Veteran's day: Jeff Hedglen awarded Outstanding Veteran in Campus Ministry by Newman Ministry

North Texas Catholic
(Apr 25, 2024) Feature

Jeff Hedglen with small crowd.

Jeff Hedglen, front and center, is surrounded by a small sampling of the men and women impacted by his ministry. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The secret to helping people establish a life of faith is found in a three-tiered wedding cake. 

Metaphorically, of course.

Jeff Hedglen developed the sweet philosophy in 30-plus years of experience in youth ministry in all corners of the diocese, and he applies it every day as campus minister for University of Texas at Arlington’s Catholic Community.

The cake’s first and biggest tier, he explained, is the most important when considering evangelization: providing welcome and a sense of finding “home” in the Church. 

“When somebody walks into the Newman Center [at UTA], my hope is that they have a positive experience of Church — that they’re welcomed, that there’s food, that there’s friendly people; they make connections; they enjoy their experience just coming into our building, coming to Mass — whatever, however they connect with us initially,” Hedglen said. 

Providing all who walk through the center’s doors with sincerity, patience, and an engaging and positive experience of the Church will help visitors stick around and encounter the second tier of the cake, he continued.

“By sticking around, they will have the opportunity to encounter Jesus through the sacraments, their friendships, a small group, a retreat, stopping by the center’s chapel,” he said. “And if they encounter Jesus, then they will want to put down roots in their Catholic faith.” 

Encountering Jesus propels the desire to go deeper into one’s faith, he said, emphasizing the joy found at the top tier of the hypothetical confection.

“That recipe, from junior high youth all the way into campus and young adult ministry, is key,” Hedglen said. “It’s key at a parish too.”

Recent UTA graduate Dylan Benson, one who benefited from Hedglen’s welcome, was full of questions concerning the faith after being raised in the Church of Christ denomination.

Jeff Hedglen reads the second reading during the ordination of Isaac McCracken to the transitional diaconate on March 19, 2023, at St. Maria Goretti Church in Arlington. McCracken credits time spent at his first college’s Catholic center for sparking a vocation to the priesthood. A high school girlfriend awakened his faith, “but it wasn’t until I went to the University of Texas at Arlington for two years that I started thinking about becoming a priest,” he admitted. “Jeff Hedglen [UTA campus minister] and friends I made at the Catholic Center are a big part of my story.” (NTC/Juan Guajardo and Joan Kurkowski-Gillen)

“I was kind of in a weird, noncommittal evangelical space when I began reading about Catholicism,” Benson said. “And then, one day, I just randomly reached out to Jeff on the internet.”

He asked the campus minister to talk about the faith, and Hedglen, “without ever meeting me before, just showed up to a coffee shop and answered all my questions in a very peaceful way. It was a very good conversation and really opened a lot of doors to the faith. And a few months later, I showed up to the Newman Center and got integrated with the community there.”

Benson completed the rites for conversion and entered the Church on May 5, 2021. He now works with Catholic Charities Dallas, after being connected by Hedglen.

“Jeff was the starting point, you know?” Benson shared.

Longevity in working as a youth minister has resulted in a wealth of relationships, Hedglen asserted. When he first began working for the diocese in 1986 as a youth minister at Fort Worth’s St. Bartholomew Parish, he was a “21-year-old kid with a beard and a mullet working with 50- to 60-year-olds in our diocesan meetings,” he joked. “Now I’m the 50- or 60-year-old around young kids with mullets, which is hilarious. All that’s come back full circle.”

Hedglen’s work helping people around the diocese encounter Jesus also included organizing youth conferences, programs like Theology on Tap, the long-running Camp Fort Worth program, as well as writing a regular column in the NTC

The parochial vicar of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Keller, Father Austin Hoodenpyle, recalled meeting Hedglen the summer before his junior year of high school at Camp Fort Worth.

“I went in part because I was just interested in the camp, and once I got there and participated, I kept coming back,” he said. 

The camp experience was formative for his spiritual life and helped him develop concern for the poor and cultivate a deeper understanding of taking up one’s cross and following the Lord.

“Jeff was kind of the architect of that camp, and he was the one who was present and leading and running it,” Fr. Hoodenpyle said. “We talk about judging by the fruits [of our labor], and a lot of times, we don’t get to see the fruits of our ministry. But Jeff has persevered for so long in the various ministries which he’s been a part of that you can start to see it.”

A parishioner of St. Bartholomew in Fort Worth, Melinda Pereda also found the camp experience powerful. She was 14 when she met Hedglen.

Retreat leader, Jeff Hedglen, leads praise and worship on Feb. 20, 2016, for approximately 45 young adults at the three-day YA Lenten Retreat held at the Diocesan Formation Center in Fort Worth. (NTC/Adrean Indolos)

“I wasn’t Catholic,” Pereda explained. “I had just started going to the youth group because I had some friends at my high school who told me to join the group, invited me to church, and to Camp Fort Worth. I had no idea what any of that was at the time or anything about being Catholic, but I started going to the youth group, which Jeff was leading, and it was just really great.

