By Carol Pipes and Aaron Wilson
HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. – It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 caused the shutdown of colleges and universities across the nation. In March 2020, students barely back from Spring Break packed up their dorm rooms, moved home and shifted to online classes. College athletes hung up their sneakers and cleats, and graduation ceremonies were canceled.
The ripple effect of the pandemic left college ministers in churches and campus ministries wondering how they would reach the nation’s more than 20 million college students if they weren’t on campus.
But collegiate ministers are resilient and innovative. “If anyone can figure out how to do ministry in the age of COVID-19 it would be collegiate ministers,” said Chad Stillwell, director of collegiate ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
More than 600 ministry leaders from 35 states gathered for the 2021 Collegiate Summit, May 5-7, to celebrate not only how God has transformed the lives of students this past year but what He’s done through 100 years of Southern Baptist cooperative collegiate ministry.
The event, held at First Baptist Hendersonville, Tennessee, was peppered with interviews of ministry leaders representing multiple decades of collegiate ministry going back to the 1940s. Each spoke of the changes they’ve seen in ministry since their days as students to today.
“One thing that doesn’t change is the gospel,” said Meghan Berry, who serves at MERCYHouse in Amherst, Massachusetts. Berry ministers to students attending Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.
“The last year and a half has been incredibly challenging,” Berry said. “But God told me to remain faithful.” She shared that seven students had been baptized at a recent baptism weekend, many of them a result of ministry during the pandemic. “Be faithful with little, and God will trust you with much.”
Ministering in the age of COVID-19 was a theme that ran through the summit. The past year looked strangely different from years past. From online small groups to virtual meet ups, collegiate ministers found creative ways to reach and disciple students in a time of COVID.
Jamie Dew, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, kicked off the event with four principles for leading during challenging times. Dew reminded leaders to pray like they’ve never prayed before, engage people diligently, be innovative and be persistent.
Acknowledging that leadership is hard and always has been, he exhorted them to “draw near to Jesus; recultivate your walk with God so your joy is rekindled, renewed and alive and well.”
Robby Gallaty, pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, reminded leaders that they can’t rely on their own strength to lead and minister in perilous times.
“When you and I minister out of being tired, burnt out or discouraged, we begin to fake ministry,” Gallaty said. “We begin to have what Paul says is the appearance of godliness, but we have no power.”
He encouraged them to cultivate a time to be with the Lord and hear His voice, to pray for revival, and to pray God would pour out His spirit on their campuses. “Every great movement of God begins by not moving.”
Attendees also heard from ministry leaders such as Noe Garcia, Dhati Lewis, Trillia Newbell, Trevin Wax and James Emery White.
Breakout sessions addressed some of the key issues collegiate ministers are facing today, including mental health, healing racial division, leading and evangelizing GenZ, growing resilient disciples, and navigating the digital landscape in ministry.
Attendees also had the opportunity to connect with others leading in similar ministry contexts and hear from colleagues serving in settings vastly different from their own. Ministry leaders shared stories of COVID’s impact on their ministries, and how they are finding ways to reach students even when they aren’t allowed on campus due to safety precautions.
In the final plenary session, Noe Garcia, senior pastor of North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, cautioned leaders about the dangers of drifting into a self-sufficient attitude in ministry.
“We may enter the call with a servant’s heart, washing others’ feet, but if we lose intimacy with God, we begin to walk in the call wanting our feet washed,” he said. “We forget that we are still humbled servants of the Lord.”
Highlighting the stories of several broken leaders in the Old Testament—people like Moses, Gideon, Isaiah and Jeremiah—Garcia called on collegiate leaders to embrace their weaknesses to find God’s strength waiting for them. In each of these scriptural examples, Garcia pointed out what he called “the sweetest words” leaders must cling to in ministry: God’s declaration, “I am with you.”
“A man can gather a crowd, but only God can transform it. He doesn’t need our intellect or swag to reach unsaved people,” Garcia said, explaining that nothing happens in ministries without prayer, desperation and the belief that we can’t do it alone.
Giving examples from his own life of past struggles with inadequacy and depression, Garcia encouraged attendees to embrace their “Red Sea moment” when God brings one to a place of brokenness where they stop looking to themselves for miracles. Garcia acknowledged that the pandemic’s effect on college campuses and ministries this past year had likely brought several leaders in the room to such a place of desperation.
“If that’s the case, praise God,” he said. “Let Him part the sea so that, when it parts, everyone will know it was God who did the work.”
Before the summit concluded in a time of worship, Garcia reminded attendees of how important their work is, calling young adults an integral, transformative and energetic part of the body of Christ. “Collegiate students will change the DNA of your church.”
Carol Pipes is director of Corporate Communications at Lifeway Christian Resources. Aaron Wilson is a writer for Lifeway.