Q&A: Laurel Bunker

Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker shares her vision for a thriving spiritual life on Bethel’s campus, and how she approaches caring for the staff, faculty, and students—of all ages—who call themselves Royals.

By Monique Kleinhuizen '08, GS'16, new media strategist

October 10, 2018 | 2 p.m.

Q&A: Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker

Laurel Bunker, Campus Pastor and Vice President and Dean for Christian Formation and Church Relations

For many students, Bethel isn’t just a school...it’s also their spiritual home during some of the most formative years of their life. Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker leads a team of pastors and student leaders who are passionate about creating intentional environments for spiritual growth, helping students navigate their college years, and holding a high view of Scripture while staying in the center of tough cultural conversations. We sat down with Pastor Laurel to hear her heart for the younger generation, and ways adults can affirm young people in their gifts and calling.

What first made you decide to come to Bethel, and what do you love most about this community?

I was really the 11th-hour candidate for this role! I was working at the Jeremiah Program, right here in the Twin Cities, and I was told by a good friend, Leon Rodrigues (former Chief Diversity Officer at Bethel), about the role. I said to my husband “the job of a lifetime might be open,” but it was already down to the final candidates. But Leon encouraged me, I applied under the wire, interviewed, and the rest moved really quickly. My favorite thing about my job, hands down, is working with students. They’re so hungry to understand who God is, even in the midst of a really complex culture, a complex world, and complex lives. It’s amazing getting to work with them every day.

Who's on your team, and what is a day like in your role?

I love my team! It’s one of the things I love most about Bethel. Matt Runion S’03 oversees missions; Paul Kong ’04, S’13 oversees our Sankofa trip and discipleship; Donna Johnson oversees Pray First and discipleship initiatives like our freshman floor Bible studies, and our upperclass groups, Rooted and Mighty Men. Jason Steffenhagen ‘09, S’17 oversees worship arts, including creative elements for Chapel and Vespers. Jackie Batres Bonilla oversees our student ministers and is my direct assistant. It’s a really diverse team...probably one of the most diverse teams on the campus. And that makes us excited in terms of how we can impact the campus and serve the church more fully.

For me, each day is a combination of administrative work, a lot of face-to-face work with students, leading spiritual conversations for our wider community, going through emails, and writing for various Christian organizations. I’m usually up late. It’s fast-paced. Coffee is a necessity, food is not always a given. But there’s always lots of laughter! I try to make every person feel as though they have my undivided attention. It’s a big job, but I feel like God has prepared me well for it.

What would you tell parents about their students' spiritual development?

Over the 10 years I’ve been here, and the 25 years I’ve been working with youth, there’s this rabid individualism that’s crept into how we talk about Christ and how students experience Him. We have a lot of work to do together for students to understand why faith matters. Sometimes it breaks parents’ hearts when they can’t address the pains their kids are in.

But my team and I have chosen to do this work as a profession. We’re academics, theologians, crazy youth pastors, and also parents, and we find great joy in being able to wrestle with students about issues that matter. We value the foundation parents have laid (and parents, be gracious with yourselves when you wonder if you’ve done enough)! The best thing you can do is to model a pursuit of Christ. Continue to grow in your own faith, and they’ll follow suit.

What encourages you, and what concerns you most about our students and this generation?

What encourages me most about Gen Z-ers (and I have two at home!) is their voracious appetite to see the world as God sees it. Respected researchers say that young people are leaving the church, but I don’t see that at all. I see them saying ‘let’s change the church. Let’s speak truth in love and in power. Why haven’t we been trusted with power?’ These kids don’t have the same hang-ups that we had, and in a lot of ways, they’re more able to put aside alliances and differences to bring about change.

Things that concern me are that they can be very self-focused and self-interested. They can have a difficult time discerning truth from relativism. And they can be impulsive and hyper-critical of themselves, their parents, and authority. I have to remind them, sometimes, that authority is a biblical concept! There’s also a lot of depression and anxiety. Suicide seems to be more of a consistent choice than ever before, and that’s deeply concerning.

