Skip to main content

Campus Ministries Pivot

October 7, 2020

Like pastors and ministers everywhere, Christian Reformed Church in North America campus chaplains had to halt much of what they were doing and find different ways to offer ministry when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of this year.

Across the board, these chaplains have found creative approaches to connect with students, faculty, and staff on the campuses they serve in Canada and the United States.

“It has been so impressive to see their flexibility, especially as things go back and forth, and they have had to readjust and think creatively to make it work,” said Mark Wallace, director of CRCNA campus ministries, a ministry of Resonate Global Mission.

As Scott Stark, a campus minister at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan, put it, “We are not just playing the same game by different rules; we are playing a different game.”

From holding food banks for international students to making nature devotional guides, and from holding a binational book study to taking the family dog on walks across campus to meet others, campus chaplains have adapted and found ways to connect amid COVID-19 restrictions and challenges.

University of Calgary, Alberta

As he surveys the campus where he has worked for several years, chaplain Paul Verhoef sees what looks like a ghost town.

“Where there are usually bustling crowds of students, staff, and faculty, there are piles of empty hallways, empty social seating areas, and empty classrooms,” he said. “Because so few people are on campus, many of our regular ‘ways of interacting’ are not happening.”

For instance, the university did not coordinate chaplains from 10 different religious communities to scoop ice-cream for the Annual Great Ice-Cream Giveaway on the first day of classes this fall.

“Normally,” said Verhoef, “that group of chaplains would organize at least two weekly meals served in our Faith and Spirituality Centre, where 20-30 students would gather to eat, talk, connect, and listen. But we are currently having no meals at all.”

At the same time, the chaplains normally would be coordinating space for large religious gatherings: Monday Christian worship, Friday prayers for the Muslim community, Friday bagel lunch for the Jewish community, and much more. But those communities are not meeting face-to-face this year.

“The list of what is not happening is very long,” said Verhoef.

What Verhoef especially misses, he said, is the one-on-one contact with students, especially the chance meetings he can have on campus in which the conversation can move in many directions. Now most conversations are online and, he said, “are more or less intentional.”

“You find a time to hop on the phone; you collectively decide when to organize a Zoom Bible study or book study; you gather at the same time for weekly Christian contemplative conversation and practice. All are good; but all are intentional.”

University of Michigan

Bailey Sarver, a CRCNA chaplain at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said early hopes that the pandemic would not last long are now gone.

But that doesn’t mean she and other chaplains have minimized their commitment to making sure the love and mercy of God are evident on campus. “Things are not feeling any less strange or any less uncertain for the days that lie ahead. And yet we remain grounded in faith, hope, and love, moving forward in trust,” she said.

With so much uncertainty, returning to familiar programs done in new and creative ways has been their focus, she said.

Instead of their usual “Welcome Coffee Table,” where they would offer free coffee the first two weeks of each semester to passersby, said Sarver, “we offered free packets of customized Chapel hand sanitizer.”

Since it’s so difficult to engage with people in person, she added, “we posted hand-made welcome signs up and down the sidewalk along the chapel lawn to make passersby feel noticed and loved. And in lieu of doing an indoor movie night on the screen in the sanctuary, we did a backyard movie night under the stars.”

The annual fall semester welcome meal consisted of individually packaged Jimmy John’s sandwiches and chips instead of a potluck meal and grilled food.

“Our fall (online) Bible study on the book of Philippians (which corresponds with our current worship series) is looking at the power and importance of community and friendship in the Christian life, a timely topic in this season of loneliness and divisiveness,” said Sarver.

Western University, London, Ontario

In many instances, colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada have taken on a hybrid model in which some classes, especially medical courses requiring study in laboratories, are in-person while the rest are online.

For many students, this causes a kind of Zoom exhaustion because they can be online for up to 16 hours a day, said Mike Wagenman, chaplain at Western University in London, Ont. As a result, trying to connect with them for special events over Zoom can be difficult.

But Zoom fatigue is only one of the pressures students are facing.

“Many have financial worries,” said Wagenman. “Because many of their jobs were gone, many students weren’t able to make as much money for school over the summer. They are feeling financial pressures. They are wondering about the future of their education.”

Reaching out to and offering students comfort during this trying time has become a challenge. However, for the upcoming Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, Wagenman has helped to organize local churches in putting together care packages to give to students.

His team has also organized and posted online short devotions of nature walks that students can watch. “This is a little bit of an outside experience for students when they aren’t getting outside,” said Wagenman.

