Presbyterian campus ministers adjust to uncertain times


Gini Norris-Lane

As colleges and universities make plans for the start of school this fall and with the number of coronavirus cases rising in many states, campus ministers are trying to prepare — for who knows what?

“It’s almost like you are having to guide water or sand,” said Gini Norris-Lane, executive director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries, the campus ministry initiative in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Things keep slipping through your fingers as universities say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and then there’s another press release or another email saying, ‘We’re having to update this or this is how we’ve decided to change things.’ ”

Online classes, hybrid, in person — schools are trying all sorts of combinations of these class formats. And campus ministers are planning for a fall full of unknowns — trying to be flexible and socially-distant present, while also providing students with a theological sense that no matter what happens, they are not alone.

A July 22 Zoom call organized by UKirk and the Presbyterian Youth Workers Association (photo by Leslie Scanlon)

UKirk leaders have convened Zoom meetings in recent weeks for Presbyterian campus ministers to share ideas, plans, frustrations. Among their concerns:

  • Some campus ministries use space in churches or have their own buildings, so the leadership must navigate rules that colleges and congregations have put in place about whether those buildings are open or closed and about safety protocols.
  • The traditional back-to-school approaches for connecting with new students (such as handing out food or participating in activities fairs) may not be possible. What’s the best way to reach out to new students?
  • The pandemic is impacting subsets of students in particular ways. Many sororities and fraternities are holding rush events online, not in person. Resident assistants in dormitories will be on the frontlines of dealing with student anxieties and safety. International students may be worried about whether they’ll be allowed to stay in the country or where they could go if they have to leave campus. And students who need part-time jobs to cover their costs may worry about finding work or the exposure to the virus their job entails.

In this time of anxiety, the mental health of students is a real concern. Max Hill, who leads a UKirk ministry in St. Louis, spoke of the need for a collective “acknowledgment that we are communally going through a long period of trauma that we are building up in our bodies and in our minds.”

Brian Kuhn on a July 22 Zoom call

With students trying to socially distance from their friends (or assessing the risks of not doing so), and with some students taking classes online, “loneliness and isolation can be a dangerous thing for young people,” said Brian Kuhn, executive director of the Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association.

Campus ministers also are aware that whatever plans are made at the start of school could shift. Some colleges and universities already are telling students that in-person classes will end at the Thanksgiving break; they’ll take final exams online and not return to campus until the start of 2021. And if students begin to get sick, they may be quarantined in particular dorms or floors of dorms — raising the need for pastoral care from campus ministers for students who are sick, not allowed visitors and may be far from home.

UKirk leaders also are facing the realization – like everyone else in the country – that what seemed to be a few months of hunkering down last spring now could last much longer.

UKirk students prior to COVID-19

“Everybody sort of thought we could get through the spring,” to switch ministry online, find creative ways to celebrate graduations, to support disappointed students forced to leave their friends and dorms or apartments with little warning, Norris-Lane said. Now a new school year is starting, and “if it’s hard to get a new student to come to worship or Bible study” in normal times, “how do you get them to come to a Zoom meeting where they don’t know anybody?”

Using funds that otherwise would have been spent on the UKirk National Gathering – which had been scheduled for late July – the Office of Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency is making available about $10,000 for “pivot grants” of about $500 each to help campus ministries innovate in addressing the pandemic or systemic racism.

UKirk leaders have been gathering together online to share ideas — also including in some of those conversations youth leaders from congregations trying to prepare recent graduates to the transition to college or the work force. Among the ideas they’ve floated:

  • Involve students in service projects — perhaps by having them send care packages or notes of support to other students or older people in the community, or to prepare sack lunches for those who are hungry.
  • Provide students tools for spiritual practices — including those involving gratitude, contemplation and meditation.
  • Getting creative with social media — for example, following the lead of Princeton Presbyterians, a ministry to graduate and undergraduate students in the Princeton, New Jersey area, which has created a #princetonprespupeterians hashtag on Instagram, featuring greetings from Cora the dog in quarantine.
  • Engage with the spiritual components of the broader national conversation — particularly surrounding anti-racism work and the divisiveness connected to the upcoming presidential election.

For campus minsters, the past six months has pretty much been endless reinvention — with students finding out when they were on spring break that their schools were going online and leaving campus in a rush. (Leaders were “saying goodbye in a parking lot as you were helping students put stuff in their cars,” Norris-Lane said. “You watched your community drive away.”)

UKirk leaders switched to Zoom lunches, Bible studies and study breaks. “Then the Zoom fatigue set in,” so leaders re-evaluated what to keep doing and what to let go, Norris-Lane said.

Gini Norris-Lane with students prior to COVID-19

Some students couldn’t attend evening meetings — they were living at home again, and that’s when their families gathered for dinner. For those staying in apartments, their roommates became a sort of quarantine pod. Students face all kinds of pressures and sadness: a precarious job market; internships and graduations cancelled; parents losing jobs or businesses; unreliable internet access; positive coronavirus tests and family members who are ill; a lack of privacy and independence as they moved back into their childhood bedrooms.

And for campus ministries, many traditional fundraising activities have been set aside.

Now, with colleges set to reopen for the fall, some students won’t be returning. Others will come back — and even with rules in place, it’s almost a given that some will go to parties and hit the bars.

Among campus ministers, “there are plans being made and people are being creative,” Norris-Lane said. But there’s also the realization that if a coronavirus outbreak happens, “we’re going to have another exodus from campus.”

Despite all the uncertainty, many of the campus ministers are hopeful and are looking for new ways of connecting with students, congregations and mid councils. Norris-Lane is encouraging campus ministers to be flexible and hold their plans loosely, to support one another and to center themselves by “leaning into the why” — why do they feel called to this work?

This a time “for deep trust in God, that God has something to say to our young adults in college,” she said. A time for faith, resilience, hope and presence — being there for students, whatever is to come.