Young people tend to question their own worth and their own value. They are growing up in a world where violence, sexual brokenness, and fear are normalized. America is the largest exporter of pornography in the world, and then we wonder why there’s so much violence and why marriages fall apart. We can’t have it both ways in this country. As much as we try to shield young people from these realities, they have been exposed to a steady dose of confusion from our culture. The good news is that we can do something about it. It thrills me sometimes that our kids are so willing to ask the hard questions and say, “These are our lives, and we want to live them better than we’ve seen them modeled. We want to change the world around us and impact it for Christ.”

How can parents help?

Be able to articulate why you believe in Christ beyond what your child might see as predictable. Beyond your denomination and your upbringing...why do you believe? Keep a healthy curiosity and stay on a quest for truth that goes beyond “the Bible says so.”

And remember, if your child’s in a place of doubt or struggle, they’re not necessarily seeking to abandon their faith. They may be trying to live out a more robust faith! So don’t give in to fear. Ask for resources. Stop by our office. God knows and loves your child more than you do, which seems absurd to say. But He’s big and robust enough—and in love with us enough—to make Himself known. Be inquisitive, ask questions, be honest with your child about what you’re wrestling with. Be genuine.

Your team has been restructured recently. What’s your vision for your next chapter of ministry at Bethel?

Our good friend and colleague Dr. Ralph Gustafson retired from his role as Executive Minister of Church Relations. When he retired, I thought, “I want to continue this amazing legacy.” I’m on campus all the time but also in churches dozens of times a year, and I think we have a great opportunity to be a bridge between this generation and the wider church. Bethel can serve the church with great events and resources for pastors, but can also help the church understand and listen to this generation, to how much they want to be reconcilers.

There’s this great book, You Lost Me, about why young people are leaving the church. I think, in a lot of ways, it’s because they’re not being asked to the table. They don’t want to just lead a worship team or work in the nursery. They want to lead small groups. They want to preach! Bethel’s a place that prepares students well. And we have an incredible opportunity—as the church, as a nation, as an institution—to link arms and to prepare the next generation to be leaders with great integrity and capacity to impact others for good.

What's changed in the time you've been at Bethel? What's stayed the same?

One constant has been the integrity of President Jay Barnes as our leader. I owe a great deal to that man, especially as a woman of color, to be able to step into this role and be successful. He has freed me to be able to explore what preaching, teaching, and sharing the gospel on behalf of Bethel looks like. I’m grateful for the consistency and hard work of Provost Deb Harless and the other Bethel leaders who’ve helped this community to thrive.

What’s changed? Ha! Pretty much everything else. Students’ perspectives have changed, for sure. There’s more stress, more fear, more anxiety that pulls them away from community instead of drawing them in. Our financial picture has changed, just as it has across all of higher education. Our diversity has changed, for the better. Our incoming class this fall has 17.2% students of color. This place more closely reflects the body of Christ, and I think that’s made us more courageous about having difficult conversations about things that matter. For some, that’s unnerving! But we can’t “address the world’s toughest problems, to God’s glory and our neighbors’ good” without talking about tough things.

We’re standing, and we’re standing firm—we’re refraining from doomsday mentalities and having courage, like Christ had courage. We try to keep a high view of Scripture, but also a high view of humanity and the need it has for Jesus. We have some of the best, most godly leaders at this institution that I have seen in a long time...and it gives me hope.

How can parents stay in contact?

Find out more about my Christian Formation and Church Relations team, and reach out to our pastors and ministry team directly if you have questions or if you’re not sure how to talk to your student. Come to Family Weekend, where my team will be leading a few workshops. And all our worship services are open to the public and recorded, so check out Chapel on Vimeo and iTunes. It’s a great way to stay in touch with the conversations students are having on campus. And we’d love to see you on campus sometime!