A part of my work at Indiana Wesleyan University is directing a program called “Examen.” Examen is a 2-week summer camp / academy where 30 high schoolers come together, live on IWU’s campus, take a 3-credit hour bible/theology course, and explore what it means to be called to ministry. We’ve been planning and working tirelessly for Examen since last October, and were thrilled to get these aspiring young ministers on campus.
And then Rona hit.
We kept waiting and waiting, hoping that COVID-19 would pass over and lighten up over the summer according to early predictions. March passed, then April, then May, all to no avail. At this point, camps all across the country were having to make the difficult decision to cancel most, if not all, summer programming. Things weren’t looking good. After greatly weighing the possibilities and risks, we finally made the call to move Examen to an online format at the end of May.
We were super bummed. And who wouldn’t be? How could we possibly create a 2-week online summer camp that includes an online class when students were already fed up with distance learning from the previous spring semester? How could that even come close to the experience these students would have if they were on campus?
However skeptical we were about the outcome, we knew this was what we needed to do. And we went to work. We scrupulously thought through a new program schedule that could utilize Zoom for everything, but without creating too much screen fatigue. We’d incorporate fun activities that can be done remotely, but with enough variety that still allowed free time for students to have their afternoons off. It was all starting to come together—but we still had absolutely no idea how well it was going to work.
But perhaps the thing we were the most skeptical about was how well these 25 high schoolers from across the U.S. would be able to connect over an online program. The year 2020 has been the year I think everyone hs realized how much better it is to be in person than it is to do everything online. Online communication is a great supplement for relationships, but a terrible substitute. This was our biggest prayer for the program: that despite being hundreds of miles away from each other, they could still find friendship, community, and belonging.
Needless to say, the Lord answered our prayers.
On opening night, we admitted 25 strangers into a Zoom room to give an overview of the program. Two weeks later for the closing session, tears were shed because of how close these students had become. The Lord defied all odds by using a medium that has begrudgingly become a staple for 2020 to bring these students together in an incredibly spiritual and supportive community that surpassed all of our expectations. Many of the students said that they never realized how much they longed for friends who also felt called to ministry: peers who are asking the same questions and pursuing the same calling to advance the kingdom through their careers. They found a sacred community—all over Zoom.
The community that came out of this program reminded me just how much pastors and ministers need community themselves. Those in ministry leadership often find themselves alone. They’re constantly pouring out to people, but very rarely have people who can pour back into them. Even pastors and ministers need spiritual friends and sacred community.
Furthemore, this all shows how much the Lord is still on our side, and is using laptop screens, webcams, and internal microphones to bridge gaps between people and minister to the needs of their souls. Although online video conferencing can never replace face-to-face, it is certainly, absolutely, positively better than having no human interaction at all.