It was a sunny spring Saturday when I gathered with a group of six graduate students in a cozy living room to plan for the fall. The student leaders were all busy with end-of-semester responsibilities, but eager to see God continue the slow, steady growth in the chapter. Yet the all-consuming demands of grad school nearly sank our NSO plans — until the Holy Spirit did something remarkable over the summer.
Before we started planning, we looked in Scripture at Jesus’ invitation to Peter to step out into deeper water and trust him (Matthew 14:22-33). We also saw Jesus challenge his disciples to cast their nets on the opposite side of the boat which resulted in breaking nets, overflowing with fish (John 21:1-14). Inspired by Scripture, we prayed, did an assessment of the past semester, and dove into our planning and goal-setting for the fall.
The Struggle to Commit
All was going well until we began to solidify plans for New Student Outreach. The group had agreed that it was a critical goal to reach out to incoming grad students on campus. They brainstormed great ideas and settled on several alternatives. But when students were called upon to step up and commit to taking leadership, the room became quiet with an awkward silence. Many were glad to show up and help, but they were all busy preparing for their dissertations, teaching new sections, or comprehensive exams.
Time was running out for our afternoon planning session. As the Area Director, I would not see these students again until the summer was over. As the facilitator for the planning day, I wanted a plan in place for this crucial part of their strategy. We took a break. Ate snacks. More coffee. Chocolate. No change in their outlook.
I had my own opinions about what they should do, but I did not want be the one to make the plan for them. I challenged them to talk among themselves after I left. I wanted them to feel the full weight of their choices. I knew they needed to own whatever decision they made.
Committed to Pray
When I talked to them the following week, they had a plan. They were going to meet weekly during the summer to pray for New Student Outreach and for the new students. I was dismayed. How could this be anything other than an excuse for not stepping up?
Three months later these student ran the biggest New Student Outreach their group had ever led. They were the first option listed for incoming grad students on the university’s grad student welcome week website. They hosted a cookout and served so many students that they ran out of food. They followed up effectively and welcomed a significant incoming group.
How did they get there? What happened? As they prayed, God changed their hearts. Students who felt they did not have the time began to have a deeper heart for new students coming to campus. Faced with their longing for God to work, they confronted their own fears about their academic work. They begged God for a way to honor him with their academic efforts and to give time to the newest students on campus and the fellowship. They made a plan that involved strong collaboration, mutual support and trust in God.
Lessons from the Holy Spirit
I learned a few things about the Holy Spirit’s work in mission that year.
- First, the Holy Spirit often comes when we recognize that we are stuck and beg for help. Because there was no clear way ahead, the students were forced to seek help beyond what they could muster. They moved from being fearful, self-protective and anxious to being others-centered and confident in what they had to offer.
- Second, the Holy Spirit often works by teaching us to love more deeply the people and parts of the creation that God loves. God cultivated a readiness to reach new students not by demanding that they step up, but by growing their heart for others. By the time they had been praying for a few weeks, they no longer had the option to remain aloof because they had absorbed God’s love and care for the newcomers.
- Finally, I learned again that the Holy Spirit is a multiplier. This group of leaders went from a limited plan with no leaders to several events overflowing with guests and an abundance of invitations to extend to others. The fruit of their prayers extended beyond their work with the fellowship on campus to a deeper trust for God’s protection of their faithful work in their academic pursuits.
So, indeed, the nets were full for these students with an abundance they, and I, could never have anticipated before they began to pray.