Rev. Ben West: Excited about His Unique Appointment in East Texas
Collaboration and shared student ministry is the focus as Rev. Ben West pastors Fairwood UMC Tyler and creates unique partnerships with University of Texas Tyler and Tyler Junior College.
In the few weeks following Rev. Ben West’s arrival in Tyler, he has clearly seen God’s hand at work, putting the right people in the right place to impact lives in new ways. Ben’s appointment as pastor of Fairwood UMC and the Wesley Foundation campus pastor for University of Texas at Tyler sets up a unique assignment designed to benefit students and area residents of all ages. “The initial idea for shared ministry came out of a Vibrant Church Initiative (VCI) team weekend,” explains Rev. Jesse Brannen, Director of the TAC Center for Congregational Excellence. “Since the team recognized the church had an outstanding facility -- and members had a desire to minister to and with young adults, it seemed like a two-point charge would be ideal.”
Ben, 29, was energized by the concept and unique appointment, knowing that Fairwood members had actually voted wholeheartedly to share their pastor and their facility and passions with college students just a few miles away. “The church is still the church, with many ministries happening as always, but the congregation also wants to meet the needs of this student demographic right next door. It is a bountiful mission field literally in our backyard. An added bonus is having Rev. Sunny Farley from Tyler Junior College (TJC) Wesley Foundation as a partner in this,” he says.
Several “super star” TJC transfer students, summer interns and new students are already stepping into leadership roles and taking ownership of the student outreach efforts on the UT campus. “Students have named our new Wesley Foundation ministry, Elevate!” he says, adding, “accompanied by the tagline: taking campus ministry to a new level. We have a student passionate about music and a graphic artist who is developing our ministry logo and materials already,” says Ben, “and others who are ready to lead student Bible studies.” Since there is no physical building for the Wesley Foundation, the student outreach team is employing creativity to engage students and build relationships. The church campus will be one option for hosting events such as the recent August Blessing of the Backpacks that included teachers and students of all ages.
Tent and Table ministry
During the first week of college, Ben and several student leaders set up a “Refresh” tent to offer beverages, snacks and lawn games to those passing by on their way to and from class. “I know that many of the students don’t have a church home, particularly the international students,” he adds, “so we are going to be actively inviting them to Fairwood UMC. The church also has a good facility for hosting a basketball and pizza night, for example.”
Fairwood UMC members like VCI chair Sara Kerfoot support Ben’s vision, leadership and energy toward college mission fields within miles of the church. “Our church is in forward motion and excited about the future,” she says. “We want some of these students nearby to call Fairwood UMC home and we are seeing Ben already connect with them, know their names and passions and letting them know we are available to encourage them in every way.”
Ben Goes Back to the FutureDistrict Superintendent Rev. Marlin Fenn says, “Ben West and Sunny Farley make a tremendous team of campus ministers in Tyler. They are doing some excellent work serving college students on our campuses and encouraging students to find roles in our congregations around the area. The students are gaining leadership experience and sharing life with people who love them.” The two campus ministries are already integrating some programming and activities. Many TJC students transition to UT Tyler, so it also makes for a smooth transition from one campus ministry to the other. Adds Marlin, “Because they work so well together they can also speak about both campus ministries when out in the community, which reinforces the connection and reminds us that we are in these ministries together.”
According to Sunny, the vision for the ministry in Tyler has always been patterned after a mother-daughter church plant. The shared Tyler United Wesley Foundation Board has placed most of its focus on the ministry at Tyler Junior College for the last several years in hopes of growing TJC into a steady source of students for UT Tyler, in the same way a church might grow its youth program by first growing its children's ministry. “These two schools have a natural relationship,” notes Sunny, “and in the past few years, the ministry at TJC has grown tremendously having transitioned from a traditional ministry located in an old building to a refurbished dormitory called Wesley House housing as many as 40 students each semester.” These students live in community with a campus minister, a community director and residential assistants. All have daily prayer times along with weekly mission events, worship services and Bible studies. “Our goal is to empower, equip and encourage our students to live into God's calling on their lives,” she adds. “Wesley House has a handful of leaders ready to transition into service at UT Tyler. We are seeing some of these seasoned leaders already begin to help build the ministry at UT Tyler and create a strong United Methodist presence on that campus.”
She is excited to work with Ben again. Shares Sunny, “Ben and I share a passion for campus ministry and a love for college students. I have no doubt that working together in our connectional system will help the UMC proclaim the gospel on both Tyler campuses. In a time when so many denominations are retreating from the mission field called the college campus, it is exciting to see the Texas Annual Conference adding to its ministry presence on campuses in Tyler.”
Samantha Wilkerson and Taylor Chapman are interns with the Wesley Foundation and excited about the new school year.”We are going to lead a freshman group on Tuesdays and a Bible study on Thursday night together. I love being a leader and a resource to help others. We provided snacks, water, music and games on the campus the first week of school to introduce the Wesley Foundation to the students on their way to class - to let them know who we are and what we have scheduled that they can take part in,” says Samantha. “I headed up a mad missions group at Tyler Junior College and I’m excited to start one at UT-Tyler,” adds Taylor. “We will probably combine our groups from both colleges on occasion and do spontaneous mission projects to meet the needs in the community. It is always different each week. I look forward to growing in my faith and leadership skills by working with Pastor Ben this next semester."
A Natural Leader
Ben’s background and passions are ideally suited for this unique opportunity. As a high school sophomore, Ben got involved in youth leadership activities in the Beaumont area and later attended Stephen F. Austin, spending time with Rev. Tom Teekel, SFA’s Wesley Foundation ministry leader. Ironically, he maxed out his campus ministry class credits and later worked as a program assistant at TJC’s Wesley Foundation post-college before responding to the call of ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary. When pastoring at Wesley UMC, Beaumont, he continued to support campus ministry by serving on the Lamar Wesley Foundation board.
Marlin shares that, “Ben’s training, experience, and abilities are a good match for the ministry context of Fairwood UMC and UT-Tyler campus ministry. Ben has a great spirit, a deep love for God and for people, is creative and has a great desire to lead people as they make a positive difference in the community and the world. His previous experience in campus ministry in Tyler, and pastoral experience, makes a wonderful combination. Fairwood UMC has a real desire to share God's love with people in ways that bring hope, and Ben has the experience and gifts to lead them in that ministry.”
Ben adds, “Fairwood members and I are excited about helping develop new leaders and guide them into ministries that fit their passions. I am reminding the students that the UT Tyler Wesley Foundation ministry is more than a community where they can hang out. It is a community where they can discern where God wants them to share their gifts in the world.”