as a denomination,” he says.
“Out of seminary you kind of expect your first call to just be putting in your time,” says Liu. “We thought about doing ministry together but assumed it would be down the road. Then we found this exciting copastor position. I couldn’t have dreamed this…. It’s been an incredible opportunity.”
Photo: Barry Sherbeck, Vivid Media
Watch a brief news clip about the Pres House, including an interview with Mark Esldon.