Stronger Together: MBU’s Response to COVID-19
Most world-altering events culminate in a single moment, and people can recall exactly where they were when they heard about it. COVID-19 was different. The first time most Americans heard about it, they were, perhaps, mildly concerned, but certainly not greatly alarmed, since it seemed to be contained on another continent. But as the virus crept closer, panic ensued, and the nation shut down almost overnight.
Full Crisis Mode: Change and Flexibility
The effect on MBU was swift. The most difficult option turned out to be the only viable one: all classes and events would have to be cancelled for the foreseeable future. The choice was simple, but the decision was excruciating. Only by pulling together could the MBU family ever survive the crisis. And pull together they did.
Campus was a frenzy of last-minute activity and intense emotion after the March 16 announcement that campus life would not be resuming after spring break. Everyone gradually realized what it all meant. There would be no musical in April. No Chamber Singers choir tour. No national championship. No baseball or softball season. No traditional commencement ceremony. No summer ministry trips. And no assurance that the end was in sight.
Graduate Margaret McMenamin (’20) says, “I felt numb and bewildered. I threw myself into my preparations of things I had to do: pack all my belongings, prepare for white glove, complete the week’s assignments, make travel arrangements, and say goodbyes.”
MBU administrators recognized the gravity of the situation. Much was at stake. “Lord, this is your school,” President Marty Marriott immediately prayed. “You have sustained us for more than fifty years without any large gifts, endowment, or other resources. We are looking to You to supply the needs of our students, faculty, staff, and the university itself.”
MBU took quick and decisive action. Executive Vice President Matt Davis assembled the Campus Health Task Force, including experts and personnel from across campus. This dedicated group worked tirelessly to research the novel virus and offer their input for campus safety.
Faculty and staff also felt the strain, expressed by Associate Professor Jennifer Meinhardt. “I found myself filled with grief,” she laments. “My students and I had developed such a community within the classroom. The thought of losing that was overwhelming.”
Guided by Vice President of Academic Affairs William Licht as well as their department heads, MBU faculty worked hard over spring break to transition all instruction to online or virtual format and to modify their deadlines to help students succeed.
Some teachers felt that meeting virtually during scheduled class times would help students adjust, while others decided that meeting only periodically would allow students more time to meet deadlines and deal with the challenges in their new environments.
Senior Tyler Juvinall shares one of those challenges: “Without outside motivating factors, such as a start time to a class or an in-class test, we had to instantly become self-motivated.” But students rose to the challenges, and the semester was completed with very few casualties.
Prepared for Crisis: God’s Sovereign Care
No one could have foreseen the events of 2020, the year that many joked would be one of crystal-clear vision. But in hindsight, God’s sovereign preparation of the MBU family for a crisis like COVID-19 is crystal clear.
For example, He provided an executive vice president who, among other things, is an experienced lawyer, competent to read and respond to complicated legal documents, which appeared in rapid succession during the crisis. Because of Dr. Davis’ expertise, clear thinking, and vibrant leadership, MBU reacted to the emergency quickly and wisely.
In addition, throughout Dr. Marriott’s tenure as president, God has impressed on him the need for expansion and innovation through online learning. Dr. Marriott’s vision and tenacity has kept MBU on the cutting-edge of technology and pedagogy for distance education, laying the groundwork for a nearly seamless transition during the 2020 spring semester.
Because of his progressive approach, most MBU faculty members now have years of experience teaching online classes. Associate Professor Nathan Huffstutler remarks, “The sudden transition from in-class to virtual format wasn’t that much of a challenge. Maranatha has provided amazing tools for us as faculty.”
Many students were also already familiar with online class formats, having completed dual credit or college courses through MBU even before coming to campus. Those facing challenges found the faculty and staff readily available and willing to help them navigate the balance of the semester.
Learning from Crisis: Looking Back, Moving Forward
Is hindsight 20/20? Maybe not always, but Paul indicates that God’s people ought to study the past recorded in Scripture in order to learn from it (Rom. 15:4). What eternal good can we see now through this crisis?
For one thing, the faith of the MBU family has been tested and strengthened. Huffstutler says, “I was impressed by the character of our students. They showed diligence in an extremely trying situation. I’m proud of them.” History Professor Michael Zwolanek says, “I was encouraged to hear how my students were relying on God’s goodness, protection, and sovereignty.”
In addition, God has been glorified. Reflecting on the crisis, MBU CFO Don Donovan says, “God has been faithful. While we may encounter unexpected and unprecedented circumstances, God is never surprised or unprepared, and He has a good plan for us.” According to Donovan, God’s financial provision for the university included generous gifts from friends of Maranatha as well as access to funds from the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program. By carefully allocating these extra funds, MBU was able to maintain full staffing through the spring semester as well as assist students who otherwise would not have been able to return to campus.
MBU is even stronger today than when the pandemic hit. But continued innovation and creativity will be essential. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world. Acknowledging the changes and thinking progressively will allow MBU to accomplish the goal without compromising the mission.
Amy Herbster is the wife of Mark Herbster, Dean of the MBU College of Bible and Church Ministries and Seminary. They traveled together with their family itinerant ministry for seventeen years before coming to Maranatha. Amy now works part-time as a nurse in the MBU Student Health Center while also homeschooling their two youngest daughters. This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 Maranatha Advantage.