Lynn Gill calls it “the big gaping hole” of InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty ministry (GFM), the 16,000 graduate students at the University of Southern California (USC) who are un-served by InterVarsity or any other campus ministry. As the only area director in GFM’s western region, supervising the other four GFM staff in the region, Lynn offers USC as one example of the opportunities available for GFM in the region.
“That’s been one of my prayers for eight years now,” she said. “Who’s going to come to USC? With 16,000 grad students, that’s more than a lot of campuses have of undergrads.”
Lynn thinks of a USC grad student she once met who dropped out of school because there was no one to support and encourage her. “People can thrive, if there’s a community for them,” she said. But Christians attending grad school don’t always find community, and grad studies can become a difficult and lonely existence. “The local church doesn’t always know what to do with grad students,” Lynn added.
Undergrad ministry connects
When Lynn was a junior at the University of Rochester she felt an emptiness in her life. She had friends involved in InterVarsity who invited her to a Bible study. “I could see all the people in the room had some sort of hope and joy that I didn’t have, and I wanted that,” she remembered.
She had grown up in a church and thought she was a Christian, but she realized it was time to be honest with God. “I said ‘God, I don’t know if you consider me a Christian or not at this point, but I want to follow you with all of my life.’ That was for me the transition point.”
The next year Lynn was leading her own Bible study group. After completing a double major in Chemistry and English, she enrolled in graduate school at Purdue and found a fellow student who had been involved in an InterVarsity grad chapter at Ohio State. They started meeting together for prayer and Bible study, and by the end of the year their group had grown to seven.
Launching a grad fellowship
Lynn and others in the prayer and Bible study spent a week at Cedar Campus that summer and returned to Purdue with a vision for starting a grad fellowship. Lynn remained active in the fellowship for the next four years, leading small groups and serving as the small group coordinator, while she completed work on her PhD in analytical chemistry.
“I think I was so passionate about small groups because that was how I had come to know Christ,” she said. But the fact that many of the other grad students were in the chemistry program, a little farther along than she was, was also helpful, because they could encourage her with specific information about her program. “They helped me stick it out in grad school,” she said. “It was a community where I could grow spiritually, learn to serve others, share my faith with non-Christians and to learn how to integrate my faith and discipline.”
Lynn worked in the Pharmaceutical industry for awhile, volunteering with InterVarsity in her spare time. But when her husband entered grad school at North Carolina State to work on a mechanical engineering degree, she had an opportunity to get more involved in campus ministry. “I felt God was saying, ‘Take a step of faith. Do the fund-raising, and I will provide.’”
Joining InterVarsity staff
God did provide. Lynn worked with grad students at North Carolina State for three years and then moved to Albuquerque eight years ago, where she now lives with her family. She was given responsibility for four grad chapters at schools in southern California (later expanded to seven) and became an itinerant campus minister. “I would be out for ten days at a time, going from San Diego to Santa Barbara and hitting everything in between where we had grad student ministries,” she said.
She enjoyed being an itinerant staff member. The fellowship at the University of California—San Diego tripled in size to 50 during her time with them. Many people observed that itinerating was similar to the type of work done in the early days of InterVarsity, when staff were few and campus fellowships were quickly growing in number.
But as much as she enjoyed working on campus, Lynn realized that the biggest need in the region was an administrator who could hire more staff to work on more campuses. So she became area director two years ago.
Lynn has counted 330,000 grad students and 95,000 faculty on the 100 larger campuses who are not served by any campus ministry. Finding the right staff to work with grad students and faculty at all of these schools will be a long process. The “big gaping hole” at USC may not even be one of the first openings filled. Existing GFM chapters in Berkeley, San Diego, and elsewhere are currently unsupported by staff. In the west region there are a total of 17 GFM chapters. Only four schools have GFM staff.
“It’s a wide open opportunity. If we’re living out InterVarsity’s vision we need to be at these schools,” Lynn concluded.