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College, Church and Faith

Finding a faith community in college can be challenging. Students who grew up in a local church had those ministries provided during their childhood and teenage years. Now, often for the first time, they need to seek out a place to worship and connect.

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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In this episode, the Rev. Sheila Bates, former Director of Student Faith and Leadership Formation at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, shares ideas to help students, parents and churches find places to grow in their faith while the students are away at college.

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This episode was originally posted in September 2016. 


Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and’s podcast that offers tips and tricks for keeping our souls as healthy as our bodies. My name is Joe Iovino. I’m privileged to be in the studio today with the Reverend Sheila Bates, who is at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Sheila, will you introduce yourself? Tell us about yourself and about your role at GBHEM.

Sheila: Thanks, Joe. I am the Director of Student Faith and Leadership Formation for the Collegiate Ministry Office at the General Board of Higher Ed. And what I do is I resource students in their faith and leadership development. Some of the things that we have ongoing are a large-scale event called Imagine What’s Next, which is where college students come together and they’re able to discern who God is calling them to be in the world.

Joe: Wow.

Sheila: So it’s a really neat event, and this year, we’re having it in Atlanta, Georgia. So we’re looking forward to that.

Joe: Oh, fantastic. That’s really good, good to hear.

Sheila: Yeah, thank you.

Joe: Well, we’re getting to that time of year where kids are just going to college or heading off to college, and I want to hear a little bit about kind of spiritual formation. What are the things that are offered by the United Methodist Church? What are the ministries that United Methodist Church supports for our college age students?

Sheila: Well, most of our schools have chaplains. Our United Methodist Schools have chaplains right on campus, so they are providing programs for students, they’re providing mission trips, leadership opportunities, all kinds of different things that students can be a part of. And for our private and public universities, we have what’s called a Wesley Foundation. So those are stand alone extension ministries, where students are able to go and to participate in the life of the United Methodist Church. It’s normally ecumenical. Not everyone is United Methodist, so you have a wide variety of students who come from different backgrounds.

Joe: So one of the things that happens when kids transfer from high school into college is that many of them have been part of their local United Methodist Church. They’ve sung in the youth choir, they’ve played in the youth praise band, they went to youth group and Sunday school, and mission trips and all of that, and now, they’re in college, and that all has gone. I mean they’ve left that and moved away.

Sheila: Right.

Joe: What are some ways that they can find places to maintain their faith while they’re in college?

Sheila: I think it’s important for parents and the students to know that they should start doing the research before they even get to campus, instead of waiting until they get on campus. So as they are looking at their colleges, they need to know what United Methodist churches are close to campus, do they have a Wesley Foundation, do they have a chaplain, who are these people, what programs do they have. So when the student gets to campus, they are already informed. They’re not listening to their peers, because that’s what happens. You know, come, make sure that you go to this fraternity or this sorority. So they already have in their mind that I’m gonna be committed an a part of this community of believers before I even step foot. I think that’s really important.

Joe: Okay. And what are some things to look for?

Sheila: They want to make sure that student leaders are involved, and that there are opportunities for them to get involved as well. Mission trips, fellowship opportunities, opportunities to be able to learn from one another, so small groups are important, especially in this age group. Also, where do they worship, how do they worship, are they interested in worship, so to be able to ask those questions and to be able to go to the Wesley Foundation Director or the chaplain and know who are they, what school did they go to, what is their training like, you know, so you know who is teaching your child and who is teaching yourself as a student.

Joe: One of the things you mentioned is that parents have a role to play, a kind of a critical role to play in all of this in helping their children get ready for college. So if I’m a parent of a, I have one in college, and I have one that’s still in high school. And so what are some things that we can do with our high school or middle school students that can help them help lay a foundation so that they can continue in their faith journey through college and into early adulthood?

Sheila: Well, I have a 13-year-old, so she’s in middle school, and I completely understand. I think it’s important that, as parents, we continue to bring our students, our young people to church and we also talk to them theologically at home about how do I apply you know, the bible to my everyday life. How do I choose my friends wisely? To make sure that they understand that what they learn at home will continue to journey with them throughout their life. And so we’re their first, we’re their first ministry. And our children are our first ministry. That’s my belief. So we have to make sure that we continue to teach them throughout the issues that they may have, and to teach their friends as well. So to be certain that we’re a part of that process.

