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Campus ministry preparation in a COVID-19 context

Unsplash/Nathan Dumlao
Unsplash/Nathan Dumlao

Sitting in my office on a gorgeous summer’s day, I can see from my window the stillness of the university campus. The Christian camp that typically utilizes our facilities over the summer canceled their services. All summer school classes and athletic conditioning have moved online; so not a student is to be seen. Even the few staff who are on campus, by and large, are staying in their offices and meeting remotely. COVID-19, with all of its fury, has brought an unsettling tranquility to this day. 

And yet, I know that the 2020-2021 school year is fast approaching, and I’ve got to have a plan.

University staffers, for the most part, do not just develop the school calendar, they obsess over it. “Flexibility” is the value, but “certainty” is the boss. Athletic, academic, and associational commitments are hammered out years in advance to ensure that time-tested best practices prevail within their educational institutions in order to guide their students’ holistic formation.  

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Plato famously said: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Some might argue that for higher education, necessity is the mother of reinvention. University life is always changing. While higher education itself is nothing new, with each new class of incoming freshmen, ongoing institutional adjustments and modifications are made. After all, I don’t remember seeing “support animals” on campus when I was completing my undergraduate degree. Simple considerations of students’ needs, sometimes take the form of sizable shifts within a university — this has always been so. 

But, unless I’m wrong, I think this time is different. 

I happily serve at a private Christian liberal arts university. I am one of the campus ministers. Before, COVID-19, campus ministry was different. I routinely trained and deployed university students to do missionary work, facilitate youth group events, and mentor schoolchildren at the local middle school without worrying about surpassing the CDC recommended gathering capacity. During our weekly outreach event, we consistently lined up students to pick up a complimentary meal without reminders to keep 6 feet of distance between them and their peers. I faithfully stood outside the chapel, every Thursday night, as students gathered for our Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM) service, to greet university students with a high five or a hug, and I wasn’t even wearing a mask or nylon gloves.      

So, what do I do when I’ve been tasked to predict the unpredictable?  What do I do if every aspect of my ministry on campus is rightfully greeted with some measure of trepidation by the very people I long to serve?  News sources report ever-increasing levels of anxiety, phobias, and suicide. So how do I best minister to distressed college students in a COVID-19 context?

The world is changing. God is not. 

Christian education is on the heart of God. Remarkably, Jesus was called “teacher” more than any other title, including “Lord.” In Proverbs 18:15, Solomon taught, “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Rest assured, God is pro-higher education. After all, God is the virtuoso behind the classically trained pianist. He is the mastermind behind the engineering mathematician. He is the intellectual genius behind every sainted university professor.  As long as God lives — Christian education will go on. 

So back to my titled question — What do I do when I am tasked to predict the unpredictable? Short answer: Pray and prepare. 

Despite all the incoming negative data, I remain optimistic that this school year will go on wonderfully. I didn’t say that I believe that this school year will be free of hardship.  I didn’t say that I believe that this school year would come without missteps. I said, “I remain optimistic that this school year will go on wonderfully.”  Why?  Because, while I may be finite, my God is infinite. God holds: my future, the future of the students I serve, and the future of the educational institution where I am blessed to minister. 

Prayer is an act of humility. Prayer is a quiet admittance that “I need help!”  On the other hand, preparation is an act of faith.  Preparation requires that leaders wisely discern the future and smile. 

One of the foremost Christian educators of old, Saint Augustine, famously said: “Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you.” Saint Augustine sought to harmonize prayer and preparation. I believe this is wise counsel for all of us serving in higher education in a COVID-19 world.

For some readers, this article may bring with it the tough realization that many aspects of our “historic institutional norms” may not exist in the 2020-2021 school year. For other readers, this article may frustratingly raise more questions than answers. But for me, writing this article has been therapeutic and hopeful. By God’s grace, I intend to enter this approaching school year with a rejuvenated appreciation for Christian higher education. I will not take in-person assemblies for granted — even if the occupancy requirements have changed. I will not take virtual assemblies for granted — even if the background noise in my earbuds is bothersome. I will not take ministry (in any form — remote or live) for granted, because as long as God has given me the breath of life, I have the sacred privilege of soldiering toward the unpredictable armed with prayer and preparation. 

Joshua Gilmore serves as the director of Community Connection and Ministry Mobilization at North Greenville University. Gilmore earned both his BA and MA at NGU (Christian Studies - 2005 & Christian Ministry - 2007). Gilmore continued his study at Columbia International University and earned his Educational Specialist degree (Ed.S) in Christian Higher Education in 2016. Prior to serving at NGU, Gilmore was a youth pastor in the Chicago area, professor/administrator at a small college of missions, and a music minister in New Jersey. Gilmore loves to be with his wife and three daughters, go on outdoor adventures, and passionately serve Christ through teaching, leading, and creating.

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