Thanks to COVID-19, 2020 has become the year of Zoom.
It and other video conferencing platforms have become the go-to venue for workplace meetings, classroom lessons and Bible studies, while Facebook live streams have taken the place of in-person worship and events.
It’s been a mass rethinking of models and resources among all kinds of organizations.
But for one campus ministry in northeast Florida, the transition to the digital space has been nearly seamless.
“We were able to go directly to almost completely online ministry the second week of March, almost in an overnight thing,” said Derrick Scott, executive director of Campus to City Wesley Foundation. “For us, it was just a part of the job, and we dealt with it.”
The campus ministry serves the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University and Flagler College and will soon add Edwards Waters College to the mix. Wanting to expand its reach even further, staff and leaders began planning an online option in 2017.
Scott applied for an Emerging Ministries grant from the Florida United Methodist Foundation in 2018 to fund the online ministry and was awarded $21,000. The goal was to create an environment to reach college-aged young adults where they’re most often found — in digital spaces.
Scott and his team created The Gathering, which hosted a blog, podcast and other resources created by students. It was then rebranded this spring as Studio Wesley, an online community to students and student ministers anywhere in the world.
With the grant, Campus to City was able to purchase video equipment and a dedicated media computer. The team brought in a web administrator to manage the new website. They also leveraged the expertise of a consultant at the marketing and branding agency Clear&Loud.
Scott says none of that would have been possible without the foundation’s financial boost.
And this year, while other groups were getting comfortable with more online-only activities, Campus to City and Studio Wesley already had the resources and experience to fully transition to the online world.
A spiritual placeholder during hard times
On Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m., Scott does his weekly Soul Check-In on Zoom with his student congregation.
“It’s one of the most beautiful times of my week,” he said.
And it’s one that might not have existed in a non-COVID-19 world. In 30 minutes, participants discuss how they’re doing, look to scripture to expand their souls and discuss faithful next steps.
“I had never heard that preached from a pulpit before. And I was just like, ‘that is something I can be a part of,’ this notion of difference and celebrating that difference.” — Sara Taylor
“There’s a whole two minutes there that we don’t say anything to each other, and here’s what’s awkward: that two minutes wouldn’t exist in those students’ lives outside of doing this Zoom check-in,” Scott said. “It’s been essential to us doing ministry in the age of COVID.”
The challenges of 2020 are propelling both Campus to City and Studio Wesley to be a spiritual “placeholder” for people as they wait to return to other forms of worship and social connection in their faith communities.
And for some, the connection to digital ministry is essential. Scott says one of his students is immunocompromised and can’t be around other people unless absolutely necessary. The online ministry helps that student and others stay spiritually and emotionally grounded.
“This is the kind of person that, had we not had multiple opportunities during the week to check in with folks, would have dropped off,” Scott said. “And not dropped off and gone to someone else’s ministry — dropped off.”
Ministry’s parish: the world
Research and evaluation have been central to Studio Wesley’s formation. After first launching as an extension of the Campus to City experience, the focus now is finding new audiences that don’t rely on initial in-person connections.
“If everything online assumes you’ve walked into a physical space, we’ve lost you already,” Scott said.
Sara Taylor, ministry associate at Campus to City Wesley, manages communications for Studio Wesley. She makes sure the content can stand on its own, even for someone who has never been to a Campus to City gathering.
“You can’t count on your in-person connection to compensate,” Taylor said. “You can’t count on what you said last night in the gathering to compensate. You have to be incredibly real and honest and lay it out and explain from the ground up.”
Studio Wesley aims to be a brand that is immediately understood. With help from the foundation grant, the team hired Clear&Loud to help fine-tune the ministry’s online identity. Together, they determined that the ministry’s initial conception was unclear.
One drawback was having content hidden in different web pages. Now, all content is accessible on the home page.
Visitors can see Studio Wesley Annex, a weekly video discussion on liturgical texts. Recent episodes have included guests from Wesley foundations around the Florida Conference.
“We were — me, Latricia and Caitlin — we were all basically in tears at the end of our conversation,” Scott said. “It was so rich, so full and so beautiful and so diverse all over the place.”
Other Studio Wesley resources continue to expand the ministry’s scope beyond the Jacksonville community. Guests from around the state share their perspectives in the Wesley Union podcast, which is available on all podcast platforms. Wesley Commons, a collection of intimate blog posts, gives student contributors statewide a voice as they cover such topics as the Black experience, mental health and ever-changing relationships with faith.
But Studio Wesley isn’t just for students. Content is designed so it may be used as a resource for people leading their own student ministries, but who might not have the time to create all their resources.
Direct mentorship is also a component. This summer, Scott began a mentoring cohort for those wanting to improve their skills creating ministries for young people. In weekly meetings with two local pastors and two campus ministers, Scott shares his 18 years of campus ministry experience.
Empowering others to develop their unique perspectives in faith is central to every facet of Studio Wesley. Taylor has heard Scott say students don’t have to believe what he does to be a part of the ministry.
That’s the message that attracted her to Campus to City when she was a freshman at the University of North Florida.
“I had never heard that preached from a pulpit before,” Taylor said. “And I was just like, ‘that is something I can be a part of,’ this notion of difference and celebrating that difference.”
It’s a philosophy that helped Taylor find a place in church as an adult. And it’s a perspective deeply engrained in Campus to City’s values.
“Scripture is a gift of God for the people of God,” Scott said. “It’s the people’s text, and people need to take their Bibles back. The gift of the enlightenment and the printing press and the industrial revolution is you can read your Bible and listen to the Holy Spirit yourself.”
Widening the circle
While Studio Wesley is expanding beyond its community and helping students deal with the pandemic, it’s also reaching young adults who just don’t feel comfortable engaging with Campus to City Wesley.
“Online ministry would not only serve students because of COVID, not only serve students because of their schedules,” said Scott. “It would also enable access into our ministry for those who are differently-abled.”
This includes students who are deaf or hard of hearing, have anxiety or other mental health issues, are visually impaired, or have other needs that might not be met in traditional ministry settings.
Some changes to come include expanding subtitling and transcription while considering the impact of font sizes and colors used in Studio Wesley materials.
“I want to center their voice,” Scott said. “Because if we are true to our Wesleyan understanding of God’s prevenient grace, the Holy Spirit’s pursuing every single person on the planet, including the differently-abled. How are we responding to that work of grace as the church? … I want us to be there.”