Joe: And sometimes, it’s surprising what they pick up.

Sheila: Oh yeah.

Joe: Yeah, cause I have, mine are now 16 and 20, and at times, they come to us with questions that are really interesting, and I hope it’s not just cause of my position cause I work in the church, but just because we have these conversations about how our faith informs our thinking about what’s going on in the news, or you know, all of the crises kind of around the world. We have these conversations, and then every once in a while, we’ll kind of get a question. How have you as a parent been open, or been the one to receive this?

Sheila: Well, I know I can tell a story about my daughter. She used to love to watch VeggieTales. And so when she was old enough to actually read the stories in the bible, that’s when she had this understanding that there’s a vast difference between watching cartoon characters and reading the actual stories. So for us, as parents not to depend on the media to teach our children, and that we have a responsibility to follow up with whatever they’re learning with whatever the truth is in our faith. Esther was her favorite, and she would watch VeggieTales over and over. And even, we even read it together, but when she read it herself in her own bible, she had so many questions. So we had to sit down and talk through those things. And even now, when she’s in middle school, she has issues with friends that come up, defining what is bullying, when do I speak up, how does my faith come into play when I have to say something in class. When they’re talking about science, how do I empower her to write about her faith, rather than about what the teachers want to hear within her papers? So knowing that she can speak her truth as well, so that has been powerful for us.

Joe: And some of that in college gets amplified, right? So you’re in this place where questioning is really good. I mean this is a really powerful thing, and there’s this growth opportunities that happen academically and for many of our students, it’s their first time that they’re on their own, or as on their own as they’re gonna be at this level. And so they have a lot of challenges intellectually and emotionally, and spiritually, and so how are we helping to prepare them for that, and again, what are the things that a college student can look for to find that grounding?

Sheila: Yeah, I know as a Wesley Foundation director, I had many students complain about their professors, and because they didn’t understand where their faith was, the professor’s faith, because they were teaching from a place of a professor and not as someone who attends church. And so they would constantly try to connect the professor’s faith to what was being taught, as well as connecting their faith to what was being taught. So I think it’s important that we explain to our young people that the foundation of our faith is our foundation, and that we should not be, as scripture says, tossed to and fro. And to be stand firm and be empowered with what we’ve learned throughout our youth from our parents and be able to take all the intellectual information that we’re receiving in college, and learning from it, but continuing to know who God is in our life. And that’s where the chaplains come in and the Wesley directors come in, because these young people may not call their parents and say, “Hey, this happened in class.” They will talk to their chaplains and their Wesley directors. And that’s where that intellectual theological conversations can continue on campus.

Joe: So when you were a Wesley Foundation director, what were some of the struggles that you saw freshman students kind of go through as they transitioned from home to a college campus?

Sheila: There were two types of freshmen that I noticed. Ones who were afraid to do anything, they would stay in their rooms.

Joe: Okay.

Sheila: And I would receive calls from parents, because if they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t have a schedule, they didn’t, they really were on their own. And then the second type, they did everything. They tried everything, and so it just, it depends on the context of the college. You know, what is the college offering for students? What are they giving spiritual-wise? Do the students know what is on campus for them to be able to go to if they’re in need, or if they need to pray? How often is it open for them to be able to do these things? So they need to be able to ask these questions. I have found that talking to other Wesley directors and chaplains, that the second semester of school is usually when those freshmen really start to come back to their faith, because they’re free. They don’t have to get up to go to church. They don’t have a parent telling them what to do. They don’t have to study if they don’t want to. So that first semester really is for them to explore their new friendships, relationships, what’s happening on campus. So for parents, and I have to say this all the time, because I get phone calls about that, that allow your children to explore, but continue to check on them and let them know that you’re there for them as well as your church. Let them know these are the areas that they have on campus that they can visit and go to.

Joe: And so it’s important for parents to be informed about what’s happening on campuses, or what’s available on campus as well. Don’t just leave that to your student to go find.

Sheila: They’re not gonna do it. They’re gonna find other things that are more fun. So make sure, make sure that they know what their options are. And that’s where the parents can really help.