More broadly, Wagenman has helped to organize a monthly book study for participants across Canada and the U.S. Aimed mainly at other chaplains and young adults, the next discussion is coming up at 4 p.m. (EST) on Oct. 28 on Zoom. This month, they will be discussing Ben Lindsay's bookWe Need to Talk about Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches. Register at

Held in collaboration with the campus ministry of Rick Mast, chaplain at the University of Alberta, the book club gathers students and faculty to “celebrate God’s rule and promote a Reformed world and life view, and to engage and challenge the mind and spirit by focusing on God’s grace sustaining the world,” said Mast.
Wagenman added, “We have been able to use this time to have a series of book studies in which we talk about questions that people around us are asking -- and questions that many churches aren’t addressing.”

“After we hold these discussions, my phone and email blow up. People thank me for doing this. As Christians, they want to be part of these important discussions.”

Michigan State University

Even though the pandemic has made ministry more challenging, the need for sharing God's grace and the hope we have in Christ has only increased, said Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink, who works as a chaplain with graduate students at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich..

“The isolation, stress, mental health concerns, and other general challenges of graduate school have been exacerbated with most of Michigan State University having moved online,” she said.

Unable to meet in the usual ways with students, she has walked the campus with a number of them for pastoral conversations. Campus ministries have also held more events outside. And still it has been hard to connect with new students, she added.

“It feels like it is harder for students even to come and join us and then return again. I expect there are many factors that play a role in the challenge of [new] students’ joining and staying with a campus ministry,” she said.

Western Michigan University

A focus of the campus ministry at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., has for years been on international students. A highlight has been a weekly lunch for students from around the world.

After Michigan’s stay-at-home order began in March, the weekly meal was canceled. At the same time, however, the ministry learned of an urgent need with international students who lived on or near the campus and had nowhere to go while facing major struggles, said Jordan Palladino, a chaplain on campus with Laura Osborne.

“Typically these students have had on-campus jobs, but they were laid off with no income,” said Palladino.

Few of these students have a car, and buses were not running, making it very difficult to go anywhere. Since they are international students, they didn’t qualify for governmental assistance and were finding it next to impossible to know where to find help, let alone get there, said Palladino.

With the support of others, the Westerm Michigan campus ministry was able to muster a wide range of resources and step in to help by hosting mobile food pantries around Kalamazoo for these students and their families.

“As it grew, we also raised some funds to help students with a rent assistance program,” said the chaplain.

Over the past several months, they hosted over 100 mobile food pantries, served over 5,000 students, and paid for over 400 months of students’ rent.

“All in all, we raised over $175,000 for students! It was amazing to see God provide and the community rally around this project,” said Palladino.

University of Alberta

As often as he can, Rich Mast continues to walk his black Labrador retriever around campus in the midafternoon when students get out of their laboratory sessions.

“That beautiful dog (my bias), Wallace, is a huge campus community magnet and draws students, faculty, and staff to him,” said Mast. “I am afforded opportunities to connect with people on campus in this way. . . . I pull on my N95 mask when someone approaches Wallace, and then we can talk – and do!”

Walking Wallace is just one of the ways Mast connects as a campus minister.

He creates and distributes, via social media (Instagram and Facebook), “celebratory posts (of our own making or others) and our very own uplifting, edifying, and quirky videos highlighting God’s grace, throughout this pandemic,” he added.

Mast also has plans to continue meeting with students whenever possible for coffee or meals on outdoor patios, weather permitting.

“Games like chess, backgammon, and cribbage are also offered online, and I play those with campus community members whenever possible,” he said.

By virtue of having a car and a trailer, and with a track record of using them to help students, Mast also continues to offer himself and his vehicle to students moving into apartments or picking up newly acquired belongings.

“This will continue to be a great way to make inroads with the student population! Plans for this continue throughout 20/21,” he said.

Lamenting the Changes

Reflecting on all of the work the chaplains have been doing, Mark Wallace, director of campus ministries, said he appreciates their creative efforts. But it’s important to remember that this has also been a somber time.

“We have taken time to lament all of what has been lost because of COVID-19,” said Wallace.

“In some cases, students have lost grandparents to COVID-19. Some students, faculty, and staff have experienced the COVID-19 virus firsthand. And the physicality of being present with others and the comfort that can bring is sorely missed.

“Futures have been called into question, and life has become even more precarious for many younger adults. So lament remains an important part of our response to COVID-19.”