Religious groups concerned about empty pews
September 30, 2004
Now that Weinberg freshman Rachel Kuck has settled in to her newhome at Northwestern, she's ready to find a new church to attendtoo. The problem is, she doesn't know how.
Except for a few Campus Crusade for Christ flyers and somee-mails members of Jones Residential College sent to the Joneslistserv, Kuck hasn't seen much information about religious groupsor local churches since she arrived on campus
"I'm Lutheran and I don't even know which church on campus wouldbe the best to go to," Kuck said.
Some of her classmates might be experiencing the sameplight.
This year NU administrators broke with the usual tradition ofdirecting incoming freshmen to their religious groups ofpreference, and many religious group leaders said they've had toexert extra effort to make their presence on campus known.
This summer, incoming students did not receive paper copies ofthe religious activities calendar that usually appears in the NewStudent Week brochure. New students also didn't receive thereligious preference cards typically sent to new students' homes inearly July. Instead, they were e-mailed to each student in earlySeptember.
"Some (leaders) are saying, 'We have way fewer freshman than inpast years,' and some are saying, 'We've had more than we've everhad,'" said Timothy Stevens, NU's chaplain. "Whether they have morepeople or fewer people, the sense that I got from everybody wasthat they'd like to have more publicity of religious events andreligious preference cards."
Until this year, the Office of Student Transitions included acalendar of religious activities during New Student Week in the NewStudent Week guide given to all freshmen. In an effort to reducethe guide's size, the 10-page religious calendar, along withguidelines for taking placement exams and a music opportunities fornon-majors guide, were eliminated from the booklet and instead,made accessible only through a link on the New Student Week Website.
Jen Meyers, orientation and student transitions coordinator,said the change was intended to be an advantage for religious groupleaders, since they could update the online calendar more easily ifdetails of events changed. She added that students would be able toaccess information about religious activities with ease online andwouldn't be inconvenienced by the change.
"If you're perusing a Web site or looking at a hard copy, isthere a difference?" Meyers said.
Some religious group leaders say there is.
Ramah Kudaimi said she and fellow members of the Muslim-culturalStudents Association felt more pressure to attract members whenthey greeted Muslim freshmen as they moved in this year becausethey thought it was the most effective way to reach them.
"I know when I was a freshmen, the booklet was my thing," saidKudaimi, a Medill sophomore. "Having it in hard copy makes moresense instead of having to go to a Web site and click on alink."
McSA wasn't the only group that reached beyond typical ways tomeet freshmen.
Julie Windsor Mitchell, campus minister for University ChristianMinistry, said her group had to tap into its general program budgetto pay for additional advertising for activities.
"We've had a lot fewer freshmen than we usually see at NewStudent Week activities this year," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said she didn't know exactly why the numbers dropped,but she said "less visibility" in the New Student Week guide mighthave contributed.
But that wasn't the only change that could have impacted UCM'sdrop in freshman attendance. Mitchell, along with other religiousgroup leaders, also had less access to incoming freshman than inyears past.
Last spring, the chaplain's office decided to sendelectronically this year's freshmen cards on which they couldindicate their religious preference, instead of sending them bymail. Because of a technology glitch, the e-mails were sent inearly September, instead of mid-July.
Stevens said the response rate was about 14 percent this year.He said he hopes by e-mailing freshman earlier next year, theresponse rate will improve from the 20 percent to 25 percent hereceived in previous years when the cards were sent out by regularmail.
Stevens and other religious leaders agreed that if students wantto find a religious group on campus, they will, but religiouspreference cards and the New Student Week booklet helped facilitatethe search.
"There's no question there are some people we won't reach outto," said Rabbi Michael Mishkin, director of the Fiedler HillelCenter, in reference to this year's freshmen. "Because we don'tknow they exist."
Reach Francesca Jarosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.