By Alexis Barnhart

Cultivating Resilience during Back-to-School Season

Sighted: An InterVarsity campus minister practically dancing down a campus sidewalk while singing for all to hear, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Students are returning, contact cards are whizzing through the air, dorms are stormed, time evaporates, and new students flood our psyches as we run on coffee, no sleep, and Jesus. This is, in fact, what we campus ministers and student leaders live for. Well, actually, that’s not the full truth.

 New Student Outreach (NSO) is certainly a critical time of campus ministry, and there are undeniably wonderful staff and student leaders who adore the season of welcoming new students with every fiber of their being. Full disclosure: I am not one of those staff. You could call me the NSO Grinch. But all humor aside, as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and a devoted introvert, this season of outreach can be overwhelming. If I’m not careful, it can lead to burnout.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited to greet students who I’ve only known over a screen. I’m ready for fellowship again in-person and to meet lovely humans who are moving onto campus for the first time. NSO has its pleasantries.

Nonetheless, I am keenly aware that our bodies have absorbed a gauntlet of grief throughout this traumatic year. And some of us, for the first time since March 2020, are stepping onto campuses that have been closed for over a year. Anyone else feel like we’re swimming in a sea of chaotic emotions? I see you. You’re not alone.

How then, when we are committed to seeing God’s kingdom come on campus, do we enter NSO well? As I ask this alongside you, here are practices and principles that are serving me on the journey:

1. Know Your Why

When searching for a sustainable model for an intense season of ministry, we can learn a lot from Jesus during his three-year ministry of healings, miracles, and incarnational living. At the launch of his ministry, Jesus’ fame was beginning to spread, and crowds were flocking to him for healing. In response, Jesus woke up early to pray. There, his disciples “found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out’” (Mk 1:37–38).

We don’t see the disciples’ responses, but I imagine they might say something like, “Hold up, Jesus! Aren’t you trying to start a movement here? These people are practically begging for your attention!” But no, Jesus knew his why and stuck to it. In prayer and reliance on the Father, Jesus had clarity. He knew who to go to, andhe went.

Amid ice cream socials, ultimate cabbage on the lawn, and back-to-back coffee dates that are bound to leave a caffeine hangover, it’s easy to lose our why. Suddenly, NSO becomes about doing rather than embracing the stranger. Caught up in the dazzling whirlwind, we put ourselves in danger of exhaustion, apathy, and robot-like existence. We say yes to too many commitments and take on responsibilities that could wait until later.

So let’s find a quiet place to pray. To remember our why. To be able to, like Jesus, say no to certain requests for our time because we recognize that, right now, we are invited to love like Jesus through welcome and hospitality.

2. Don’t Go It Alone

As the pandemic continues, and our bodies hold this weariness, it’s good for us to create spaces for belonging. But when we’re honest, our reserves might feel small. I wonder what beauty and hope would come if we were to embrace the worldview of community that Jesus held as we approach NSO. Notice that he didn’t do things all on his own. He woke up early to spend time talking with the Father. He traveled with a group of disciples. He sent them out to share the good news in pairs. Jesus modeled dependence. He didn’t neglect relationships. Rather, he did the opposite: he sought them out. He lived in community. He relied on the Father.

We would do well to do the same. As we launch into NSO, who’s around you? As our Zoom year has shown us, these people may or may not be physically nearby. Do you have a sibling, pastor, or friend from home who would pray with you each morning as you seek to welcome new students? Who do you know on campus who could go with you to an event and meet students? Maybe there’s someone at your church who loves to bake and would savor the opportunity to equip you with brownies to share? Most importantly, let’s guard our time with God and be diligent in prayer.

3. Take Notice, Eat Cake

Remember, this is a season, and seasons end. But, as Newton’s First Law of Motion describes, an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless an external force acts upon it. This is dangerous when we think about NSO. It’s not sustainable to keep running a sprint for a marathon length of time. Something must end our NSO motion if we’re going to avoid burnout and be healthy, whole humans. Something, perhaps, like a party.

Throughout Scripture, God ordains parties. Six of the annual feasts of Israel—Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, and Tabernacles—included rejoicing and eating. These feasts served as reminders of what God had done for the Israelites by creating spaces for reflection and celebration. Having an NSO celebration with your fellow laborers is a time to share stories, cultivate gratitude, and notice God in our midst. Cue the cake!  

My team’s NSO celebration date is marked on my calendar in big colorful letters. As the NSO pace of life picks up, having an ending date is comforting. It lets me know that rest is promised, and the rush of planning is only temporary. It also reminds me that whatever happens between now and then, whether the harvest is plentiful or falls short of our goals, like the Israelites, we will make space to remember our God.    

For some of us, NSO might never feel like the most wonderful time of year. That’s okay. We should name it and embrace others along the way. Let’s hold to the basics: pray, show up, and see what God does, trusting that he “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).


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