BCM leaders help students face challenges of college

Time management. Homesickness. Depression. Debt. Spreading yourself too thin.

College students can be up against a lot of challenges.

But the leaders of Baptist Campus Ministries around the state say they’re ready to help students navigate what many experts call life’s most critical years.

“In almost 40 years of working with college students and those who minister to students, I’ve never seen a more difficult and challenging ministry opportunity than today’s college campus missions field,” said Mike Nuss, director of collegiate and student ministries for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “Alabama Baptists have strategically placed God-called, specially trained and equipped men and women on campuses across our state for a time such as this.”

Nuss asked for Christians across Alabama to add the state’s campus ministers to their prayer lists alongside missionaries around the world. They are “at work every day to reach, disciple and mobilize college students here in Alabama,” he said.

What are some of the biggest struggles those campus missionaries see in students’ lives?

1. Knowing who they are.

It’s not a new problem, Craig Hawkins said, but it’s still a big one.

“The biggest challenge for college students is the biggest challenge for everyone — knowing who you are and why you’re here,” said Hawkins, Baptist campus minister at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Birmingham-Southern College.

Follow Jesus

He said he sees that challenge mirrored in a marketing slogan UAB uses — “Knowledge that will change your world.”

“Students today have a desire to change the world, to matter,” Hawkins said. “And they have a need to know who they are. At UAB they seek to become someone by gaining knowledge.”

His best advice to them is to find themselves in Jesus, he said.

“In following Jesus, they find the best, most accurate answer to who they are — they are a new creation in Christ. And they find the answer to why they are here — they are created in Him to do good works,” he said.

When Hawkins ministers to students, he focuses on the basics of discipleship — relating to God through worship, prayer and Bible study.

“When a person does this they can learn from Jesus Himself the specifics of what they should do to face all the other daily struggles and challenges,” he said. “They also have the power and desire to lead others to Jesus so that more can face this same challenge.”

2. Feeling overwhelmed.

The collegiate setting itself can be overwhelming to a student, said Jerrod Brown, a campus minister with Metro Mobile Baptist Campus Ministries. It demands their time, focus, academic performance and money — not to mention facing massive amounts of temptation, he said.

“This overwhelms students as they seek to manage time, the expectations of others, financial and academic obligations, and the pressure of the world to conform, all the while bearing the spiritual fruit of faithfulness,” he said.

“It is difficult for students to walk faithfully while anything and everything is clamoring for their attention and commitment.”

Submit to God

His advice? Put Jesus first.

“All that is expected of you or required of you should be secondary to abiding in Christ, submitting to God and walking in the Spirit,” Brown said. “Through this dependent relationship with God, the student will discover fruitfulness, purposefulness and the vibrant life of God in all areas of their life. The first step in dealing with the overwhelming demands of college is to give them up for Jesus. You live in Him and for Him. The rest is simply secondary to Him.”

3. Managing their time.

Students have dozens of things tugging at them — there’s no denying that.

But some students believe they are the busiest people on the planet when in fact they have more free time than they realize — they just don’t know how to manage it well, said Kim Andrews, a Baptist campus minister at the University of Alabama.

“Lack of perceived time can prevent students from considering ministry opportunities on campus and during breaks,” she said.

Ryan Brooks, who serves with Andrews, said he knows many students who struggle with saying “no.”

“I try to help students process what commitments are going to really matter in the long run, what commitments they want to be known for in a few years,” he said, noting that he spends time mentoring students in how to choose where they invest their time.

Beth Gardner, Baptist campus minister for the University of South Alabama in Mobile, agreed. She said one area that can suffer quickly is a student’s personal devotional time.

“Sometimes when we get overwhelmed with managing our lives, we neglect our time spent with God,” she said. “The truth is that we make time for what is important to us. When our lives seem out of control, we need to stop and ask ourselves if we are daily submitting our lives to God and allowing Him to be in control.”

Students have to prioritize their relationships and other opportunities in a way that lets them accomplish everything that’s required of them.

