One year of COVID-19: the unforgettable experience of pastoring a college campus through a global pandemic

When Trevecca chaplain Erik Gernand thinks back to his first reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt to campus life as students knew it, it doesn’t take him long to remember the main concern on his mind. 

“I think the first pastoral prompt was how do we maintain some sense of connectivity as a campus community and how can we shift the content and the spaces we have to be able to try and address some of the current issues we’re facing,” Gernand recalls.

In the early days of COVID-19, Gernand worked to create a YouTube series called “How Christians Respond in Times of Crisis,” where religion faculty, mental health professionals and medical workers joined him to speak about where faith fits into this new reality of a COVID world. Gernand also hosted a podcast with Tim Green on the topic of why God allows bad things to happen.

“We tried to enter into some of these pressing questions that people had. What is the Christian story bear witness to in these times? How do we posture ourselves as Christians,” Gernand asks.

As the impact of the pandemic grew and lockdowns became longer, Gernand says his process of learning to pastor the Trevecca community through the many changes was one that started with shock and slowly moved into trying to figure out how to craft a spiritual life program when nobody could be together.

“The biggest challenge has been the lack of a large gathering space for communication and the shaping of a community together in a certain direction. The lack of a shared common experience that allows us to move through a semester together has really been something I’ve mourned. Our shared experience has been that we don’t have any shared experiences,” Gernand said.

For ASB chaplain Kaitlyn Kleppinger, the beginning of the COVID-19 season saw a lot of ruined plans and canceled trips. However, she believes the professors and faculty rose to the occasion and handled the crisis as well as they possibly could have.

“I think that the leaders of this campus have shown that they are able to adapt really well and learn as we go, which can be difficult for students and leadership, but I think we made the best decisions that we could and I think we’re making even better options for the future,” Kleppinger said.

Faced with new changes in city requirements and CDC guidelines nearly every day, Gernand said the summer was full of back-and-forth conversations about what the fall semester would look like for the student body. Finally, the decision was made that chapel would have to be hosted fully online.

“At that point, it became about trying to stay connected and continuing to give expression to the Christian community that is at the center of our mission. In fact, this whole year in the chapel world has been about making sure that spiritual life is not an additional burden on students, but something that is there as a help. So we’ve tried to make option after option available,” Gernand said.

Gernand speaks at a recent chapel

This spring however, as Trevecca approaches the one-year mark of being scattered by COVID-19, Gernand said the focus is on learning how to enter back into the rhythms of in-person communal worship in various small gathering spaces around campus since faculty has decided it is now safe to do so. 

“It’s going to take effort and work on our part to rebuild the rhythms of our community that we know are healthy for us,” Gernand said.

Religion professor Jeremy Selvidge, who also serves as the lead pastor at Real Life Community Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, stepped into his role shortly after Gernand moved on to pastor the Trevecca community.

“As I think about Erik stepping into this role, he’s now pastoring a much larger congregation with entirely different demographics. He’s had to figure out how we reengage people from this season where it’s been so easy to be disconnected,” Selvidge said.

Despite all the challenges, Gernand has been able to find moments of good to be grateful for in the midst of so much change.

“The unexpected blessing is that I think we’ve stumbled onto something with Blackboard that is going to be able to translate into our online and SGCS programs for spiritual life in some really effective ways. I think my favorite thing has probably been the chance this semester to do the Worship and Witness chapels. The in-person experiences have just been beautiful. There is a beauty to sixty people gathered in a room with an acoustic guitar. Students have been able to work with Ashley and I on crafting those services in a way that they wouldn’t have gotten to do if we had been in Boone with 800 people,” Gernand shares.

Both challenged and encouraged by his own experience of pastoring a community through the pandemic, Selvidge agrees.

“The things we normally would have done, we haven’t been able to do. It’s been a challenge to build relationships with people. I think the weird blessing is that it’s forced us to be intentional. Pastors have had to work harder than we ever have before in this season of COVID-19 because we’ve had to change everything. I think our communities need to be places of creativity and this has forced that. It has forced us all to reevaluate our priorities and be flexible,” Selvidge said.

While so many things have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gernand’s prayer for the Trevecca community has remained the same throughout the last year.

“I think my most consistent prayer for students has been for them to not feel alone. Even students who are alone in quarantine or isolation or are just lacking those meaningful community gathering spaces, that God would still give us a sense that we are held together by a Spirit who works across the spaces and makes us a community in Christ, regardless of whether we are in the same physical space. We are part of a community that loves one another, cares for one another and is there for each other. We’re available and ready to be community for people when they need us,” Gernand said.

Also read: One year of COVID-19: how Trevecca’s educators adjusted to online teaching

Also read: One year of COVID-19: life in a pandemic as college students

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