With Duke University’s move to remote learning during the spread of the coronavirus, Duke Divinity School has had to transition more than just classes and field education to online formats. To serve students engaged in the intense formational work of becoming preachers and Christian leaders, the school has also had to find ways to continue pastoral care, spiritual formation, and worship in remote formats.
During the first week after Duke Divinity School resumed classes on March 16, Divinity School staff and faculty contacted every student, and staff are continuing to reach out to offer support and prayers. Said Chaplain Meghan Benson, “We’re trying to have individual points of contacts with every single student to check in, to ask them if they have the resources they need for classes and their personal wellbeing. We want to find out where our students are and make those connections.”
In addition, the school launched an internal student support website with resources on mental health, spiritual care, food insecurity, financial resources, and more. (In addition, Duke University opened a Duke Student Assistance Fund to assist students with unexpected and extraordinary expenses related to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Spiritual Formation Groups
Spiritual formation groups, an integral part of the M.Div. program that places first-year students into small groups led by a local pastor to share concerns, reflect theologically, and pray together, are continuing to meet regularly via Zoom.
“I led a kind of urgent Zoom training after we got the news,” said Benson. “Several of our leaders had never used Zoom at all, and they were surprised by how nice it was.”
“I think the first time we met, people were just so relieved to see each other,” said Cherrie Barton Henry, a spiritual formation group leader and associate pastor for congregational care and mission at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C. She said it was interesting to see glimpses of students’ home environments through the online conferencing application, and that the meetings have provided a way to break up students’ days and find another way to connect with each other.
“We’ve started out each time with our group just asking, ‘What signs of courage and faith have you experienced in the last week, and what challenges and struggles are you having?’,” she said. “That’s been really great to be able to do in these circumstances. I think it’s helped us to know what’s going on with them at least in a cursory way.”
The Divinity School has hosted a daily prayer service at 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on Zoom, led by faculty and staff. Preachers so far have included Professors Sujin Pak, Will Willimon, Charles Campbell, Jerusha Neal, and Ross Wagner, as well as staff from a variety of departments.
“The services are pretty simple and not very long,” said Benson. “We’ve had a variety of leadership and styles of prayer, and we’ve been trying to give space for individual lament and intercessions, while also disciplining ourselves to name places of joy and gratitude. The services include scripture, prayers, and often some kind of music.”
During the services, worship leaders are also taking advantage of the chat feature in Zoom to call for participation.
“I have felt that the daily prayer service is a gift—it feels really lovely to connect with one another each day. We are sharing our burdens with one another, interceding on behalf of the church and the world, and the regular rhythm injects some structure into the week,” said Benson.
In addition to the mid-day services, the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies (AEHS) has been hosting a daily 7:45 a.m. weekday prayer via Zoom.
Micah Latimer-Dennis, an M.Div. student, has been participating in the AEHS morning prayer. “There are the challenges you’d expect—faulty connections, accidental mutings—but there are also unexpected blessings,” he said. “I love seeing spouses, roommates, and pets at the Anglican Episcopal House's morning prayer.”