Joe: Okay. And you talked about the support of their home church or their, what are some things that a home church can do to help support their college students while they’re away at school?

Sheila: I think it’s important to support them from the very beginning. I know when I’m visiting a place for the first time, there’s a care package for me, something that says, you know, “we’re thinking about you, thank you for coming.” I think it’s important for the church to have something waiting for the young person as they’re getting to college.

Joe: Oh, wow.

Sheila: And it could be a care package of the things that they need: highlighters, cards from the parishioners telling them that they’re praying for them, devotionals, just food for them to have, a gas card, a grocery card goes a long way. So just to let them know we are here with you in spirit. We may not be here physically, but we’ve come and we’re waiting for you to come back to us.

Joe: I really like that idea. I like that idea that the hone church is still here for you, so it doesn’t feel like when a student graduates high school, we don’t want them graduating from church.

Sheila: Right, right. We don’t graduate from our faith.

Joe: Right, you stay connected, you can stay connected to your home church.

Sheila: Yeah, that’s very important.

Joe: Are there good ways that a church can use Facebook, Twitter, any of those things to stay connected with their students?

Sheila: I think it’s important. Here’s the caveat, though.

Joe: Okay.

Sheila: When you follow your student, you have to be prepared for whatever it is that they’re posting as well.

Joe: I understand.

Sheila: Churches can be involved, because they can post something really quick over Twitter and let them know you know, we’re thinking about you, we’re praying for you, we can’t wait for you to come home for the holiday, this is what we have planned for you. So there’s always something available for them when they come back. And that welcoming feeling, but the church also has to be willing to be consistent in that and authentic.

Joe: Tell me more about that. What do you mean?

Sheila: Yeah, a post right before they come back for the holiday says, “We haven’t thought about you all semester, but we know that you’re headed home, so come on in. We’re waiting for you. But consistent, authentic relationship throughout that semester, they’re gonna want to come back. And they know that they have people who have cared for them throughout the semester, and they’re gonna want to come back to that person and those people, too.

Joe: Yeah, and continue to find that place of connection that they’ve known when they were high school students.

Sheila: That’s exactly right.

Joe: Yeah, they know where they can be.

Sheila: It’s important. It’s definitely important.

Joe: How have you seen churches kind of in college towns get involved in the college campus life?

Sheila: I have seen throughout my time traveling and also with my Wesley Foundation churches helping on move-in days.

Joe: Oh, nice.

Sheila: So they would be out there helping, handing out water, using grocery carts to cart you know, students’ items. So really being able to help them to move in, to get acclimated, and not to get them to come to the church, but just to be there as another pair of hands, to bring food if they have a Wesley Foundation, to bring food, to host with the students, having coffee days, having free meals for the students. College students love free food, especially home cooked meals, and not just pizza. I mean everyone you know, thinks pizza’s a thing, but a home cooked meal just to remind someone that you know, I care about you enough to take time to cook a meal for you. And to eat the meal with them, not just leave it and then go home, but to stay there and have conversations with the students, and to see where they are. So those are easy ways that they can be involved. 

Joe: I imagine, too, there are some students there that are from far away, and so getting home for Thanksgiving, which seems to be is always that short break, can be really hard to do. They choose Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Sheila: Right.

Joe: And I imagine they can be host families to take kids home for Thanksgiving and do all that family stuff, surrogate family kind of thing.

Sheila: Absolutely. Or you can plan a meal on campus. If you have a college student that attends your church, and you’re close to campus, have a meal right on campus, and have them coordinate it so they know where they can have the meal. Get the permission from the school, and then the parishioners bring the food. So they’re able to fellowship in their area in their space. Also, another thing, if you are going to host some types of meals, have transportation for the students to get there. That’s huge, because sometimes, you know, a couple of miles may not seem a lot, but when you don’t have a car, and you’re a freshman, and no one’s allowed to have cars on campus at some particular schools, having that transportation goes a long way.

Joe: You were a Wesley Foundation director.

Sheila: Hmm hmm.

Joe: What were some of the things that you offered for students? What was it like for them?

