BSM leaders talk about university ministry, lessons for a post-pandemic landscape
When COVID-19 caused global shutdowns in the spring of 2020, Baptist student ministries on college campuses had to adapt quickly to make distant disciples.
And they are still discovering what campus ministry looks like as society emerges from a global pandemic.
“At the moment [in the middle of the spring 2020 semester]they all became online students,” BSM director David Griffin told East Texas Baptist University.
“It was a tough road to travel,” he noted, “and they were really concerned about being back home and trying to finish their classes. … But at the same time, we knew God was in control.
In many cases, students left for spring break and did not return to school until the fall semester.
“Being able to go ahead and take our mission trips over spring break has been a real blessing, not only to take the trip, but to the community he has encouraged, and it has helped us transition to next year,” said Joel Bratcher, director of BSM. at Texas A&M University.
“If COVID had started in September or October, it would have been really difficult,” he added. “But because the groups had already formed, we were able to pretty much maintain them, and then we were able to select the leaders for the following year. We had to do everything on Zoom, but because of the existing relationships, it made us really helped a lot.
BSM serves in both state universities and private schools, including universities affiliated with state Baptist conventions. How BSM is integrated into the university varies by location. In private universities, the organization usually concerns the Office of Spiritual Life or Student Life.
“Different Baptist schools are very different backgrounds. … Everyone has their own way of doing things – the way they have structured their areas of student life [and] integrated the BSM. There is a lot of contextualization in the BSM ministry, no matter where you are,” said Daniel McAfee, BSM director at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Overall, COVID changed the way students interacted with each other. Despite the efforts of campus and ministry leaders, levels of student engagement have reflected this change.
“Their schedule had completely changed. So when they were free on Tuesday night… they weren’t free on Tuesday night when they went home. The pace of life has changed for them,” Griffin said.
To ensure public safety, daily life became radically different, and this included the various ways students connected with others. BSM groups had to adapt expectations and methods to maintain contact with students.
“The numbers went down, but I would still say there was a good level of engagement,” McAfee said. “We just kept going. … I think [students] appreciated the connection point to be able to participate each week.”
When universities reopened in fall 2020, BSM was able to reconnect with students in new ways. Griffin described how the ETBU approached the new semester.
“When we came back, we really tried to carry on quite normally, and we offered a lot of the same sorts of things that we were doing before the lockdown, but at limited capacity,” Griffin said. “Masks, of course, have changed our interactions. …And I think it was harder to connect with freshmen that year.
As restrictions gradually lifted in the spring and following semester, BSM leaders recognized the importance of reaching out to students who hadn’t logged in as much as others due to the lockdown.
“Coming back, we had to engage more intentionally” and reintroduce BSM, Griffin explained.
Some students “may not have heard of BSM and what we do because we may not have had as much interaction as we would have liked during the COVID year”, did he declare.
At Texas A&M, BSM student volunteer leaders and small groups responded to the changes brought about by COVID by addressing issues they saw in their peers, Bratcher said.
“Some of our students have had to deal with personal health issues directly related to COVID or family members,” he said.
“I think the pandemic has helped us realize how much people really need each other and that real relationships and community are huge for everyone, and that’s especially true for students.”
When McAfee reflected on the lessons his BSM has learned from the pandemic, he mentioned community, but he also pointed to a shift in perspective and a need to surrender to God.
“I would say the pandemic has been a reminder that we don’t control as much as we think we control, or even want to control in this lifetime,” McAfee said.
At Texas A&M, Bratcher said, the chaos wrought by COVID has reminded him why it’s important for students to have strong faith.
“It reinforced my commitment to trying to make good disciples with our students and teaching them to be servants and to be willing to put their needs second,” he said.
Griffin also stressed the importance of establishing a religious foundation and he re-emphasized the mission of BSM.
“We try to reach anyone and everyone,” he said.
Recover from dramatic change
In a world still recovering from such dramatic change, it’s impossible to know where anything is headed next, BSM leaders acknowledged. However, the flexibility and resilience of pastoral organizations on campuses offer light as they progress.
“Yes, we’re coming out of the pandemic, but because we’re still so close to it in a historic way…we don’t know where society is, where the students really are,” McAfee said.
But he sees hope for the future.
“We’ve started noticing some differences…although we don’t know exactly what they are. We’re only seeing positive things this semester, and that’s been encouraging,” McAfree said.
Ministry to college students is about more than providing the “right inputs” to produce the “right outcomes,” he observed.
“That’s just not the way God works,” McAfee said. “It’s really up to him to capture the hearts, the imaginations of people… to help them know that they are loved and that he has a plan and a purpose for them.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Lauren Turner and originally published by Baptist standard.