Presbyterian campus ministry finds new paths during COVID-19

What does campus ministry look like during a pandemic? How can campus ministers provide support and spiritual guidance for students? As colleges and universities reopen, here’s what’s happening in three places with UKirk, the campus ministry connected to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Rachel Penmore, a PC(USA) minister and campus minister with UKirk at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, had only been in that job for a few months when COVID-19 became a reality — the pandemic shaped her work almost from the start. A friend who’s a runner told Penmore that the COVID-19 pandemic seems like a race that keeps changing: first a sprint, then a 5K, now an ultra-marathon in which “there isn’t an end in sight. … We just have to keep re-evaluating and adjusting.”

Rachel Penmore

Since the start, there’s been a lot of disappointment — for example, celebrating seniors’ graduations online, instead of in person. “Our students had not expected to be at home with their parents for six months,” Penmore said.

And there’s been innovation: Bible study and games played together online; study breaks for virtual movie nights and candle-making; a book club over the summer. As some students moved back to apartments near campus, Penmore experimented with outdoor togetherness at a socially-distanced campfire and taking cars to a field for star-gazing.

And now, the university is planning on-campus classes this fall, “which will be fascinating,” she said.

Classes are set to start in mid-August. “We’re not able to plan more than two weeks at a time, because we just don’t know” how things will progress. “We’re not going to get to relax into anything. … We are adapting just about everything.”

Penmore also thinks that, with the coronavirus, “evaluating what success looks like is going to change dramatically.” Rather than focusing on numbers, she’s thinking about impact — creating a space for community, where “people feel revitalized and rejuvenated. Where they have a breath of fresh air when they’re exhausted from online classes or the stress of all the new elements.”

Worship takes place Wednesday nights — and Penmore is hoping to hold that outside twice a month for as long as possible, and online twice a month. A program on Mondays called “Seminary Light,” in which local ministers lead discussions with students, is moving online — one advantage of which is that Penmore can call on colleagues in ministry from a broader geographic area.

An online Bible study will focus on Austin Channing Brown’s book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.” And since “we can’t accept food from churches anymore,” she’s asking congregations to donate funds that can be used to purchase pre-packaged food from restaurants.

Mostly, Penmore is trying to lean into grace and the support of colleagues in campus ministry. “This whole semester could implode in a matter of weeks, and we’ll figure it out,” she said. “None of it feels helpless.”

She learned from previous work as a chaplain at a trauma hospital that “you just keep showing up and you respond. … Letting people know that one way or another, whether virtually or in person, that we will be there, we will support you, we love you and care for you, God loves you and cares for you. If you make it through college and know only that, we’ve done our job.” 

University of Oregon

In Eugene, the University of Oregon is planning to take a hybrid approach this fall — offering smaller classes in person, larger ones online. Presbyterian minister Terilyn V. Lawson, who leads the Koinonia Center, the UKirk campus ministry, said even before COVID-19 she’d begun shifting more emphasis to online ministry and connecting with students via social media — for example, holding livestream events.

Terilyn Lawson

Among her biggest concerns now: “finding ways to have a holistic approach” — where students “definitely get the spiritual message,” but also where “we model safety, and also bring joy and show that you can still have some form of contact. Let’s see what that looks like.”

This summer, instead of students showing up for meals and fellowship, Lawson did drive-by deliveries — dropping off food, and checking in with students via text.

On a video posted to Facebook, Terilyn Lawson demonstrated how to decorate a coffee cup as a gift for graduating seniors.

She’s become increasing attuned to the mental wellness needs of students, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Early on, “there was a sense that maybe it wouldn’t last that long,” Lawson said. “There’s this ever-increasing uncertainty as to when will this be over? So I’m seeking to do messages that instill hope and perseverance, but also are serious about your mental well-being. Make sure you go outside. Make sure you don’t take this lightly. If you are feeling depressed, if you are feeling suicidal, take that seriously” — she can connect students with resources.

Where possible, she’s planning outdoor activities that are socially distanced — maybe with grab-and-go food and music. Lawson is also starting a podcast with a colleague on topics that she calls “COVID-adjacent” — exploring questions that can lead to a greater sense of wellness, such as “what makes a person worthy?”

She’s held online conversations on subjects such a gratitude or letting go. “Letting go what you used to do,” Lawson said. “Letting go what was the norm. In letting go what was, you’re able to embrace what will be.”

During the pandemic, with UKirk students no longer able to gather for meals, Terilyn Lawson began delivering food to students.

St. Louis area

Presbyterian minister Max Hill directs UKirk St. Louis, which serves students at St. Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis, and from any other colleges in the area who want to participate.

Max Hill

St. Louis University and Washington University are planning somewhat different schedules and approaches to dealing with COVID-19, Hill said, so “we’re kind of stuck in the middle,” navigating both systems, and “a lot of things still could change.”

In some ways, that’s not so unusual — even in normal times “campus ministry is different every six months,” they said (Hill uses they/them pronouns). So Hill is used to being flexible — but “my sense is that students are a lot more fatigued going into this semester.” They’re worried about what will happen — will they move in “and just be sent home quickly” if there’s an outbreak? Is it worth spending the money for college if classes go online? Will they be able to find internships or jobs?

“We’re still doing ministry no matter what,” Hill said. They will be focusing in part on racism — but, sensing that students may not have the energy to dig into another book, they are working to develop a podcast Bible study built around The 1619 Project from the New York Times. That project explores the nation’s history of racism, but also draws on Black music and art, and Hill wants to draw connections between the Bible and the project’s themes, as well as church history, “the ways in which the church has not only been a contributor to racism but where the church prophetically has spoken out.”

Worship moved online during the pandemic, and Max Hill baked bread.

Some things they are still trying to figure out. Typically, Hill meets for coffee with students for “caffeinated conversations” — maybe that will now become a social-distance walk? The UKirk fall retreat has been one of the most popular programs— Hill is still thinking of potential alternatives. Hill also is considering how to provide pastoral care to students who might become infected with coronavirus and be quarantined, and for those experiencing anxiety or depression.

Despite the uncertainty, Hill wants to communicate a sense of God’s presence.

“One of the best thing about campus ministry and one of the reasons I’m so drawn to it is students are in a place where they are beginning to ask really tough questions about their faith and about Scripture,” Hill said.

Students used Zoom as a way to connect.

“For me, I am really leaning into womanist theology right now and womanist understanding that God is suffering with us. … that God is with us,” no matter what.

When times are hard, the future uncertain, the suffering is real, hope is possible, they will tell the students. God is there.