When we think discipleship, we usually think togetherness. But when traditional means of gathering are disrupted, how does a community work together to practice life in the way of Christ? As COVID-19 disrupts the traditional methods of residential higher education, WE5 (the five institutions of Christian higher education associated with The Wesleyan Church) is working to help students find new rhythms of discipleship as they transition from life on-campus to life all around the world.
At any Wesleyan school, almost every class interacts with the Christian tradition in some way, engaging the narrative of Scripture and the community of the local church. This emphasis has translated well into an online format, as students give up classrooms for classes online. But many parts of the residential Christian college experience — sharing meals, chapels, living space and formative conversations — are missing when students can no longer gather on campus.
At some point in their educational journey, most students face a crisis, loss or challenge that faculty or staff can help them engage. But this situation is unique, said Dr. Colleen Derr, president of Wesley Seminary. “Every one of our students is experiencing the very same challenge. And so that really requires us to say, ‘They need something other’ from us right now. And, so, our job is to ask, ‘what is that?’”
Wesley Seminary has found answers to that question by calling every student in their contact list and asking how they can be a support in these days, while Houghton College has started a new devotional podcast called “Go in Peace.” Kingswood University’s faculty are recording messages to students, encouraging them with words from Scripture and insights into how to remain healthy amidst disrupted rhythms. Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) has had student chaplains recording “Chapel Chats,” to encourage and pray for their peers. Southern Wesleyan University’s (SWU) Spiritual Life Department has facilitated discipling conversations online, and, in response to a tornado that ravaged a nearby town, has mobilized students to donate, pray for and support first responders and front-line organizations near the campus. Oklahoma Wesleyan (OKWU) has developed ways of helping campus leaders creatively engage in 1-on-1 discipleship, in addition to doing videos helping students to be present to God and neighbor, wherever they are.
Every member of WE5 is engaging creatively, whether through podcasts, video chats or through coaching professors to structure their courses in fresh ways to help students gain valuable formation in a time riddled with tension. Faculty members are leading this charge, taking extra time to check on the well-being of their students.
Rev. Ken Dill, associate vice president of Spiritual Life at SWU, mentions one colleague who has optional “virtual lunch hours” via Zoom, in which he is joined at lunch by whichever of his students want to share a meal together. As SWU trains student leaders during this time, online gatherings (whether a game of “Never Have I Ever: Quarantine Edition” or a group of student leaders praying for each other) have helped their student body stay on mission in preparation for the fall.
But universities (and churches) share a common mission of sending. And as people have been forced to disperse, many faculty members say this season of disruption has offered new insight into the ways students are prepared to live out their Christian vocation off campus.
“Students are a bit averse to things like email,” said Ben Rotz, associate vice president for Student Development at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. “But what we’ve seen is less formal communication, and a more flattened leadership structure, where students are taking fellow students under their wings.”
Rev. Dr. Steve Lennox, president at Kingswood University, mentioned the students on the ground who have been innovating — whether by virtual prayer meetings or by utilizing extra time with their neighbors for spiritual conversations. But perhaps most striking was that “instead of seeing this as a forced time of not being with their friends, or of their graduation being unable to happen, people have seen this as an opportunity to serve. I see some spiritual maturity there that impresses me.”
David Swisher, John Lee and Robert Burchell of IWU National and Global (Swisher is an instructional designer and Lee and Burchell are both chaplains) regularly work with students at a distance. And while some of the emphasis of their pastoral care has changed in these days, they say much of what students are longing for is the same: a sense of God’s presence, a sense of how their work partners with God’s work.
Pivoting all classes to online has been a challenge for some, but Swisher says he has been excited by how technology and faith formation can be integrated in an online format. “We’re pushing students to see and think through how their faith informs their work and world and how they can utilize that to change the future. Where the Wesleyan schools shine is the deep integration of faith and character: the nurturing, the coaching, the guiding, the caring community of professors and students who care about you vocationally, personally and spiritually.”
These values, academic excellence, rich character formation and deep roots in service to God and neighbor, have been the defining core of Wesleyan higher education for over a hundred years. But those virtues are especially useful now, as we need more people in our communities to “look to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
For more information about The Wesleyan Church’s response to the pandemic, visit the COVID-19 hub. For more information about the formative benefits of a Wesleyan higher education, visit the WE5 page.
Ethan Linder is pastor of hospitality, collegians and young adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development.