“Campus life.” For many in the Concordia Seminary campus community, this phrase is evocative of Student Association annual events like Oktoberfest or Springfest, the Seminary Women’s Association’s field day or the women’s retreat, campus activities such as intramurals and the annual Laudamus choir tours.
What happened at Concordia Seminary ... a place where community is fostered and formation is central?
“Campus life” also conjures community gatherings like after chapel coffee, Friday night BBQs in the Woods (where married students live) and bonfires in front of the single-student dorms.
A quick look at the Seminary’s “Campus Life” website menu gives an overview of what life together has meant, and still means, to people on campus and to those who have come and gone from the Seminary to their places of ministry. Yet, as 2020 draws to a close — the year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and the sickness, restrictions and fear that have come with it — that drop-down menu seems more like campus life-less:
Congregations that “closed” across the country converted their services, Bible studies and devotions to online formats. Schools that “closed” moved classes to virtual platforms. Almost everyone everywhere had to adapt as they adjusted to a new normal to stay safe and keep others safe from the deadly virus that has killed over a million people in less than a year since it was discovered.
But what happened at Concordia Seminary — a place for not only learning and teaching, but a place where community is fostered and formation is central? While the Seminary shifted to online learning in the spring for all programs and harbored students in dorms and families in apartment buildings, the daily rhythms of life seemed to almost stop. Yet, spring turned into summer, and new students and families arrived. Then came fall and a new school year started — with a 55% increase in residential Master of Divinity (M.Div.) enrollment over last year! — and students are now in the midst of their fall semester classes.
So what does “campus life” mean now? What will it mean to the hundreds of students and their families, and to faculty and staff when they look back on 2020 and ask, “How did we live?”
Returning M.Div. student Nick Wagenknecht said he is trying to adjust. “The whole social distancing thing is tough, especially because I am a very extroverted person,” he said. “Social interaction is what keeps me going. Not being able to play intramurals — that’s hard. I know many people are missing that.”
New students like Adam Tanney are adjusting to the strangeness. “Community has really suffered,” he said. “Even at the start of summer Greek, we were split up into two groups and didn’t really have contact between sections at all.”
Students aren’t the only ones struggling. Students’ families — their spouses and children — have faced changes, adjustments and cancellations as well. “We are all straining right now,” noted Katie Nafzger, the Seminary’s women’s coordinator who oversees the Seminary Women’s Association (SWA) and the Families in Transition (FIT) team. “People are still not sure what they can do, what they should do. We have to think about how to do things differently, and it takes a little more time, a little more effort. What can we do that’s feasible? We can’t just say, ‘Let’s all meet in the field on this night.’ Now we have to think about how to connect people. Do they sign up? How do we obey all the rules? There’s a lot more logistical planning.”
Things are being done to overcome obstacles and cultivate community.
The challenges of the pandemic can become overwhelming, but Saleska said, as Christians and as a Lutheran theological graduate school, those in the campus community need to look beyond the trying times to the hope on the horizon. “What blessings are we overlooking?” he asked.
Looking around campus, there are indeed blessings and signs of life, he said. Things are being done to overcome obstacles and cultivate community, which is so vital to making the Seminary the special place it is.
Student Association (SA) President Mason Vieth, a fourth-year student, said he was overjoyed when daily chapel services resumed in the summer after being halted for months in the spring. “Many other things have been changed so drastically, other things canceled, but this one thing, the core thing that makes the Seminary community function, is still happening,” he said. The SA also has made efforts to put together activities that, while adhering to the physical distancing and face covering regulations, are encouraging community building and fellowship, such as virtual Prof ’n Stein events and a block party on campus this fall in which students signed up to attend in shifts to minimize large gatherings.
Similar efforts are being put forth by the SWA and FIT team to provide for the needs of the women on campus. “I remember what it felt like to move here our first year, going to events feeling alone,” reflected Courtney Koll, the 2020–21 SWA president, as she remembered her own transition to the Seminary when her husband, Quincy, began as a new M.Div. student in 2017. “I didn’t know anybody while it seemed everyone else knew everybody. I can imagine how hard it is to be here for your first year and to meet everyone on Zoom.”
Already this fall, SWA and FIT have provided in-person classes for the women on campus with a “Zoom-in” option. They also hosted a “Wine and Cheese at Home” event that was 100% virtual, providing a time for the women to meet each other without masks and to “break-out” into “small groups” through some of the Zoom features, in order to get to know each other better. “It’s important that the women who would like to meet online will have opportunities to do so, and the women who would like to meet in person will have opportunities to do so,” Koll said.
Although the fall semester began with in-person classes, all programs converted to online-only instruction after the Thanksgiving holiday. For the faculty, Saleska explained how important it was to have the students together for most of the fall and the formational groups that, while having to adapt, were still able to function for students.
Interim President Dr. Daniel Preus said the Seminary’s leadership team decided that residential students should return to campus for the beginning of the fall semester. “In-person is always better and we were confident that having classes this fall would be a more favored course by both students and professors,” he said. This in-person aspect of education, Preus emphasized, is especially important for our students because of the ministry of presence that is vital to spiritual care, a ministry that began with the Son of God who put on human flesh and dwelt among society — in person.
The Seminary, because of ample space available on campus, was able to have students properly spaced apart. “Students were at the recommended distance, and with face masks, we maintained a safe environment,” Saleska said. “For example, my Psalms class met in the Presidents Room! Normally, I’d never do that,” said Saleska about the large, wood-paneled room that is typically reserved for larger events. “Other people were meeting in places that are not normally classrooms, but it worked. I think that was all positive.”
But as coronavirus numbers spiked nationwide in November, and local restrictions were put in place, the Seminary moved all classes online for the remainder of the semester and encouraged students to stay at home, if possible, and not return to campus. “We recognize that is not ideal by any means,” Preus said. “But this is a necessary step to safeguard the health of our entire community.” Even so, many campus activities such as Student Association-sponsored online events and chapel services were kept in place to help continue the spirit of community for those students who remain on campus as well as for those participating virtually.
All of these efforts to bring community to the campus are not lost on the students. Returning Deaconess Studies student Sarah Rusche appreciates the measures that have been taken. “I see the responsibility and care the administration has taken to keep everyone on campus healthy and comfortable,” she said. “Striking a balance between safety and community can be difficult. This reinforces for us our Christian duty of service to others in this time of uncertainty and hopelessness in the world around us.”
Life together certainly is happening at Concordia Seminary, albeit a little differently these days. Saleska points to Scripture and the hope Christ offers as a sustaining message for everyone: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. So we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:7–9, 16 ESV).
“We are to build one another up in that gospel.”
– Mason Vieth
Vieth said he is thankful for all events and activities offered. “I hope we will be creating spaces and places for people to come with their burdens, their joys — that our events will intentionally center on the fact that we’re here in the Seminary community because we are grounded in the Gospel,” he said.
“We need to have that be our rally cry, to focus on what is good, what is right and not lose hope,” Nafzger added. “That’s hard when things are uncertain and you’re scared or you’re being told you should be scared. We are trying to help everyone see we can still do things together.”
“I think what we have seen in all of this is the resiliency that we have,” Saleska said. “We didn’t just crumble, and we should celebrate that. We kept our mission of teaching and learning at the forefront, and the formation of our future church workers continues in spite of the challenges.”