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Campus Ministries Stay Connected Despite Pandemic

Posted: August 7 2020 at 09:24 AM
Author: Diane Strzelecki, NIC Communications Specialist


Inclusive Zoom

In March 2020, college students left campus for spring break under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the infection spread, most students were told to retrieve their belongings from their dorms and return home. 

Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) campus ministries moved quickly to adapt to a “new normal” as blindsided students worked to finish their academic year virtually. Kaitlyn Franz, Site Pastor at Northern Illinois University’s Inclusive Collective (formerly the Wesley Foundation), describes much of their work at the beginning of the pandemic as responsive.

 “For two months our ministry was creating strategies to quickly respond to the needs of our students,” Franz says.  “We instantly transitioned our community group and monthly worship to online. We added spiritual practices like noon prayer and contemplation three days per week.”

Prior to Illinois’ Stay-At-Home order,  Korean American Campus Ministry (KACM)  in Hyde Park was already preparing for online worship service and meetings. After the order was issued on March 20, they quickly moved to an all-online platform while maintaining contact with their members through phone calls and SNS. 

Typical campus ministry outlets, like spring activities fairs, were either cancelled or moved online. At Northwestern University, University Christian Ministry (UCM) participated in a virtual activities fair, which featured short video clips of students speaking about their involvement with university organizations, as well as printed material and slides. 

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College students with the Inclusive Collective at the University of Illinois Chicago continue to meet online to stay in touch during the pandemic.

Campus ministries also had to reevaluate their outreach events. Rich Havard, Campus Pastor at the Inclusive Collective (IC) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), says that IC’s Sunday evening “dinner parties” for people experiencing homelessness transitioned from an in-person event with a meal served to a “grab-and-go” format, which will likely continue this fall.

Havard says IC focuses on making virtual experiences and connections meaningful. “We’ve tried not to just replicate what we do in person, but to translate some of the deeper purposes for our gatherings to online,” he says. 

Pastoral care essential

UCM Campus Minister and Executive Director Rev. Julie Windsor Mitchell continues to provide a lot of pastoral care via phone and different video platforms, working with students who are spread all over the country and trying to balance time zones to bring them together. “I’m just trying to do what I can with the relationships I have built,” Mitchell says, adding that UCM is also supporting students as much as possible with necessities like housing, groceries, and transportation.

Franz does a lot of one-on-one checking in with her NIU students and plans to continue her efforts into the new school year. 

“In terms of our current students, I anticipate getting to spend more time with them—whether online or socially distant—to really go deep, developing them as leaders for the Inclusive Collective (IC),” she says. “We have two new interns who are passionate about the ministry and are excited about growing it even in the midst of a drastically different setting.”

As the University of Chicago locked down their facilities and the City of Chicago required social distancing, both KACM and university leaders were concerned about students’ mental health under isolation. KACM responded by expanding their counseling programs and meetings for students. 

“Since late March, we have been having online meetings with students at least twice a week and online counseling from 9 am to 12 pm every Wednesday with additional meetings upon request,” Lee says. “I set up the counseling program with other religious advisers of the university and the university made announcements about it.”

Even though the university closed their facilities in April, some students and staff stayed to continue their work. KACM also set up online/offline meetings those students residing on- and off-campus to relieve their stress in their new reality. Lee expects counseling programs to continue in the fall when students return to campus.

The IC at UIC is prioritizing virtual pastoral care for students who had to leave the inclusive environment of school and return to home or another environment that might not be as safe for them. They have also started a Covid relief fund for students who lost jobs or come from families with low incomes whose parents lost jobs. “The board set aside funds for those needs,” Havard says, adding they are also advocating for students to ensure they have housing in the fall.

“For us to meet the moment and the ways students are dealing with a lot of different things that they didn’t expect has been huge,” he says. 

New—and different—school year

As new and returning college students face the 2020-2021 academic year, NIC campus ministries are preparing to help them navigate a time like no other. 

“As for the new students who are coming, I’m going to make an extra effort to really build those relationships so that they know they have some support here on campus,” Mitchell says. 

Franz feels that the IC is more prepared than ever do ministry with NIU students. “We are creating strategies to connect with students, and as much of our ministry has transitioned to online, our evangelism will too,” she says, adding that focused social media posts will be key to their outreach. 

Woo notes that their current ministry keyword is “hybrid” – a mix of online and offline ministries. 

“We had an offline welcoming event every year around October when the academic year of the University of Chicago started. This year, we are planning to have a hybrid (online and offline) welcoming event in mid-October,” he says. They are also moving forward with virtual and socially distant, limited attendance in-person meetings on two weeknights and Saturday and Sunday mornings. 