“Sometimes you have to turn down an opportunity to hang out with friends in order to study and that’s not always easy to do,” Gardner said. “Taking a break to check social media can easily turn into a 45-minute or longer ‘break.’”

For those who struggle to stay focused on the “have tos,” she recommends setting a timer when taking a break. For those who have the opposite struggle, she reminds them to build in time for self care — to spend some time over the weekends doing things they enjoy.

But overall, all three campus ministers agree — students have to learn to get their “have tos” done so that they can feel freer to invest in their relationship with God and in relationships on their campus for the sake of the gospel.

4. Facing anxiety or depression.

Because of all the demands placed on them, students sometimes have feelings of inadequacy. And sometimes in the midst of that, they struggle with anxiety and depression, according to Stephen Thompson, senior Baptist campus minister at Auburn University.

Alone time with God

“Any advice I offer comes from a holistic approach,” he said.

First and foremost, he talks to them about the importance of their spiritual well-being — prioritizing consistent alone time with God through Scripture and prayer.

After that, “we talk through coping strategies of dealing with stress, time management and financial management,” Thompson said. “We talk through the need for open, forthright communication with parents, professors and employers.”

And when it’s appropriate, he recommends making an appointment to talk with their family physician about the cause of their anxiety and depression from a physical point of view. In those cases, he encourages them to be open to the possibility of chemical imbalances and the need for medication.

“Finally, I assess their need to see a mental health professional or counselor,” Thompson said.

Andrews said she sees the need for that sort of holistic advice on her campus too. She quoted a statistic from Brookhaven Retreat, a women’s recovery center — one in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness.

“These mental health issues can paralyze a student’s ability to make wise decisions especially in critical moments,” she said.

When talking with a student struggling with something like that, Andrews said she asks them to consider these questions:

  • What does the Bible say about this particular issue?
  • Is professional counseling required?
  • What are some practical steps and goals to overcoming this issue? “This includes helping them look at the issue they’re facing and coming up with an action plan to deal with it,” Andrews said.

5. Applying their faith to everyday life situations.

Another problem Andrews said she sees is that students often come to college without a sound biblical foundation.

When that happens, they “will allow all aspects of culture to shape their worldview,” she said. “I have students who fail to fully understand the gospel and the freedom we have in Christ. They minimize sin by indulging in sinful behaviors or feeding addictions, or they attempt to earn God’s approval by doing ‘good’ things.”

Willie Alexander, Baptist campus minister at Alabama A&M University and Calhoun Community College in Decatur, said he sees a similar struggle among the students he serves.

“The challenge for students is to apply their faith to everyday life situations,” Alexander said. “Their faith seems to be inactive in their lives when facing difficulties. I remind students that your faith is not demonstrated by words. It’s demonstrated by the way you live and respond during difficult experiences.”

6. Dealing with apathy.

But before students can get their faith to affect their worldview and their choices, they have to care. That’s a struggle that Jacob Freeman, a Baptist campus minister at the University of Montevallo, said he encounters on a regular basis. “Probably one of the biggest challenges facing our students is apathy,” he said. “Entertainment is so readily accessible that we can have our attention captured at all moments, day and night. We often find things like cell phones, Netflix and video games fulfilling, at least to the point where it becomes ‘enough’ to get us by.”

It’s so simple to plug in electronics and unplug from real life, Freeman said.

“It’s true that these devices aren’t necessarily evil in and of themselves,” he said. “However, when we allow them to create in us apathetic hearts and lazy hands, and we neglect the call of God to be present and active in reality, they turn into destructive idols.”

Freeman said he sees students putting a lot of effort into things that don’t matter and little effort into the things that matter greatly.

“My advice to students is the classic answer to all questions about faith — commune with God through prayer, Scripture and a local body of believers,” he said. “Ask God to deliver you from idolatry and addiction. Let the word of God mold your desires and capture your attention. Be involved in the real lives of those in your church. These three areas will help guide our hearts, minds and feet onto a productive pathway, one with eternal significance.”