COLUMBUS — To Rick Jenkins, Columbus looks a lot like South and Central America.
Not culturally speaking, but spiritually.
That’s because for the past nearly quarter century he and his wife, Cindy, have served in student ministry throughout that region of the world ranging from Mexico to the southern tip of Argentina.
Those 23 years with the International Mission Board – the last three in Panama – came to an abrupt end earlier this year as nearly a thousand missionaries from around the world opted in to accept enhanced severance packages. A total of 983 missionaries accepted the Voluntary Retirement Incentive, as it was called, in the agency’s largest downsizing in its history.
It was an unexpected end to a very rewarding ministry but the couple felt it was all in God’s timing. As it turned out, the timing was perfect.
Jenkins was a student strategy leader for South and Central America, based in Panama with Cindy. On June 1 he will make the natural transition as director of the Baptist Campus Ministry (BCM) at Columbus State University.
It could not be a better fit, he says.
Georgia Baptist ‘through and through’
Jenkins has been on his new mission field for a couple of months while being mentored by outgoing director Tony Gray, who begins his new ministry at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville. The Marietta native describes himself as a Georgian – and Georgia Baptist – through and through.
“I was born in Marietta while my parents worked at Lockheed, accepted Christ at Roswell Street Baptist Church under the ministry of Nelson Price, and was later ordained there. I eventually served as a summer youth minister at Piedmont Baptist Church in Noonday Association,” he says.
Jenkins met his wife, who was from Epworth, through the Baptist Student Union (now BCM) while they were students at North Georgia State College and University (now the University of North Georgia). In a storybook manner, he was president and she was the missions chairman.
They later attended Southwestern Seminary and following graduation he served as a student minister in Cleveland, TN. The couple now have three grown children – Patrick, Derrick, and Callie – all living in Chattanooga.
Natural relationship with Georgia Baptist student ministers
While with the IMB Jenkins connected U.S. churches and campus ministers with missions opportunities throughout his region. A natural professional relationship with Georgia Baptist Mission Board state missionary Joe Graham – who oversees Collegiate Missions – and Georgia BCM campus ministers provided insight into the state’s student ministry network.
That’s when the IMB downsizing reshaped his future and Graham approached him to see if he would be interested in the Columbus State position.
“I have always had a lifelong calling to work with students in the field of evangelism, discipleship, and missions. Those areas are so important to young people as they form their lifelong direction. If you start off good, you will end up good,” he explains.
“Cindy and I had no idea where we would end up after accepting the retirement package. But this position in Columbus was just a natural fit from God, an extension of my life’s calling,” he explains.
Jenkins is an only child so the move to Georgia was good for his parents, as well.
“My parents had not only let my wife and I leave them to serve overseas for 23 years, but they gave up regularly seeing their grandchildren, as well. Their willing sacrifice is a real testimony to their faith.”
His parents – Charles and Bonnie Jenkins – are active members at First Baptist Church of Blairsville.
At the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, Jenkins served as a student minister and catalytic missionary, meaning he trained students to start churches. His was a daunting task, he readily admits, since there were 750,000 students scattered among multiple campuses and there was only one of him.
‘God raised up student leaders’
“The work was overwhelming when we arrived but God raised up student leaders to assume the responsibility among the campuses, thus extending our ministry. In time it became natural for them to use the knowledge in their hometowns – how to plant churches among their friends and families and neighbors – that they were refining in the university setting,” he explains.
And that, he says, is why Columbus looks strikingly similar to what he was doing south of the border.
“I’m just applying what I learned on the international mission field to this mission field in Georgia. The principles are largely the same, just the culture is a little different.”
Jenkins’ primary focus is on affinity groups; building outreach to students clustered around a personal hobby or interest, such as gaming, military, sports, or arts or an academic discipline. He is breaking down the massive student body of about 8,200 into far smaller, more manageable groups.
“I talked to a gamer recently about how to reach that group and began to make some headway, though slow. I’ve got to admit, that’s a tough one; how to reach people for Christ who are focused on playing games on a smartphone, tablet, or other computer.
“But one day out there somewhere, something will happen in their life and they will start hunting for the deep answers to life’s hard questions. I want to be there to help provide the right answers.”
Jenkins is convinced BCM is the way to reach today’s students before they become tomorrow’s leaders.
BCM: An extension of the local church
“I know that not all students will seek out a local church on their own when they set foot on campus and, in return, many churches do not have a strong collegiate community. I understand that it’s tough for a church-based youth minister to meet all the needs of a student from junior or senior high school and all through the college years. It’s just spreading one individual too thin.
“BCM can help with that and create that sense of community that students need … and are seeking … on campus.”
While providing a safe spiritual environment through the BCM, the BCM also provides a ministry to the local churches through coordinating ministry on campus.
“We work with churches to coordinate their ministry with other churches and to present a united ministry. The BCM has cultivated a strong trust with the CSU Administration to allow campus events to proceed unabated.”
Building on a strong past for an even stronger future
For example, many universities will not allow a church to have free access on campus but doors open when they have the endorsement of the BCM. Outgoing campus minister Tony Gray worked hard to build relationships with the administration and respect their policies and guidelines. For example, a local church was allowed to distribute chicken biscuits on campus to build visibility for their ministry. A second church signed up for Breakfast at Midnight, when pancakes were served for 300 dorm students during final exams.
“I give credit to Tony for building the foundation on which I can enlarge the ministry even further,” Jenkins says.
The campus minister says he appreciates that BCM “is not a para-church organization but is an extension of every Baptist church in the state. When a church 100 miles or so away sends their student to Columbus State, they have a direct connection with the BCM.”