“Once I got immersed in that,” she continued, “and after my freshman year of high school ended, I went to Camp Fort Worth that summer. It was the first time when I really decided, ‘Hey, I need to go through the process of becoming Catholic.’”

Pereda went through RCIA, was baptized at 16, and entered the Church that Easter. The mother of three later met her husband in the youth group, where she continues to stay involved.

“This year on Easter was 20 years of being Catholic,” Pereda said. “That means I’ve known Jeff for 22 years, which is just insane to think about.”

His tenure as a campus minister at UTA began in 2012 after 25 years at St. Bartholomew.

Hedglen believes the number of relationships he’s built while serving in many roles is immense, but having “switched to having only one hat” in 2018, he has enjoyed devoting a wholehearted focus on campus ministry at UTA. 

For nearly every semester since he started working with the campus Catholic Center, someone has been confirmed or come into the Church.

“Being able to be part of somebody’s conversion and journey to full communion in the Church — it’s just exciting,” Hedglen said. Giving people who are searching an opportunity to ask questions is one of the most important reasons to have a campus ministry at a secular college campus.

Another is to help students express and deepen their faith with guidance. The youth ministry veteran has mastered adaptability as “every set of students is different. But I know that if a student is passionate about something, their passion is going to bring other people with them … when it’s my idea, and I’m pushing my idea, it doesn’t always go well because it’s not from the students, and this is a student-led, student-run ministry.”

Jeff Hedglen accepts the Outstanding Veteran in Campus Ministry at the REVIVE24 Celebrations Banquet held by the Newman Ministry at the Granada Theatre on April 11. (NTC/Christina Benavides)

By respecting that and employing flexibility, he’s also personally benefited.

“Since coming to UTA, two things have blossomed in my personal spiritual life. One is my devotion to the Mass itself as a whole single form of prayer. Second is my relationship with the Rosary, which has blossomed because of student-led interest in praying the Rosary on campus,” he said.

For his role in helping youths encounter Jesus in his years of ministry, Hedglen was awarded the Outstanding Veteran in Campus Ministry award by Newman Ministry, a national nonprofit designed to connect students to a faith community, on April 11 at Dallas’ Granada Theater.


Jeff Hedglen's Outstanding Veteran in Campus Ministry Award Acceptance Speech: 

I'm really grateful to Newman Ministries, to Bill [Zerrusen] who I met this week at the retreat, to Matt [Zerrusen] for supporting me and supporting all of us in campus ministry and providing this night. Outstanding veteran and being in campus ministry doesn't happen without a lot of support, and specifically from the people who have been my supervisors for 35-plus years — somehow, I never got fired, never burned the building down, or ran us to the ground in the budget.

But it continued to work, per Bishop Olson, Father Wallace, Jason [Whitehead, Diocesan Director of Catechesis], and Victoria [Ramon, Diocesan Director of Young Adult Ministry]. They really make it easy to do the work that I do at UTA with the support that I get from them. 

And most importantly, those of you who are in the industry know that we spend a lot of time away from home, and my wife of almost 30 years now has always been there to support me, really supporting me being away from home, as much as ministry allows that. I'm grateful to all of these people for all the support that I've had throughout all these years. 

But the reason I do this is because I was on a retreat when I was 17 years old, and there was a priest up front calling a story, and I don't remember what the story was, but I remember looking up and seeing him and seeing Jesus in his eyes, and something happened inside of my heart, and this warmth spread. I knew that the trajectory of my life had changed because now I wanted to be the person upfront helping people come to meet Jesus. 

My description on my social media says simply, "Just a guy trying to get to heaven and wanting to bring as many people with him as possible." And that's what my life has been about. Getting to do it in the context of serving young adults is amazing because I remember being in my 20s, and my 20s being the hardest decade of my life because I didn't know who I was — I was completely faking it, sorry for all your kids, because I didn't know how to be a youth minister when I was 21 years old, and I was failing in relationships. I didn't meet my wife until I was 27 and didn't get married until I was 29, so I know the struggle of being a young adult, and it's hard.

What helped me make it through was Church. 

Two of the people at that table back there [filled with friends] were in young adult Bible study with me when we were young. So I know the importance of Church, I know the importance of ministry, and getting the journey with young people, young adults, as they're trying to find their place in this world is one of the greatest stories in my life. 

So I thank you for the honoring tonight, and, God willing, I am [working as a campus minister] here for many more years.

Jeff Hedglen, Newman ministry, University of Texas at Arlington’s Catholic Community, Catholic, campus ministry, trending-english