Sheila: Wow. Pastoral care was a big one. Sometimes, they just needed a place to talk, to figure out what God is calling them to do, discerning, because college is brand new, and many times, they’d call home to parents and didn’t hear the things that they needed to hear. It was more like how are your studies, you know, have you made any friends, what are you doing, where they really need someone to talk to them spiritually. So that was the biggest thing for us.

Joe: That’s a parent tip there, too. I think I hear there that remember to care for the whole person while they’re at school.

Sheila: Yes, right.

Joe: We worry about finances. I’ve got a college student

Sheila: That’s it, finances.

Joe: We’re worried about finances. We worry about food. We worry about grades.

Sheila: Right. So don’t ask those questions. Ask, I mean ask those questions, but not every single time.

Joe: Right, right.

Sheila: So you know, pick a time to really find out what’s going on with your student, and we call them students because they are young adults, but they’re not quite there, that age group, and they’re not youth, either.

Joe: Right.

Sheila: They are college students, and so we want to let them know that they are heading into adulthood, and so we want to make sure that we respect them in that way as well, because they are not youth. But to respect them and to talk to them, and to find out what’s going on in your life, who are your friends, how are things going, what are some of the fun things that you’ve done, and really be, like you said, concerned holistically with their child as they’re in college.

Joe: Before we started recording, you told me some other things about some of the programs that you offered. What are some of those other things?

Sheila: Right, right. I had a lot of different programs that I offered to the students, and I did it this way, because they’re so busy on campus, and I knew that if I had consistent programming, they can pick and choose what they would attend.

Joe: Oh, yeah.

Sheila: And they always knew that we were there, no matter what day of the week it was, they knew that campus ministry was there for them. One particular campus ministry even that I had was called Thirsty Thursday, which is always gets a lot of looks, because it plays on that whole college aspect of going out and partying.

Joe: Right.

Sheila: But really, it had to, it was a discipleship group, and so we went through the biblical text together, we talked about Hebrew, we talked about Greek, we talked about things that were going on socially. So that was a place where I looked for my leaders as well, because it was important to have student leaders present. And going back to your one question about what should the students look for in a Wesley Foundation or chaplain, student leaders are huge, because they’re the ones that are gonna help guide you through your journey in college as well and through your faith journey, not just their chaplain and the director, but the student leaders, too. So we had discipleship groups, we had small groups all over campus, where they could meet intimately and talk about issues that they were going through. And they grew in relationship together. We worshipped together as well. We would go to a local church and we would use their facility to worship there, local United Methodist church. So we had a lot of different programs, missions, we did mission projects, community service projects. Some of the students came together form our Thirsty Thursday group, and they began to think of ways in which they could help the community. So they started a program where they would go and teach middle schoolers in the middle school, and it was wonderful for them to be involved in that. So from those groups, they began to talk about ministries that we could do together.

Joe: I’m just hearing this whole spiritual growth and doing it together so there’s this connected relationships, there’s you’re talking about mission and outreach, and you’re talking about you know, studying the bible with Greek and Hebrew, and so there’s a sense of both inward and outward being fed and growing alongside all of those other growth areas that happen in college as well.

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: Like the academics and learning to do your laundry, all those things that

Sheila: Absolutely.

Joe: you know, kind of come in at the same time.

Sheila: Absolutely.

Joe: It’s a fantastic, it’s a fantastic way to reach out, and it’s easy as, it seems to me it’s easy as a congregation to kind of lose track of college students. Some of them stay relatively close, but some go far away, and you might only see them twice a year.

Sheila: Right.

Joe: And so you’ve given us some ways to kind of keep us with them, and I deeply appreciate that, because those are tricky.

Sheila: Yeah, they are very tricky. And I think it’s important, also, I grew in relationship with the parents, because the parents would come back for parent weekend, for homecoming. They would come as well, so they were welcomed to come to our bible studies, and they would come hang out. So over the summer, I just had a, you know, I haven’t been a Wesley for a while, and I had two of my Wesley students get married, so to be able to go back to the wedding and to be involved with the parents, and to see everyone again, it really is spiritual growth for the students, and it’s imperative that the parents are involved in that process. And I know it’s easy to focus on finances. It’s easy to focus on grades, but that holistic, spiritual formation that has the opportunity to grow in college is so important during this time. So it’s imperative for the parents to be involved as well.

