BCM leaders cautiously optimistic about ‘returning to normal’ for 2021-22 year
By David Dawson
FRANKLIN — Given all that they’ve been through over the past 18 months, Baptist Collegiate Ministries (BCM) leaders are beginning to think that strange is the new normal.
Last fall, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, BCM leaders were sent scrambling when most college campuses became almost desolate. Classes were mostly held in online platforms, and virtually all activities were canceled — or, at the least, altered — in keeping with COVID protocols and procedures.
Now, one year later, the landscape is still muddled for BCM leaders and students. With the effects of the pandemic very much still part of everyday life, there remains a thick air of uncertainty regarding the coming months. Even as college students begin moving into their dorms, they are well aware that major changes could be right around the corner.
So, where has this left BCM directors and leaders? Exhausted, for one thing. But also, believe it or not, encouraged. Many of the BCM leaders say they have seen God work in amazing ways during these challenging days — and they have been awed by the way that students have grown stronger in their walks with the Lord in this time.
Looking ahead, many BCM leaders believe that students are ready to move forward, fueled by their faith and driven by their determination.
“Students are ready to risk everything for the freedom to pray, preach, evangelize and take the gospel out,” said Jonathan Chapman, BCM director at East Tennessee State University. “They would rather die than not be able to have community, fellowship, worship, discipleship and school live and in person.”
The Baptist and Reflector recently connected with numerous BCM leaders from across the state to discuss the days ahead, the days gone by and their perception of what students are thinking during these confusing times. Here is what they had to say:
Cleveland State / Lee University
In Cleveland, the BCM has connections to two campuses: Lee University and Cleveland State Community College. As we hope to always maintain a good relationship with both institutions — and to care for their students the best we are able — we take each school’s COVID guidelines into consideration and use them as a foundation for how we operate our BCM ministry. That being said, we will begin the school year taking many of the same precautions that we did last fall.
When I worked at UTC’s BCM last fall, I was amazed at God’s incredible faithfulness. With the COVID precautions in place, the way we conducted ministry altered greatly — masking indoors and outdoors, social distancing in place, smaller group sizes, etc. Despite the changes, students came (both new and returning), and community flourished. We were doing the best we knew how, and we watched God take care of the rest.
I think the one thing that makes a difference this year is that COVID is less of a mystery than it was last August. We have been adapting to the new information about this virus for a year and a half, so while many of the precautions remain, the fear of the unknown has greatly lessened. This does give me hope as we go into this school year.
UT – Chattanooga
BCM ministry has gone through so much change since March of 2019. From total lockdowns to partial openings to exposure-induced shutdowns, the BCM at UTC has seen it all. This semester has brought some much needed return to semi-normal, though. We always want to be good citizens of our collegiate community so we follow guidelines posted by the university. This semester, up to this point, our numbers are not limited and masks are not required at many of our events. We have actually had some in-person events already that have been very successful. We are recommending masks when social distancing isn’t possible. We are also only allowing vaccinated individuals to prepare and serve food. We continue to ask students to check in for contact tracing purposes.
We talked quite a bit last semester about being careful of jumping back in to a full schedule just because that’s what we’ve always done. After lots of discussion and prayer, we’ve decided to incorporate “Selah weeks.” These weeks are designed to help us practice the discipline of rest and also give us the opportunity to enjoy community. They are scheduled for the first week of September through November. During these weeks, we are pausing our weekly worship gathering (called The Well), Freshman Leadership Team and Life Groups specifically. This will allow us time to take a break, breathe, and rest from our programming schedule.
At this point, we are feeling generally more optimistic and planning our ministry for that direction. Students are so excited about our optimism, even if it is a bit guarded at this point. The campus is buzzing with activity even today and it just feels good.
University of Memphis
At the University of Memphis, we are moving forward tentatively with a full schedule, but we do have a mask mandate on our campus inside of buildings. We will be continuing with some precautionary measures related to cleaning, food prep and asking students to do their best to protect others during this time.
The University of Memphis was completely online for most of the last 18 months except for a few weeks at the end of the spring semester of this year and the summer classes, but many students still plan to continue online classes.
Overall there is a sense of excitement and a reboot mentality among our students. Because we were not permitted to meet in person for so long, there has been an effect on the number of student leaders and core participants that we have this year. We are below half in our leadership team and are rebuilding in many ways. It has helped us to reevaluate this year, and has driven us to a stronger dependency on Jesus and prayer for sure.
