“Life is a gift and we are called to life together,” says Pastor Amanda Highben of Duke Lutherans, quoting the words of Bonhoeffer that her campus ministry holds as central to its mission. “What we’ve been lifting up in this time of COVID is that we are still called, that has not changed. But the means through which we share life together have had to change for the safety and wellbeing of our students.”
Indeed, nearly all aspects of life have been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and among the many places where community life has been upended are college campuses.
The 14 campus ministries in the North Carolina Synod have always had diverse approaches to ministry, as each responds to the unique needs of their college setting. Now more than ever, when campuses are affected differently by COVID-19 and each institution responds in its own way, campus ministries are pivoting so they are able to share the message of God’s steadfast love with students.
Like many congregations, campus ministries have learned to go virtual. Some saw the shift coming sooner, like Pastor Stephen Cheyney of Niner United at UNC-Charlotte, who has studied the trends in online learning taking place in colleges for years. When all of Niner United’s worship and small groups had to go virtual last spring, they were ready and made the change quickly.
Similarly, when students were sent home from UNC-Chapel Hill last spring, Lutheran Campus Ministry there began weekly check-ins by Zoom that continued all summer, something they have never done before. “We are trying to sustain the community,” says Campus Pastor Mark Coulter. “We are asking, ‘What are students missing?’ and ‘How can we support them?’ At college, it’s not just the classroom that’s important, but the social aspect and the community, and that’s what students aren’t getting now.” Now that some students have returned but some are still home, Pastor Mark is thinking creatively about how to involve those who are far off, with hybrid events that include safe in-person gatherings with online participation as well.
“One silver lining, if you can call it that,” says Pastor Amanda, “is that it’s easier for students to participate from anywhere. There’s increased accessibility for Bible studies and worship. They can stop what they’re doing wherever they are and join a Zoom Holden Evening Prayer. I’ve had a student participate from Maryland.”
Deacon Stacey Troisi, campus minister at Lutheran Students of Appalachian, says, “We’ve refocused our ministry to be more intentional in our relationships with each other, and with God. We’re having more prayer, more devotions, more Bible study. More intentionality in all our relationships.”
At Elon University, in-person gatherings were allowed to resume this fall with safety protocols in place. Since then, LEAF (Lutherans, Episcopalians, and friends) campus ministry has seen a surge of student participation in numbers bigger than Campus Minister Julie Tonnesen has ever seen. “People are so hungry for human interaction that can happen in a safe way,” she says. “The students and I are all so much more aware of what it means to be a physical community. I’ve also had several conversations with students who say they had taken their faith for granted until the world was falling apart. Now they are realizing their need to be part of something greater than themselves.”
Like other campus ministries, a centerpiece of LEAF’s community is weekly worship and a community meal, which has moved from inside Elon’s multifaith center to a public outdoor space on campus with students masked and distanced. Meals are usually provided by local congregations, but new university protocols require food to be prepared in a commercial kitchen, so LEAF is using mission support funds to provide students individual catered meals. “We take the tablecloth off the altar and put out prepackaged meals for people to pick up,” says Vicar Julie.
Each year over $100,000 of NC Synod funds are invested in campus ministries. Additionally this year, the synod received a COVID-19 Response Fund grant from the churchwide appeal that was matched by the NC Synod’s own COVID-19 Relief Fund to make an additional investment in campus ministries.
All campus ministers agree that the load college students are carrying right now is especially great. While the amount of community gatherings may have decreased, the need for one-on-one pastoral care has only grown. “The mental health needs of our students are tremendous,” says Pastor Stephen. “With the regular stresses of college compounded by anxieties brought on by the pandemic, grappling with racism, heightened tensions with the upcoming election–our pastoral capacity is pushed to the limit in so many ways. I wouldn’t say my focus has changed, but everything is heightened. Our students are going through a lot. That’s why we’re relentless in reaching the campus as a voice of hope.”
Pastor Jennifer Manis of Lutheran Campus Ministry-Raleigh has tried to keep her message to students simple over these past months. “My biggest goal right now is just to make sure students know they’re loved and that they have access to self-care tools,” she says. “I’m trying to give students space to process all this craziness, remind them that they’re God’s child, and that they’re not alone in all this.”
Students in campus ministry in this synod are not alone—thanks to your generous Mission Support gifts!