Equipped to Serve: Bethel Celebrates Commencement Online

As Bethel adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by holding its first online commencement celebrations, President Jay Barnes told graduates they leave ready to “engage the world’s most challenging problems to God’s glory and our neighbors’ good.” And an emotional Barnes noted that he’s a “fellow graduate” this year as he will retire in a few weeks.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

May 27, 2020 | 11 a.m.

Bethel President Jay Barnes

Bethel President Jay Barnes wipes his eyes after filming an online commencement ceremony. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, Bethel held online commencement celebrations. Barnes became emotional while addressing students, and he noted that he is a “fellow graduate” this year as readies to retire in June.

“This feels a little strange,” Bethel President Jay Barnes admitted on camera from an empty Benson Great Hall during Bethel’s first online commencement celebrations. Despite the unexpected format, Barnes told the graduates they are leaving Bethel prepared for their next steps. “The education you’ve received has equipped you to engage the world’s most challenging problems to God’s glory and our neighbors’ good,” he told the graduates.

Normally, Barnes would have addressed graduates just after they processed and just after the last organ notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” finished. But this year, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over an introductory video as graduates participated through YouTube or Facebook Live from their homes—and the celebrations are available to be rewatched now on each platform. Due to COVID-19, Bethel finished the 2020 school year in a virtual instruction learning environment, and health restrictions prohibited large in-person gatherings. Instead, Bethel held six online commencement celebrations May 16, 23, and 24 to recognize 446 graduates from the College of Arts & Sciences, 59 from the College of Adult & Professional Studies, 84 from Bethel Seminary St. Paul, 34 from Bethel Seminary San Diego, and 108 from the Graduate School. Graduates met with faculty from their department or program after the celebration through Google Meet.

The celebrations opened with countdown slideshow featuring written reflections by Bethel 2020 graduates. “God has been faithful in getting us to this day,” wrote Kavan Rogness S’20, who earned a master of divinity. “The road often hasn’t looked anything like I’ve expected, but it’s been a road paved by God. I’m sure in one year, five years, or 10 years we will look back and see God’s continued faithfulness from this day on!” Following the introductory video, the online event progressed much like a traditional commencement. Barnes, in full commencement regalia, encouraged graduates to celebrate despite the uncertainty in the world. “Even though we’re dealing with something entirely unexpected, we want this to be a day of celebration. You deserve it, you worked hard for it, and God has been in it,” Barnes told Bethel Seminary graduates.


Bethel staff work behind the scenes to film Bethel President Jay Barnes during the first-ever online commencement celebration in an empty Benson Great Hall.

Each celebration included reflections from a graduate and a professor. “Know that there’s hope amidst hard things and who we are matters the most. What we do comes after who we are,” said Hannah Johnson ’20, an elementary education, K-6 major and a theatre minor. Rita Lekova CAPS’20, who earned a B.A. in human services, expressed thanks for the support she received from Bethel staff, faculty, and fellow students during her schooling. She also appreciated learning in a group of unique students. “Many students are from different cultures, and we were able to respect each other,” she said. “We were able to see our strong areas and use them for collaborative results.”

Associate Professor of Human Kinetics and Applied Health Science Christopher Carroll described the graduating class as a compassionate and empathetic group of caring people who have striven to invest in students coming behind them. Similarly, Associate Professor of Nursing Julie De Haan described the class of 2020 as a group that cared about each other and faculty, while adding her students are fun-loving and knew how to make the hard work of academics enjoyable. Seminary Professor of New Testament and Director of Online Programs Jeannine Brown said she’s seen profound growth in this year’s graduates, adding that she’s seen them lean into the command to love both God and neighbor.

This year’s College of Arts & Sciences graduates began and ended their Bethel journey in unique times, and they faced seasons in our country that many other classes have not, according to Associate Professor of Journalism and Department Chair Scott Winter, who is also the faculty advisor for Bethel student newspaper The Clarion. This class entered Bethel during the divisive 2016 election and finishes during COVID-19. “They had mentors at Bethel who helped them through some of these big questions and these tough questions, some of these tough times, ” Winter said. As COVID-19 took seniors away from campus, Barnes reflected on the shared experiences that students missed this spring.

We’re deeply sorry for those special events that you missed, but we hope the friendships you made and the things that you learned over your years at Bethel are embedded in your hearts and minds for a lifetime. I want you to know how much we admire you.

— President Jay Barnes
Bethel President Jay Barnes

Cameras are trained on Bethel President Jay Barnes in an empty Benson Great Hall. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, Bethel held its first-ever online commencement celebrations to recognize 2020 graduates from the College of Arts & Sciences, College of Adult & Professional Studies, Graduate School, Bethel Seminary St. Paul, and Bethel Seminary San Diego.

Barnes, too, noted that he’s a fellow graduate this year as he will retire in June. “It has taken me 25 years to complete my time at Bethel, but it has been a good journey!” he told graduates in the College of Adult & Professional Studies and Graduate School. “I am thankful for the friendships I have made, the things I have learned, and the picture of God that has grown bigger in my life as a result of the things that have happened during these years.”

During a heartfelt message to CAS graduates, Barnes’ became emotional at times as he encouraged graduates to make strong daily decisions to guide them to paths that will open doors. “Daily decisions determine direction and destiny,” he said. “Daily decide to use your 20s well. Daily decide to invest in great friends. Daily decide to follow Jesus. Barb and I love you. We’ll be cheering you on. We wish you the best.”

Bethel plans to hold face-to-face commencement ceremonies in August. However, if it becomes clear that in-person events would compromise the safety and wellbeing of our community, the ceremonies will be postponed until December 18 and 19. A final decision about the August commencement ceremonies will be made by July 6.

President Jay and Barb Barnes

After filming finished for Bethel’s online commencement celebrations, President Jay and Barb Barnes embraced as staff present took turns praying for Jay and Barb as they prepare to retire in June after 25 years at Bethel. “It was not at all how anyone expected Jay's final commencement to end, but, at least to me, it felt sacred and special nonetheless,” says Fiona Tranquillo, a project manager in Bethel’s marketing office who helped oversee the filming.


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