There is a definite optimistic spirit in many students as they anticipate a closer-to-normal experience for this year in college. Several churches have increased their efforts to reach college students in the Memphis area, and that’s exciting as we are all part of the Kingdom of God and His mission together. We are praying for God to move in unique ways in the city of Memphis and especially on college campuses.
East Tennessee State University
Things are shaping up pretty well at the ETSU BCM. We are still planning on having an indoor gathering, but we are debating masks as we speak. I think the hardest thing is that the numbers of cases keeps changing, the numbers of vaccinations keeps changing, and the rules and guidelines keep changing. So it is really hard to determine what this semester is going to look like and how we are going to function. So we are just trusting the Lord and hoping for the best!
The past 18 months have been the most challenging months of my entire ministry. We have had to work two, three, four times harder for half of the results. What has emerged is that we have streamlined a lot of what we did. We have learned how to live with less, function with less, and depend on the Lord more.
We have also learned just how much we need to appreciate what we have and not take things for granted. Even though everyone hates zoom right now, I do think that we have learned how to (have productive) online meetings and it doesn’t seem weird to have a live meeting with a couple of people that are not able to make it being on zoom. We also now know how to do worship outside and we can set up and take down our entire system in just a matter of hours. It is harder — and it looks completely different — but God is good and we are continuing to try to reach out to the campus.
Austin Peay State University
The start of this year is definitely not 2019, but fortunately it is also not the same as last year. Part of our responsibility as ministers to our campus is respecting the guidelines of our university administration. For APSU, that means wearing masks indoors this year. For us, that seems very manageable compared to a year where we also had to consider space and social distancing for events which was often tricky in planning. Of course, we also want to keep everyone safe and understand the mask mandate for indoor spaces as well.
The past 18 months have definitely brought some challenges. A couple of things that really disrupted our ministry “flow” on campus was just lack of access to students and also space for events. Due to primarily online classes, most students did not have a need to come to campus most days. In a normal year, one way that is so easy to connect with students is just by doing random acts of kindness projects on campus – handing out bottled water, coffee, or snacks. It would be normal to connect with 200-300 students a day in this way.
In the year of COVID, we felt fortunate to see a handful of students on campus in one day. Because of social distancing guidelines, it was often difficult to find space on campus to hold larger worship type events. We were fortunate that some of our local churches were also willing to host some of our worship nights. A huge positive for many of us is that this year of COVID has allowed us to focus on small group ministry. Even when we could not meet in large groups, small groups were still happening all over campus and discipleship was moving forward!
I am definitely feeling more optimistic than I was a year ago, when things were still new and so much unknown as to how our modified ministry plans would work. Students became tired and discouraged (with) COVID impacting their college lives and education.
I do sense that students are feeling more optimistic than before. They have a need for community, and I see students eager to be a part of community again as we start this new semester. New freshmen students seem more excited to be on campus willing and open to engaging with events. Even though things will continue to look a little different, this makes us very excited!
We just want to continue the mission of reaching college students even if some adjustments still have to be made. It is so worth it to engage our campus and give students daily access to the gospel.
Middle Tennessee State University
With uptick in COVID cases happening simultaneously with the beginning of the fall semester for most college campuses, the administration at MTSU has reinstituted a mask mandate for everyone when inside MTSU buildings. However, at this point, a greater number of students will be returning to campus this fall for in-person instruction and on-campus activities. It will be great to see our campus alive with students again.
At the height of COVID, only 15-20 percent of students that we “normally” see on campus were actually here — most classes were online.
Even with masks mandated, the fact that students will be on campus will bring campus life back to what we know and love. And while there will be precautions, fall athletic events and campus activities are returning at MTSU for the fall 2021 semester. As a student organization of MTSU, the BCM will follow what the University is asking of all students, faculty and staff.
During the past 18 months, we have been able to step back and evaluate everything that we do at the MTSU BCM. There were amazing opportunities for students to be involved pre-COVID.
But now that this has happened, we have been able to step back and look at everything and evaluate its effectiveness. There are some things that we have changed, some things that we have decided to not do anymore and some new things have emerged out of COVID.
This has allowed the student leadership and staff of the MTSU BCM to funnel everything that we do through our three key words of Connect (Connect with Authentic Friendships) Pursue (Pursue an Authentic Relationship with Jesus) and Go (Go with Intention).
If things we were doing, did not fit into one of those areas of strategy in ministry, we celebrated its history and moved on without it. It’s been good for us to slow down and evaluate even in the middle of a challenging year. B&R