Virtual Commencements Bring Pomp for Unusual Circumstances - Word&Way

Virtual Commencements Bring Pomp for Unusual Circumstances

The month of May typically brings smiling crowds decked out in caps and gowns to celebrate their accomplishment of earning a degree they’ve worked years to earn. But with the coronavirus pandemic canceling mass gatherings across the country, graduates found their climatic moment in front of their friends and families suddenly upended. Like church services over the past couple months, many of these ceremonies moved to a virtual format.

As of May 21, more than 5.1 million people globally have been infected with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 332,000 have died. In the U.S., the nation with the most infections and deaths, more than 1.6 million people have tested positive and 96,000 have died.

“While not what I expected for my D.Min. graduation, I had a great weekend,” Ka’thy Gore Chappel told Word&Way after her virtual graduation from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. “The seminary did a good job of communicating and had asked for graduates to submit photos of private hooding ceremonies. It was gratifying to see some of those posted on Facebook.”

Chappel, who serves as the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry of North Carolina, said she was disappointed the background for the ceremony on screen wasn’t as attractive as she hoped her graduation would be in person. But she expressed her appreciation for the faculty and staff for the ceremony and her education at CBTS. And she felt overall “the quality of the ceremony was excellent” as she watched along from halfway across the country.

Robert Johnson

Screengrab of Robert Johnson welcoming graduates and others to Central Baptist Theological Seminary’s 2020 virtual commencement ceremony.

Robert Johnson, CBTS’s interim president, noted during the ceremony it was the first time the school didn’t gather in person for commencement. He added that while graduates may be “very disappointed by this turn of events,” he stressed their “unique” position in the school’s history as the largest graduating class — 75 — and the first with a virtual ceremony. And beyond a virtual commencement, the graduating class is the first at CBTS to complete most of their education online.

“Following all applicable safe distancing protocols, we were able to keep faculty, staff, students, graduates, and their families and friends safe while celebrating student achievements and honoring their hard work and persistence,” Johnson told Word&Way after the ceremony. “I am proud of Central’s faculty, productions staff, and especially its graduating students.”

“In 2016, Central initiated revised educational programs that highlighted offering our educational curricula fully online,” Johnson added. “Faculty entered into a multiyear process that trained them for effectiveness in online education.  That learning process continues even today.  This year’s graduates constitute the first class to complete most if not all of their education online. The unexpected fact that the pandemic highlighted the value of what they had learned in a remarkable way is something we can celebrate.

Like many other schools inviting this year’s graduates to participate in a later ceremony, CBTS told 2020 graduates they can participate in next year’s ceremonies if such an in-person gathering is allowed.

In addition to virtual ceremonies by Baptist colleges and seminaries across the country, some schools have worked to find other ways to make this unusual graduation moment seem special. Samuel “Dub” Oliver, president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, filmed a personalized two-minute video to each of the 595 graduates. The videos were emailed and texted to students on May 16, the original date for Union’s commencement, which has been postponed to June 20.

Union President Dub Oliver

Union University President Dub Oliver records one of 595 personal messages of congratulations sent to Union graduates. (Kristi Woody/Baptist Press)

“I wanted to do this as a way to encourage the class of 2020 who has had to miss so much, and to pray for and bless each of them individually,” Oliver said. “It seemed to me that this project, which many people helped with, is one that demonstrates [Union’s] core values in a very tangible way.”

Dallas Baptist University in Texas held a drive-through commencement with staff and faculty lining the streets on campus as graduating seniors drove through like a parade.

“It broke my heart to think about not being able to celebrate with our graduates this May, so we decided to hold this parade on campus,” said DBU President Adam Wright. “Our prayer is that the students will not only feel loved and celebrated but also challenged to go out into the world and serve and love others.”

At Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, worship ministry professors Angela and Matthew Swain visited the homes of their department’s graduates to celebrate, while socially distant, on the lawns of graduates.

Matthew Swain

Matthew Swain, associate professor of worship ministries at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, visits the home of MBTS graduate Travis Black to confer a master of divinity degree in worship ministries while maintaining social distancing measures. (Baptist Press)

“We couldn’t keep ourselves from finding a way to minister to them by bringing the joy and celebration to their doorstep,” Matthew Swain said. “We are so proud of their achievements, but we are also honored that the Lord allowed us the joy of serving them — passing along the torch of ministry and, in today’s case, passing off some yummy desserts, lots of smiles, and an admonition to persevere in joy!”

While virtual commencements may not be what this year’s graduates imagined before this year, it signals the changed world into which they’re entering. And for many seminary graduates, they might now move from participating in a virtual commencement to leading virtual worship.