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Connecting Students with God’s Work—in Their Own Lives and in the World

Meet Matt Runion S’03, a Bethel University campus pastor and associate dean of Christian formation and church relations. He’s served the Bethel community for 20 years—but he’s never had a year quite like the last one, when COVID-19 forced some significant changes in how Bethel provides spiritual formation opportunities for students.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

January 07, 2021 | 11 a.m.

Matt Runion

Matt Runion S’03, Associate Dean of Christian Formation and Church Relations

Pastor Matt Runion’s ministry call is to connect students with God's work around the world. From training and sending numerous spring break mission teams to supporting discipleship initiatives on campus, he sees God at work everywhere—around the world and close to home. He’s also seen significant changes recently, both in the structure of Bethel’s Christian formation team and in the way they do ministry in light of the ongoing challenges of COVID-19.

Tell us a little about your current role and responsibilities.

As one of the campus pastors, my primary responsibilities are in areas of global engagement. I serve Bethel by connecting students with what God is doing around the world (including in their own lives!) I have the privilege of directly overseeing our missions program, which is primarily sending teams out over spring break and working with mission agencies and denominations like Converge to introduce students to longer-term cross-cultural ministry work. I also have the opportunity to support international students in the College of Arts & Sciences—helping them personally and with their student visa compliance. Additionally, I provide leadership to our team in the Office of Christian Formation and Church Relations.

What does a typical day look like for you in your role?

A typical day usually includes communicating and meeting with students or staff—which can be pastoral counseling, training spring break team leaders, mentoring, discipling, or supervision with campus pastors. I also meet with student life committees and connect with mission agencies and spring break ministry partners, local churches, and campus ministries. I’m involved with Chapel every week, and I’m often around in the evenings for student government events or other activities. My role is to serve alongside staff and spend time with students. 

What is the mission of the Office of Christian Formation and Church Relations? It was recently restructured—can you tell us what those changes mean for students and others you serve?

 

The mission of the Office of Christian Formation and Church Relations (CFCR) is to equip the Bethel community to live lives of transformation as we grow together into the image of Christ. In CFCR, we are seeking to promote faith formation for Bethel students and everyone in their proximity. So that brings us primarily to developing opportunities for students to directly engage in activities here on campus that promote the process of faith formation, asking hard questions, and wrestling to make their faith their own. We do that through small groups, prayer initiatives, the Cultural Connection Center, mission partnerships, and engaging the local church.

We’ve recently come into closer partnership with the Cultural Connection Center with Assistant Campus Pastor Paul Kong providing significant leadership in that educational and social space. Faith formation sometimes takes on a different form for students of color and others who seek to grow in their intercultural engagement. We’re working with the Holy Spirit to help all students find meaningful ways to grow in their relationship with Christ.

We’ve also added church relations to our ministry portfolio. Primarily through Pastor Laurel Bunker’s direct engagement, we are honored to take the lead in growing and deepening Bethel’s relationship with local churches and the church worldwide [Bunker serves as Bethel’s Vice President of Christian Formation and Church Relations].

How has the pandemic altered what CFCR does, especially in the areas of Chapel, spring break mission trips, and student spiritual formation?

I heard someone say, “The pandemic magnifies everything.” We’ve certainly found that to be true. With Chapel, for example, it caused us to ask big questions about its purpose (when we couldn’t gather in the spring) and the needs of students (when seeing them physically was so much less frequent). Our team pivoted within a week in March from an in-person gathering three times a week to four specialized pieces of digital content. These podcasts included interviews and new material produced and published entirely within our team of five full-time staff. On a weekly basis, we published ten different pieces and pushed them out into social media for students, faculty, and staff to continue to engage their faith formation. Some of it was pandemic-related, some of it was directly connected to the racial tensions exposed in our country, and some of it was generally geared toward growth in discipleship in Christ.

This fall, through an enhanced partnership with Benson Great Hall staff, we live-streamed every Chapel service—three programs each week. Chapel was shortened because of changes in class schedules, but we were pleased to host an in-person, socially distanced audience as well as broadcast to an online audience who could either view it in real time or take in the content at their convenience. For Interim 2021, we are shifting back to the full digital publishing approach and we look forward to seeing fruit from that again. We anticipate spring to look very similar to this past fall semester.

Other ministries such as discipleship have, of course, been affected by the COVID-19 guidelines on campus. Shift [a residence hall discipleship group for first-year students], for example, continued with their weekly gatherings, but those were held in the campus buildings—not on residence hall floors.

Five spring break teams are currently fully formed and preparing to serve at U.S.-only sites. We’re working closely with our ministry partners to protect both host communities and Bethel students. It’s creating many additional layers of planning and protocols, but we are so pleased (at least for now) to be preparing students to learn, to serve, and to build relationships in some amazing communities where God is at work!

What do you like most about serving the Bethel community?

Bethel University is a place like no other. “Community” is a common term used in and around Bethel. And this summer and fall proved a great illustration of the real value this place has for community. It’s not just empty words. Dozens of staff and faculty worked extra hours through the summer to create protocols that would literally allow us to be together this fall. And the community stepped up with the stuff of their lives, deciding every day to do whatever it took to stay together. So much was inconvenient. So much was strange and unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But we were together. COVID-19 will undoubtedly change a lot of things. But Bethel’s fabric is indelibly marked by Christ-like community. That, I am convinced, will not change.

Bethel's Office of Christian Formation and Church Relations

Becoming more like Christ engages our hearts and our minds. It challenges our assumptions and exposes us to the complexities in ourselves, our relationships, and our world. At Bethel, we work on life transformation as a community, pushing and encouraging each other along the way, supported by our Christian formation and church relations team.

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