Joe: What advice would you give the parents, because they’re nervous about oh, my kid might be walking away from the church, or might be going in a place I’m not comfortable with?

Sheila: I, oh gosh, that’s a really good question.

Joe: I know it’s a hard question.

Sheila: Cause I’m thinking of myself as a parent. I don’t know if I have the answer to that.

Joe: Okay.

Sheila: I really think, because I’m thinking from a parental standpoint, and then as a Wesley director, as a parent, I want to be able to trust where my child is going, and as a Wesley director, I want the parent to trust that the child is coming to a place that’s theologically sound. So I think the best thing for a parent is to connect with wherever their student’s going spiritually, and to find out you know, do you have a podcast, do you have videos that you’re posting, what are some of the studies that you’ve done in the past. I think that is the route that I would go, so that trust is built over time, because right away, you just, you really, you don’t know.

Joe: Right.

Sheila: And I feel that way going to a new church with a youth group, you know, and I’m a provisional elder, so it’s a place where we really have to trust God and to trust the people that God has put in these places to teach our children.

Joe: But I heard you say, too, I think in the beginning, what I heard you say, too, is that there’s a level of homework we’re asking the parents to do to kind of know what’s going on here, so that you can have the conversation, rather than react.

Sheila: Absolutely. So be more proactive. I mean think about it. Before junior year, you start looking at SAT’s, you start looking at colleges, you start touring, you think about all these things, where they’re gonna study, because they’re interested in certain aspects, or certain academics. But yet, the spiritual life, we don’t do the research for that. But we research everything else. And so we want to make sure that that is a part and parcel to what we are leading our children into.

Joe: You mentioned earlier that you are a provisional elder.

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: And tell us a little bit what that means.

Sheila: Yes, I’m in the process to be an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church, Alabama West Florida Conference, and so right now, I’m appointed to the General Board, but there’s a chance I could come back to the local church and be a pastor or associate pastor. I have a heart for spiritual formation and spiritual growth, and just to encourage and empower people to know who they are in God. So this, through the sacraments, it’s so important for me to be able to just know who God has called us to be, the grace involved and forgiveness that’s involved. I mean we could go on and on and on. But it’s that holistic look at who God is calling us all to be, our families being our first ministry, our children, our churches, our neighbors, how important it is to know that God’s grace prevails.

Joe: And it’s interesting that, you mentioned earlier, that you have been a youth pastor.

Sheila: Right.

Joe: You’ve been to the Wesley Fellowship with young adult college age students.

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: And now, you’re working into provisional elder. But I don’t want to just look at that as a progression, but more that your heart, that makes you a good pastor is what has carried you through all of that, because you’ve been pasturing for a long time.

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: Pastoring high school students, pasturing college students.

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: And now looking at kind of pasturing a whole congregation.

Sheila: A whole congregation, right.

Joe: If you get appointed in that way, and so as a provisional elder, you’re kind of one step away, right?

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: It doesn’t feel like one step, I’m sure.

Sheila: No, it doesn’t. And it’s not one step. But it is one step.

Joe: Right. Okay. And there’s a lot of mini steps to cross that next threshold.

Sheila: Exactly.

Joe: Within a year or so, do you think you’ll be?

Shelia: Two years.

Joe: Okay, two years. That’s fantastic.

Sheila: Yeah, it’s exciting. And plus, it gives me an opportunity to help students discern their own call, whether or not they’re going to ordain ministry, or if they want to be missionaries, or sometimes, parents, students may take a year off, and that’s okay, because college is difficult. It’s challenging. It’s stressful. So to be able to say, you know, “If you want to take a year off, here are some of your options, here are some of the resources available to you as you take the GRE’s and decide what’s next, or as you look for that job and decide what’s next.” But to have that opportunity to really be able to talk to students and see what’s next for them.

Joe: So let’s spend a minute on that and cause you talked about call.

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: And one of the things that happens in college is kind of discerning that area of your life. How have you seen college students find that place for themselves? What are the struggles and what are some of the tips or tricks that kind of find that way?

