College student ministry leader John James isn’t afraid to admit that in the recent weeks surrounding the COVID-19 crisis he’s felt “drained and discouraged.” And he knows he’s not alone.
The university ministry director at Fredonia Hill Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, was one of about 350 attendees who tuned in online for Roundup Week, a time of training and encouragement for college ministry leaders and students. The annual collegiate conference, which this year was spread out over five days, was hosted April 20-24 by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
James said he had experienced an initial period of sadness when events began to be canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, and he realized he may not see some of his students until the end of August.
“We’re used to living every day with our students, having them in our home, loving on them, serving with them,” he said. “And to have that removed, honestly we had to go through a phase of mourning that loss.”
While James is now in more of a mode of acceptance these days, he said, he’s still working his way through the ongoing changes.
And Mitch Tidwell, lead associate of students and collegiate for the SBTC, noted the purpose of the event was to help these leaders and students navigate a “new normal” in college ministry.
The annual event, which drew registrants from more than 30 states, was originally scheduled to be held at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin in May. But Tidwell, who helped coordinate the event, said it needed to be rescheduled as concerns from the pandemic grew.
Tidwell said he wanted to help ministry leaders not only figure out how to move forward, but also consider “how do we care for our souls and the souls of those who are with us right now.”
“I wanted us to remind leaders that God is sovereign and in control and they can rest in him,” he said.
During the online event, guest speaker Paul Worcester challenged ministry leaders to keep in mind the need to stay faithful to Christ in the midst of the crisis. A recent survey by Faithwire, he noted, discovered that 21.5 percent of non-Christians were starting to read the Bible and listen to online sermons during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Think about your friends that are not Christians,” said Worcester, director of Christian Challenge at California State University in Chico. “Most of them are very lonely. Most of them don’t have Zoom Bible studies to go to … So many are struggling with mental illness, depression.”
“And we have the answer. Jesus is the answer,” he said. “And my prayer is that many people will one day say, ‘I became a Christian during COVID-19.’”
James, who has attended the event the last couple of years, said one of the biggest things leaders will need to realize is the need to pivot and adjust their ministry to better minister to their students.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away is I think the church has the responsibility to understand that times are changing,” he said. “And we have to be proactive in evaluating a situation and evaluating how we do ministry in order that we can thrive.”
Much of the focus for him in recent weeks, he said, has been on working remotely, utilizing a lot of phone and Zoom calls and fostering relationships through social media.
And while that is typically an environment where students today thrive, the downside is that a growing number of college students are struggling with mental health issues, James noted. And leaders will need to respond to this challenge.
“Mental health [issues are] running rampant for a college campus right now,” he said. “Depression, anxiety, suicide … feelings of isolation. That just runs rampant through our ladies and through our men.”
College student Jordan Hammock said she’s experienced her own share of pain this semester after learning her month-long mission trip overseas had been canceled.
“I am crushed that was canceled,” said Hammock, a student at University of Texas-Arlington, who is a leader in her campus ministry and at Fielder Church. “… That doesn’t mean God’s plan isn’t still in action. It just looks a lot different than what we thought it was going to look like. And we just really got to lean into it.”
And for Hammock, that means embracing the needs around her, whether it’s for those who may have lost loved ones to illness or had their plans turned upside down in recent weeks.
“We should all definitely recognize that everyone is in mourning right now,” she said. “Even though we’re going through a pandemic, it’s okay that you’re sad that plans were canceled.”
But she noted, “This is a time where we could see a revival.”