During this season: campus ministers engage and disciple students virtually

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ORLANDO– It was a season fraught with uncertainty and disappointment. After discipling and investing in a group of collegians for seven months and expecting to bring the ministry to fruition at the school year’s end, Florida Baptist Campus Ministry directors discovered that due to COVID-19, students would not return to campus after spring break.

“The lack of closure and the loss of community were the most challenging things to navigate,” said Brad Crawford BCM director in Orlando. “We left campus thinking we’d be back the following Monday, and we never returned. The end of the school year is usually filled with celebrations and commissionings for summer mission experiences, and our students–especially our seniors–missed that.”

“The most difficult part of this season was our inability to honor our graduating seniors as we desired to do,” said Barry Sproles, Tallahassee BCM director. “They have labored well for this ministry for two to four years, and the abrupt ending to the semester made saying goodbye seem incomplete.”

Knowing students were also scrambling with the new realities, BCM directors adapted their ministry models to ensure their relationships with students would not come to a grinding halt. Campus ministers created online platforms to connect with students in small groups and utilize technology to broadcast mid-week events.

“During this unique season we used all kinds of social media platforms,” said Ben Braly, BCM director, Jacksonville. “We used Zoom calls to have small groups, Instagram and Facebook Live to share messages and interview people to reach a broader audience. Lastly, we used FaceTime, texts and phone calls for personal discipleship.”

“Having a good system of small groups and discipleship relationships in place allowed us to continue those personal contacts, said Eddie Gilley, Gainesville BCM director. “Utilizing our trained student leaders allowed us to stay in touch with so many using the various platforms of technology. The personal interactions whether by phone, text, Facetime or Zoom were most effective for us.”

Miami’s BCM director Andrew Fernandez noted, “In this season, more than ever, the way to minister to displaced students was to be intentional in reaching out to them.” To do this, Fernandez used student leaders to reach out to their peers via text, phone calls and social media.

But the use of technology was both a blessing and hindrance, they noted.

“We’ve been able to have a greater reach because of being away,” said Tampa-area director Nathan Schneider. “Our ministry programming has become more adaptable to students’ situations and this has allowed us to connect with more people.”

The Tampa BCM ministry started Bible studies, prayer gatherings, small accountability groups, and leadership meetings online. “We’ve also used this time to reach out to people who we have not heard from in a while. We’ve been calling those who got disconnected and praying with them,” he explained.

As a result, Schneider added, “I’ve learned to stay focused on what really matters – ministry to people.”

Braly added, “The message doesn’t change, the platform does. The goal was the same to make disciples, but the ‘normal’ way of doing that changed.”

“There are a number of online-only students who have not been engaged with campus ministry at BCF before,” said Lance Beauchamp, BCF director at Baptist College of Florida. After moving the Coffee Hour event held on campus twice per month to a ‘Virtual Coffee Hour’ through Zoom every week, “We engaged online-only students who felt they were as much a part of campus activity as those who were residential.” A weekly “Virtual (But Real) Bible Study” drew online-only students as well.

“Community doesn’t have to be defined by proximity,” Gilley noted. “Students are adaptable and if they really feel a part of the community normally, they can and will find a way to stay connected as best as they can.”

Sproles said the experience taught him “each of us are made to be in intimate and close relationships with other people. While we are thankful for the technology available to us, nothing can replace the importance for physical presence is the ministry and discipleship of others.

“Also, when physical presence in ministry is not possible, such as during COVID, there is a keen awareness of our need for God to be at work in these relationships. Our need for prayer for God to move among us has never been more apparent,” Sproles said.

“The ministry never stops,” added Fernandez. “Although students were off campus, now more than ever, there were opportunities to minister to students. As the summer has started, the same is true.”

All of the BCM directors were disappointed that two major emphases of their ministry were not realized due to the quarantine—the recognition of graduating seniors and summer mission trips experiences, which instill life-long spiritual disciplines in the lives of students.

Each summer, Florida’s BCMs send dozens of students across the world for summer mission trips working with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board and North American Mission Board.

BCF students had planned a mission trip to Cuba in May with ten students and leaders participating.

Discontinuing the trips was frustrating to all, said Gilley. “It was difficult helping our students deal with reconciling their belief that God was calling them to invest their summer sharing the gospel cross-culturally or internationally with not being able to do so because of the virus.”

Bree Suit, who graduated in May from UCF, said she found new spiritual truths during this season. “The pandemic has forced everyone to look at how much they rely on their own certainty of the future instead of putting their full trust in the Lord.”

“In this time of uncertainty, the only peace we will find will be from putting all of our faith in God. We know in our heads that God is always good, but do we believe in our hearts that God will always be good to us?”

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