At all higher learning institutions, the campus ministries paradigm will be shaped by its state guidelines and its own context of university guidelines. In some cases, with a later start to the school year, things are still up in the air. 

“The only date that has been announced for Northwestern is that they are moving up the start of classes to September 16 and asking people not to come back after the semester ends at Thanksgiving,” Mitchell said during an interview in late July.  

“I think the university is starting with a hybrid model where students are brought back to the dorms and living on campus—at least the students who want to—and they are trying to make that safe at the same time so most classes will be online,” she says.  Classes that do not lend themselves to the virtual platform, such as physical science classes with labs, music performances classes, and engineering classes, will remain in a limited attendance in-person format.  
Havard notes a similar scenario. “UIC students will have the option to attend class virtually, and any larger classes will be all virtual,” he says. “UIC has made their decision, which is huge, because any decisions are difficult when the world is changing every 24 hours. They are making plans to even house people on campus but we’ll see what happens.”

Proceeding with caution, Mitchell notes the best-case scenario for UCM would be good weather through most of the fall so they can incorporate some in-person meetings into their activities. 

“Of course everything we do will comply with state and university guidelines, but I would hope UCM could hold outdoor services in our backyard and then organize small groups that could meet in our outdoor space, weather permitting,” Mitchell says. “Then maybe transition to online worship and small groups, and depending on the gathering requirements, continue the small groups meeting in person.” 

Franz is hoping for good weather as well. “Then our community group could meet in person, 6-feet apart, with masks, outside, with less than ten people,” she says. As the weather gets colder and the public health guidelines shift, they will reevaluate and go back online when necessary. “Our worship will remain online, and we are discovering new ways of doing our annual Fall Retreat that offers both community and spiritual renewal,” she says. 

Woo says their church's Return Team will assess the availability for in-person meetings, noting that they will also keep pace with the University of Chicago, which he says has a very prudent assessment over the pandemic.

“Our church would create an ‘online community’ and ‘offline community’ within this new paradigm,” Woo says. “One of the possible ministry concerns would be how to help these ‘two’ communities feel that they are ‘one’ community as church.”

Havard notes that flexibility will be key in the 2020-21 academic year. 

 “Our fall theme will be touching on ‘what does our faith say to this moment?’ – with all these things on top of the normal college stuff—trying to figure out who you want to be, trying to develop community, Havard says. “What I’m telling my staff and our leaders is when we get to do things in person it’ll be more like a treat rather than a normal part of our rhythm.” 

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Inclusive Collective worship team members meet to plan for the fall semester.

Staying hopeful, continuing to care

UCM has been around for a while – more than 80 years – but it has never done ministry in the midst of a global pandemic. 

“There have been challenges over the years, but we’ve also never had the capacity for technology and connection like we do now,” she says. “Those two things combined make things really different – there’s a lot of challenges but also a lot of opportunities to do new creative things.”

Franz accepts both the opportunities and limitations of technology. “To be honest, online community is hard. We have done it, and will continue to do it in ways that provide the healthiest and safest options for our students,” she says. “And Zoom fatigue is real, meaning many students have already been online for four hours of class and need a break. And people are yearning for community. So while we have a plan for this year, I am quite certain plans will change. We will be flexible.”

Havard notes that his leaders and staff also had to think about how to do evangelism in the context of a pandemic. “We’re a community that doesn’t shy away from evangelism—we usually do things during welcome week, go to the involvement fairs—things that are part of the typical student campus ministry journey,” he says. “But we’re pretty much doing all of that virtually now, and so we have worked with some social media experts to figure out how to basically communicate with people in an invitational but strictly online way.”

Havard feels that it’s not an impossible problem to solve but one that will require creativity and innovation this year.
“One of the reasons I feel like we have a handle on it is because of our great staff and our great board of directors—and we are super grateful for the conference and the local churches,” he says. “We are grateful for the way that they keep supporting us and taking seriously our responsibility to nurture the next generation and current leaders. It’s the whole community of people who are meeting this moment with some faithful and innovative responses.”
 
“No matter what the situation is, it will be ‘open hearts, open minds’ for the Northwestern campus. That’s who we are and nothing about that is changing,” Mitchell says. “We are still going to represent the UMC on our campus and we’re going to be a home away from home for students who are just really struggling right now.”

Franz remains hopeful and passionate about her mission. “This will be a very different school year, and yet I know God is with us in our community, helping us to be flexible, sitting with us in our grief of what could have been, and celebrating with us in our moments of joy!”

If you know of a college student looking to connect with a campus ministry, visit umcnic.org/campusministries for more information.

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