As an incoming college freshman at Auburn University, Trace Hamiter was a new Christian believer.
“I needed discipleship; I needed to be connected with a church. And I didn’t get any of that,” Hamiter said. “I hopped around churches and wasted a lot of time.”
However, while working at a camp during college, Hamiter heard about an out-of-state Christian retreat geared toward freshmen.
“Man, that’s exactly what I needed as an incoming freshman — and didn’t have,” Hamiter thought.
After he became a college pastor at First Baptist Church Opelika in 2006, the idea of starting a college retreat for incoming freshmen stayed in his mind.
A different experience
Hamiter wanted others to have a different college experience than he did.
“I believe for the most part, people become in college who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives,” Hamiter said. “That’s why I want to engage them in this moment of their lives.”
In 2012, Hamiter and a group of students started the Oaks Retreat, an annual retreat for incoming Auburn University freshmen.
Two weeks before classes start, freshmen gather to hear the gospel from local pastors, meet like-minded students and peers and get involved in various ministries by attending a ministry fair. Between sessions, freshmen are divided into small groups with student counselors where they hear others’ testimonies and have group discussions. In addition, freshmen enjoy free time and a party that may include tailgating or music.
While about 120 students attended the first two years of the Oaks Retreat, Hamiter said the “third year just really blew up.” As a result, Hamiter created the nonprofit All Things Ministries, which is based on 1 Corinthians 9:20–23.
“We thought we were going to be doing just a lot of different types of ministries in the Auburn area, reaching all kinds of demographics,” Hamiter recalled. “But the Lord had other plans.”
The Oaks Retreat continued to grow and in 2019, Hamiter transitioned from pastor to lead All Things Ministries on a full-time basis. That same year, the ministry launched a new retreat at Troy University.
“The following year, we started up a new retreat at the University of Alabama,” Hamiter said. Since then, the ministry has been launching retreats at two new college campuses per year.
“I wasn’t planning on doing that, but the Lord made it overwhelmingly clear to me by people coming up to me and telling me that the retreat changed their life, or the Oaks Retreat was a significant turning point for them.
“I realized if freshmen needed it at Auburn, freshmen need it at any other school as well,” Hamiter concluded.
Today, All Things Ministries holds nine different student-led retreats on college campuses in the Southeast, in addition to international student retreats. This year, 1,657 people attended the retreats with the help of 690 upperclassmen leaders and 180 ministry partners.
More than ‘just an event’
Although All Things Ministries’ retreats are once a year and only last for three days, they aren’t meant to be a fleeting college memory.
“We never wanted to be just an event,” Hamiter said. “We tell all our students that … it’s never really been about those few days together.”
Instead, it’s about the entire freshman year, which includes the student leaders following up with freshmen, being present in their lives, discipling them and making sure they get connected to a church.
Because of this, counselors are required to stay local during the fall semester so they can grab lunch with their freshmen or offer them a ride to church. The goal isn’t for the retreats to be a popular short-term event but a long-term investment of discipleship.
“The goal for us is to continue to impact the lives of more and more college students before they even step foot on campus,” Hamiter said, “and then subsequently to have a deeper impact on more and more college towns and more campus communities.”
Additionally, by partnering with local churches and ministries, the retreats aim to create more unity in communities.
“We’ve seen churches and ministries collaborate and get to know each other more and serve alongside each other through these retreats in really healthy ways,” Hamiter said. “You can talk about unity all day long, but until you’re truly collaborating together, like co-laboring alongside each other, then you’ll never get unity.”
A kingdom impact
Because All Things Ministries’ retreats occur ahead of the school year, they have helped change the trajectory of many freshmen’s lives.
Instead of freshmen walking into a new environment and making decisions they normally wouldn’t due to feeling alone or scared, they realize they have Christ-minded community around them.
“Now, when [freshmen] get to campus, they’ve learned from upperclassmen that are living for Jesus, and they realize that you really can live for Christ in college,” Hamiter said.
Evan* is one of thousands who has been impacted by All Things Ministries.
Growing up, he’d been forced to go to church — and he hated it. He would ask his mom, “How do you even know God is real?”
His mom, a strong believer, would always say, “There’s just a peace that surpasses all understanding.”
Not having this peace, Evan hated that answer. He wanted something concrete instead.
He begrudgingly came to the Oaks Retreat because his mom signed him up. He said he was thinking, “OK, this my last Christian thing I have to do. Because I’m going to be out of the house, I won’t ever have to do this again.”
Underwhelmed, Evan planned to make some friends and “ignore the Christian stuff.”
But during the second night, he had to leave the retreat’s party because he was wrestling so much with the Lord. He needed to talk with God in the quiet of his room.
After much struggle that night, he surrendered his heart to the Lord.
“I woke up the next morning, and the only way that I can describe it is that I had a peace that surpassed all understanding,” Evan said.
The young man has continued to follow Christ and became a counselor, sharing his testimony with other freshmen.
*Name changed for privacy.