Sheila: Yeah, college is an opportunity to explore and discover. So when you are with a Wesley Foundation or chaplain program, take that opportunity to explore and discover who God is calling you to be through those programs. So if there’s opportunities to go to missions, go. To lead a team, do it. Take the risk, because that’s when God stirs our hearts to show this is a true passion for you. And this is the area in which I’m calling you to be in. Volunteer at the church, the local churches near your college campuses. Be involved. Be involved with the programs that they have or even the committees that they have to see what it is that you can do for God. I think that’s really important and for the parents to encourage their students to do that, to ask them you know, “What are you involved in? What are some of the things that you’re finding that are your passions?” and allow them to tell you, and then talk about some resources that you may have available.

Joe: One of the things I love that I’m hearing from you is that we’re not compartmentalizing our faith in this kind of one aspect of what we do as part of the Wesley Foundation, and one of the things that a student can learn while they’re at college is to integrate their faith into every aspect of their lives. They have this opportunity, where they’re beginning to shape their lives and I hear you saying that this is a great opportunity to find that where God connects in all of those areas of life. Can you say a little more about that?

Sheila: Sure. I can give a few examples of students, because there’s nothing better than being able to tell a story. And I think it’s important for the young people to understand that their narrative is important. And God has been a part of that narrative since birth, since before they were born. So being able to shape their faith, and being able to have their faith as a foundation for academics, for their relationships, I think it’s important for them to ask the questions and not to be shy about some of the challenges that they’re having in their lives to the pastors, to the directors, to their parents. I think building those relationships and that authenticity is important for them to discern who God is calling them to be. There’s nothing worse than having a question that you cannot have answered, because #1) you were afraid, or #2) someone skirts the question and will not be authentically giving you an answer. So as parents, and as ministers, these young people, they’re looking for authenticity. If they come to you with a question that you don’t have an answer to, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know. Let’s explore this together.” And learn together, because we are the connection. We’re the United Methodist Church, and we have a lot of resources to help our churches, and to help our students to be able to journey through life.

Joe: I want to take a minute in Get Your Spirit in Shape. One of the things we like to do is give some, what we call spiritual nutrition, which are the things to think about. You know, what is the food that kind of fills our souls, but we also focus a little bit on spiritual exercises. What are some of the things that we can do as individuals? As you think about your own life in the recent months, what is a spiritual exercise that you would recommend to those who listen to Get Your Spirit in Shape?

Sheila: For me, this has always helped me, and it’s old and it’s, I write. But I’m not a writer. So I like to journal and I journal dreams, I journal thoughts, conversations, feelings, because it’s important for me to get it onto the paper so I don’t carry it with me. I think we are carrying a lot of stuff around with us as Christians, and through prayer, whether it’s through journaling or through prayer, it’s our way of letting go and giving whatever we’re going through to God. Journaling is my place. If anyone can just take 15 days, just two weeks, just the two week’s time and jot stuff down every day, you will find that it is a spiritual exercise, and you’re able to look back on your life and see how God has answered your prayers, see what you’ve come through. You may write about your child going off to college for the first time, and then keep a journal for a year and find out what was I worried about, you know. So I, for me, that’s been very important. But I’ve also been going to the gym, and those hormones just making your feel good and stress related, I think it’s important that we understand that our bodies are our vessels. And if we’re sick, or if we’re not well, then we are giving that to our children as well. So we need to make sure that we stay healthy and we teach them good habits.

Joe: Good, thanks.

Sheila: So those would be my two things.

Joe: Thanks.

Sheila: And I don’t journal while I’m on the treadmill. That’d be kind of cool.

Joe: That’d be cool. Every day I’m going to do that. Well, I just want to say thanks to Sheila for being with us today, and

Sheila: Thank you.

Joe: having this great conversation.

Sheila: It was awesome.

Joe: And let you know more about what the Wesley Foundations are. We’ll put links on the website so that people can learn more about that, and know how they can support and sponsor that. And we will post some ideas and places where people can learn a little more about ways they can support their own children or the children in their church. And they don’t like using the word children, cause they’re young adults in their church

Sheila: Yes.

Joe: who are going off to college or starting college, or

Sheila: In college.

Joe: Yeah, exactly, so thank you.

Sheila: Thank you.

Joe: It was great.

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