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- Princeton Seminary Alums Build Student Housing to Fund Campus Ministry
March 10, 2021
On the site of a church parking lot, the Rev. Mark Elsdon, MDiv ’04, and the Rev. Erica Liu, MDiv ’05, built a sustainable way to support a Presbyterian campus ministry from the ground up. And they did it as a young married couple just starting out in ministry.
Pres House at the University of Wisconsin-Madison encompasses a church, campus ministry, and seven-story student residence, Pres House Apartments, located near the center of campus. Opened in 2007, the building houses 240 students of all faiths with a focus on community building and personal growth.
“Pres House offers a new expression of mission and a unique way to connect with students,” Elsdon says. “We can engage students where they live with vastly different programming and community experiences compared to Sunday worship alone or traditional campus ministry.”
When the Pres House board first approached Elsdon and Liu in 2004, there was no active ministry and Pres House had almost been sold. The pair was tasked with relaunching Pres House as a Presbyterian ministry despite the low number of students — precisely zero back then. Today, students living in the residence are constantly present and engaged in ways that simply aren’t possible through traditional one-hour-per-week church services. The design and philosophy of Pres House, even down to the communal laundry areas, is about interaction. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, residential-based program services have proven to be even more important than ever as students have been limited to spending almost all of their time in their homes at the Pres House Apartments.
“This environment has allowed us to create purposeful living communities around wellness, addiction recovery, sober housing, and other mission program possibilities,” Elsdon says.
Pres House also represents a new sustainable funding model. While campus ministry is typically funded by denominations and private donations, “that money was totally gone by the time Pres House was getting underway,” Elsdon says. “Pres House is self-sustaining, as every cent from donor giving goes directly to support student services and overhead is covered by rent.”
By generating income through rent (more than $2 million), along with an investment from the area’s Presbyterian synod, Elsdon and Liu can financially support and fulfill their mission at the same time. They also raise grant money, and receive donations and support from local churches, but receive very little direct support through a denomination.
Elsdon and Liu measure Pres House’s many accomplishments through five mission outcomes, and have seen evidence that all five are succeeding:
- Help students develop a deeper, more mature faith. 83% have experienced new spiritual practices and learned new things about their faith.
- Gracious welcome and connection. 85% of residents triple the number of people they know between move-in day and their departure.
- Identify and share students’ gifts. Residents are encouraged to use their individual gifts through volunteering and service in and outside the community. Almost 40% of residents volunteer through Pres House, and can earn scholarships toward their rent by serving the wider community through various nonprofits.
- Cultivate wellness in the community. “Many college students have issues around mental health, sleep, and diet, and we can uniquely provide space for them to deal with those issues,” Elsdon says. Pres House launched a new campus-wide wellness initiative called Candid in 2020, just in time to provide vital support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Improve students’ capacity to interact with those different from themselves. “We create spaces for students to build relationships with people different from themselves” Liu says. “We work at helping them bridge connections, which can be easier and more richly experienced in a living environment versus Sunday service.”
In fact, it is those connections that help define Pres House as a form of ministry. “Everything we do is because of our faith in Jesus,” Liu says. “Welcoming everyone is part of our expression of faith and what Jesus calls us to do.”
Pres House Apartments
Engaging Where God Is at Work
Elsdon adds that while Pres House is a Christian community, non-Christians are free to be who they are there. Christian religious activities are offered alongside broad interfaith and values-based activities, such as cooking classes for wellness.
“It’s important for students to learn to engage with each other, and to engage where God is at work around us,” he says. “You cannot bear witness to God if you don’t have relationships with people who are different.”
The opportunities that Princeton Seminary provided Elsdon and Liu around interfaith work helped prepare them for their current roles. “Having a good grounded position in a particular tradition allows you to more easily engage with other traditions,” Elsdon says. “Princeton Seminary’s curriculum gave us a launching stone from which to engage with others, and helped us build an organization that is strong but collaborative. Things here are not hierarchical or dependent on any one person, in keeping with Presbyterian tradition.”
Last summer, Elsdon and Liu were joined by fellow Princeton Seminary alumni Nii Addo Abrahams, MDiv ’20. Abrahams serves as Pres House’s associate director of campus ministry.
Elsdon writes about the story of Pres House and the use of church-owned capital assets for ministry and financial resiliency in his new book, We Aren’t Broke: Uncovering Hidden Resources for Mission and Ministry, coming out June 1, 2021.
On the church side, students fill one-third of Pres House’s board seats, exemplifying the importance of empowerment. “Students come ready to contribute, and student leadership is essential for that,” Liu says. “Students help shape what happens in the Pres House community each year.”
For more information, visit https://preshouse.org/ and https://phapts.com/.