New Faces of Ministry: MDiv Erika Dornfeld

July 24, 2014

As part of the New Faces of Ministry Tour 2014, third-year MDiv student Erika Dornfeld spent three weeks in June and July visiting camps, campus ministries, universities, volunteer corps, and NGOs to share her experiences of theological education, new and emerging forms of ministry, and the connection between faith and service. The tour, an initiative of Faith3, pairs students from its “Seminaries that Change the World” for twenty-one day excursions aimed at “redefin[ing] the public understanding of ministry by lifting up its many roles and broad expression throughout society; reclaim[ing] a commitment on the part of the church to young adults and the causes they care about; [and] rebuild[ing] relationships with a generation that is searching for spiritual meaning and strength in the midst of their service to the world” (from the official press release).

In the course of their travels, Erika and her tour associate, Jessi LeClear Vacha (Luther Seminary), logged nearly 2,800 miles, traversed six states in the upper midwest, and visited thirty sites—where they engaged in conversation and ministry with more than two hundred individuals spanning twelve different denominational affiliations. While talking about the virtues, challenges, and prospects of theological education, Erika and Jessi shoveled mulch at a KABOOM! playground build with members of the Milwaukee Brewers, washed dishes with a summer camp staff, played Catchphrase with Franciscan Friars and Cap Corps Volunteers, and led a vespers service at The Crossing.

We asked Erika, pictured above visiting a garden of the Detroit Urban Farming Initiative (a partner organization of the Motown Mission), to share a bit about her experience.

What was your favorite part of the experience?

I loved hearing about and seeing all of the innovative programs that camps were doing to make connections between themselves and the world. Camps are special places, set apart, and often both campers and staff struggle to carry their enthusiasm for ministry forward once they leave. Camp Chicago, an Episcopal Diocese of Chicago camp, is developing its high school “Leaders in Training” program to have a second year option called “Leaders in Community.” A United Methodist choir camp in northern Michigan rewarded campers’ good deeds with pennies, which then the kids donated to their choice of a range of non-profits, both local and international. My favorite part was being able to affirm and encourage, and also challenge, the many ways to connect with God and world in what is called ministry.

Most surprising?

I was surprised to learn that the American church camp model is somewhat unique and one that other countries seek to emulate. I met counselors from Scotland, England, Australia, Slovakia, Columbia, Malaysia, Ireland, and New Zealand. Camps in those countries do not resemble American church camps—which is to their detriment, these counselors thought. One counselor was even making it her mission to reform Australia's camp system, making it more like the American model, which involves a much stronger component of experiencing God’s creation, among other things.

What were the most common questions your conversation partners asked?

In general it seemed that many of the people we met were asking of themselves/struggling with how to think ethically about the desire to make money, to live a certain way, and also serve God and the world. They were asking of themselves: how does one imagine one’s way in to doing ministry when one’s primary objective is to find financial security?  More generally, though, we talked a lot about how a given job/vocation might be related to ministry and the Christian life.

How did the experience affect your sense of the landscape of ministry?

It gave me an even stronger sense of the need for, and area of, ecumenical relations, and of the gaps between institutions. Only one camp director asked us for feedback about their operations, and how it compared with other camps. With so many camps struggling to sustain themselves—in line with their mainline denominational support systems—it becomes even more important to collaborate, share resources, and be flexible. Indeed, with staff and campers being from a variety of theological backgrounds, the landscape of ministry is developing huge gaps. In between churches and denominations sit people who desire the community they find at camp and college. They struggle with its replication outside of those supported systems. Ministry thus also becomes about helping people think through what it is they are looking for. If they value the sense of family and acceptance found in those settings, how are such values transferable, and not transferable, to their more daily contexts? 

Camp may be many persons’ “spiritual spa week” where they get to be the “most fun version of themselves.” But people also want churches to not shy away from the hard stuff, and to help people think about where God sits in that mess. Thinking about ministry as a landscape is fitting here, because we covered so many of them, such differing topographies.  My sense is that both camps and those who attend them struggle with how to honor the distinctiveness of their camp and their love of that specific terrain/place, and yet to keep it from becoming insular, a mere retreat. I think camps, at their best, are trying truly to send people out with the spirit of faith and service. Ministry is becoming more about the lines between points A and B—between Sunday and Monday life–and about helping people to make the connections such that both experiences are mutually enhanced.