What does it mean to be a tertiary mission worker?
Christian Students Uniting (CSU) is a group of university students passionate about keeping faith, doing justice, and building community. They have led the church to climate strikes, created safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ people of faith, and wrestled with theological questions together. But they do not do this alone.
The students of CSU are supported not only by chaplains but by mission workers, young lay people who are often students or new graduates themselves. Insights’ intern Gabrielle Cadenhead is one such mission worker, new to the role, who has been working with students at the University of Sydney. She asked three other mission workers from the Sydney Presbytery, past and present, about what they have learned from being part of making tertiary ministry happen.
Anna Maxwell is a mission worker at the University of New South Wales, where she is completing Honours in Medicine. Dr Ben Cross is a former mission worker at the University of Sydney and a current postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University. Ian Powell is a former mission worker at the University of New South Wales, now working as a statistician in public health.
What drew you to becoming a mission worker?
Anna: I wanted to make my life more about Christ beyond Sunday. Starting uni was rough for me. I’d never felt more lonely and unsure of myself. I distinctly recall leaving a Christian Students Uniting bible study early on in my uni life and feeling for the first time that maybe there were people out there in this new post-school life who would actually want to hang out with me. The Uniting Church’s presence at universities is crucial and I want to be a part of its continuing work.
Ian: My first experience of Christian Students Uniting was at the National Christian Youth Convention in 2017. At the time, I was looking for a new Bible study group on campus, where I could learn and grow more in fellowship with other students. From the very first time I stepped through the door into the cosy office crammed with students, I felt welcome. This is the sort of welcome I wanted to share with others when the opportunity for mission work arose.
Gabrielle: I am Uniting Church born and bred, so when I started studying at the University of Sydney I went straight to CSU for Bible studies. I really enjoyed the open discussions which raised more questions than answers, as well as the surrounding community. Toward the end of my degree I realised that I didn’t want my time with CSU to end; I cared about these people and this ministry enough to be a part of making it happen.
What is/was your favourite part of mission working?
Ben: Probably seeing people learn to love studying scripture.
Anna: Getting to be a part of discussions about where the church is heading next in the tertiary space… I have been introduced to so many new people, and this has also been such a blessing.
Ian: If you had asked me at the time, I think my answer would have been the mind-bending Bible studies that kept me challenged. The memories I most fondly look upon now, though, are the community events. There were some very happy evenings at Coogee beach sharing burgers with other CSU folk in the lead-up to exams, building community (as so often happens) over the sharing of food.
What is/was a challenging aspect of being a mission worker?
Anna: Coming from a non-Uniting Church background, I occasionally feel a conflict between how other churches do things and how things are done in the world of the Uniting Church… I do have this sense though that sticking with the conflict and trying to find a path through it is probably doing a great thing for my faith and walk with God. So maybe it’s a blessing, after all?
Ian: I feel like I had to do a lot of learning for Doing Justice. It was such a joy to be part of the School Strike for Climate, though the event took me out of my comfort zone. Now, I’m spending my life trying to be more aware and more educated on injustices, while also understanding a need to keep hopeful and faithful so that I can maintain my own optimism and sanity.
Gabrielle: Growing CSU at the moment is difficult. With some universities still online while others have returned to in-person classes, we are having to reimagine outreach. Hopefully we can get creative with the ways we engage students, in person and online.
What has being a mission worker taught you about faith, justice and community?
Anna: This job reminds me that the planet needs a voice, and maybe that voice has to be made up partially by mine – so I attend the Climate Strike actions. As a mission worker, I feel that I bear responsibility to bring people together, even when I feel tired and rather lazy – so I work with my colleagues to organise social gatherings of tertiary students, and am refreshed by the reminder that I don’t walk this young adult student life alone. As a mission worker, I am not allowed to forget that Jesus is supposed to be the centre of my life, even if I feel the call sometimes to make my friends, family, career prospects, or closet the centre of my life. This one will always be a work in progress I suspect, which means I must always look for opportunities such as this job, to draw myself back closer to Him.
Ben: There is no substitute for spending lots of time with people.
Ian: Faith: Sometimes the unknowns will never become knowns. Sometimes your knowns will get challenged, and you will question how you came to know them. Sometimes, you’ll find out you were wrong. Fortunately, God doesn’t expect you to have all the right answers. Justice: God holds the problems of the world, and God calls us to do our part in fixing them. We must listen for God’s call and take the action we’re called to. This call seldom involves burning ourselves out! Community: I have been amazed at how strongly community ties in to faith and justice. Communal worship and study help us discern God’s word for us to grow in faith. Communities band together and push for change to bring about justice. Community means diversity in gifts and calls, so that we can each lean on each other in areas of weakness.
Gabrielle: CSU has taught me to make my faith my own, that my voice as a young woman is valuable in theological discussions, and to listen to the voices of people with different lived experiences than me for a more informed faith. CSU has taught me that justice is practical action and the dismantling of harmful systems, and that I can be a leader in and of the church in spaces of protest. CSU has taught me that my community can hold me when I doubt, because there is enough faith for all of us, and that deep conversations can lead to deep friendships.
Why is tertiary ministry important to you?
Anna: Leaving school left a gap in my own life that many groups and ideas and new people tried to fill when I started at my tertiary institution. As God is the source of all good things, I feel a deep call to support the church’s efforts to help fill that gap for other students with the goodness of God. There are many other religious groups attempting to do this as well, which is a good thing to my mind. Personally, there was a part of that gap that could not be filled by those other worthy groups when I started at university, but only by Christian Students Uniting. For the other students out there who are asking for something that only we, the Uniting Church, can provide, tertiary ministry is crucial.
Ben: I think a big part of the future of the church depends on it. Also, I think it was more responsible than anything else for my own Christian formation.
Gabrielle: Tertiary ministry supports students during a time when they are figuring out who and whose they are. Being able to interrogate their faith in a safe and LGBTQIA+ affirming space is incredibly important. Young people are the present, not just the future, of the church.
Gabrielle Cadenhead is Insights’ intern