Hope in the Unknown: CHOG Colleges in the Midst of COVID-19
By Jeff Hayes
The spring semester, January through May, is typically event-filled on Church of God college campuses. Students look forward to spring trips, the last chapel, recitals, internships, completing projects, and a variety of traditional activities. Campus presidential leadership teams, however, were wrestling with heavy decisions, while students and staff were preparing for spring break this year. The global pandemic came as an unwelcome visitor to the Church of God universities in the United States. Seven months ago, none of the Movement’s college presidents could have imagined how the 2019–2020 academic year would end. The COVID-19 crisis has forever left its mark on higher education.
Dr. Andrea Cook, president of Warner Pacific University in Portland, Oregon, states that the past two months have been the most eventful weeks in her twelve-year tenure. She believes that higher education will never be the same. Faith-focused institutions, she observes, have been forced to reexamine what is essential to their calling. They have been forced to discover new ways of utilizing technologies for achieving their purpose while remaining relational, the heart of their missions.
Warner Pacific’s board chair shared leadership wisdom with the school. It was noted, in times of crisis, leaders are required to prepare for three things: the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. For Church of God universities, the spring of 2020 has been filled with equal parts of all three.
All four church schools report they are proud of the ways their campus communities have responded safely to the pandemic chaos. Each president reports that their teams have successfully managed the challenges of leading through this time of unknowns. The faith of each university president remains hope-filled and focused on where the Spirit is leading during this time.
President John Pistole of Anderson University in Indiana reports that this has been a semester of paying close attention to key information, advisories, and executive orders. He and his team are continually monitoring data from the World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control, US State Department, the White House, and the Indiana’s Governor’s Office. As the pandemic grew, Cook had to adjust to seventeen different executive orders from Oregon’s governor. Dr. David Hoag, president of Warner University in Florida, began utilizing daily video messages to keep his community up to speed with the rapidly changing plans and shifts.
Mid-America Christian University’s president, Dr. John Fozard, quickly realized that they were needing to shift all academic courses to 100-percent online. This Oklahoma-based school found that the move to fully online delivery was smoother than anticipated. Cook commented that their greatest concern was about ensuring student success. Access to technologies, support, and Internet service is not equally shared by all students. The other presidents agreed. Thousands of students across these schools began using the computer platforms preferred by each university. The reception has been encouraging.
Faculty and staff at these schools also began shifting to a work-from-home model by mid-March. The learning curve was steep for everyone at the movement’s four colleges. What was known and practiced was being applied, to what was unknown, in rapid response.
The urban nature of all the church schools required attention appropriate for each locale. Warner Pacific’s residential demographic required the school to find creative means for providing socially distanced housing and services for about 50 percent of the student population. These students had no better place to safely quarantine than on the Portland campus. The shutdown scenarios were similar at Anderson, Mid-America Christian, and Warner. Only a few international students and essential employees remain on these campuses today.
Although a disappointment for seniors, each school decided to postpone or rearrange their commencement. Warner University is attempting a modified virtual graduation ceremony on the original calendared day. The other three schools are planning postponed commencements in either August, October, or December. Each school, however, will record a student’s degree in their computer file once it is completed. This will allow graduates to show their coursework and degree completed to future employers, even in the unknowns of this time.
The Movement’s schools are reporting stable enrollments and budgets. The unknowns, however, do weigh heavy for the summer and fall. Each president seeks prayers from the wider church for wisdom, safety, and success. President Pistole often calls it “praying DEWS; seeking discernment, encouragement, wisdom, and strength.” These leaders are asking the Church of God to pray that students will find the support and resources needed for completing their educational goals. They also invite prayers for recruitment and fundraising efforts, both needed to exceed original goals and meet each school’s mission.
Church of God universities have collectively served over three hundred years as educational beacons for Christ. Presidents Cook, Fozard, Hoag, and Pistole are God’s servants during this pandemic. They all know the Holy Spirit is their guide. Their experiences also remind them there is hope through Christ in the unknowns of this world.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Hayes has served on ministry leadership teams in Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He recently completed eighteen years of service on the ministry faculty at Warner University and provides leadership to a new ministry, the Way of Compassion. He resides in Winter Haven, Florida, with his wife Karen.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.