OXFORD • Every Tuesday night, a group of students from the University of Mississippi gathers in a converted bar in downtown Oxford as UKirk – the student ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – gets underway.
The vibe is relaxed and low-key. Students share a meal, then make themselves cozy on the mismatched couches as the Rev. Allison Wehrung convenes the gathering with a call to worship.
The 31-year-old Wehrung said everyone is welcome at UKirk, to feed both the body and the spirit.
“It’s right there on our website,” she said. We’re ‘by Presbyterians but not just for Presbyterians.’ If you’re hungry in any way, come here and eat.”
Wehrung grew up in North Carolina and moved to Oxford just over two years ago. A graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, she said her background and spiritual curiosity led her into her current role.
“I grew up Presbyterian. I went to church on Sundays and handbell choir on Wednesdays; the whole shebang,” she said.” I majored in world religions in college. But I didn’t want to go to seminary and I sure didn’t want to be a pastor. I put it off for as long as I could.”
Wehrung said while she still doesn’t feel drawn to traditional parish ministry, campus ministry feels like a good fit.
“My experiences working in camps and the volunteer work I did nudged me toward seminary,” she said. “It helped me see that church could be more that the stuff we do on Sunday mornings.”
Wehrung said the proceedings at UKirk are interactive, giving students an opportunity to reflect on and explore their own spiritual formation.
“I don’t really ever preach,” she said. “I would never welcome them to a UKirk service and then tell them exactly what to think. We’re pretty discussion-based, and we have very fruitful conversations. Sometimes we land on a common understanding and sometimes we don’t.”
Wehrung said rather than offering easy answers to some of life’s most important questions, she sees herself as a guide – not so much giving directions as offering a variety of possibilities.
“I don’t think institutionally the church has left enough room for ‘I don’t know,’” she said. Part of what I see in guiding this community is to say, ‘It’s OK if you don’t have everything figured out.’”
Wehrung said the more relaxed atmosphere of campus ministry gives her freedom to explore creative ways to make spiritual connections.
“You can get away with a lot of weird creative stuff in campus ministry, which is delightful,” she said. “Last week we made glitter relaxation jars. You shake them up and then watch the glitter settle to the bottom. I’m pretty sure they’re for toddlers, but we need to calm down, too. We don’t play enough in church.”
Wehrung said dealing with anxiety is a perennial theme in campus ministry.
“A lot of students are very anxious,” she said. “They’re anxious about the general state of things in this society, anxious about their own futures. There’s a constant flow of information and it’s so hard to turn it off. ”
In most interactions with students, Wehrung said empathy is more valuable than certainty.
“One thing I say a lot around here is, ‘Being a person is hard, right?’” she said. “It’s complicated and it’s messy and there isn’t a manual that has all the answers for everything. But I believe God is with us, especially in the messy parts.”
Wehrung said since UKirk’s attendees hail from a variety of backgrounds, she places a high value on making sure everyone feels welcomed and included.
“We try to be intentional that everyone is truly welcome,” she said. “We don’t care if you’re totally convinced by everything we say. It doesn’t matter if you agree with it all or who you want to marry.”
While campus ministry lacks some of the clear benchmarks of other ministries, Wehrung said she feels that she’s found a niche where she can fit in, helping others slowly figure it out.
“I do a lot of just really trusting in the Holy Spirit to show up in ways I can’t always understand,” she said. “Part of the reason I stay is because so much of my own life has been one thing at a time, figuring it out as I go. I could see myself doing this for a while.”