Speaking Jesus over the student experience

by | Nov 30, 2023

Shawn Holtgren ’95, ’97, Ph.D., and Julie Beam, Ph.D., have been leading the Student Development office together for 13 years. This summer, Holtgren’s role shifted from vice president for student development to vice president for spiritual life & university affairs while Beam was promoted from dean of students to vice president for student development & success. We sat down to discuss these changes and what they mean for the student experience.

Q: How have your roles shifted since this change?


Julie: This move allows each of us to strategically focus on areas of the university experience that deserve primary attention and investment – for Shawn that area is spiritual formation; for me, that area is student success and linking various student support services from residence life to counseling to international students to academic support.

Q: Why is it important to include “spiritual life” in a vice-presidential title?


Shawn: Dr. Bellefeuille is committed to maintaining – and even strengthening – our Christ-centered focus at Bethel. While this requires a team of committed faculty and staff, it is helpful to have a dedicated person focused on this goal, keeping it central in all we do. Of course, we desire to help students develop holistically, and we want students to be prepared for successful, God-honoring careers; however, we are also committed to helping them prepare for an eternity with God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Q: How is Student Life creating an environment of spiritual development on campus?


Shawn: Lord willing, we create a spiritually rich environment on campus as we listen, pray and plan in big and small ways. This includes our chapel services, midweek small discipleship groups, spiritual mentoring relationships and planned and spontaneous experiences across campus that focus on God and bringing about His Kingdom here at Bethel as it is in heaven.

Q: When you think about this year’s theme of “Speak Jesus” – are there any examples that come to mind of student discipleship or life transformation?


Julie: I think there is a growing authenticity among many in our student body that is evidence of students listening for the Lord. I think John Njihia’s song, “MOSAIC (I Have Decided),” provides a great summary of how many students are experiencing our world. At the same time, it weaves an old hymn into this experience, highlighting the beautiful contrast of a rooted life when we choose to let God lead. I’m listening to this song on repeat now.

Q: What are some new initiatives and changes you are implementing?


Shawn: We have implemented a campus-wide definition of a disciple (of Jesus): One who knows Jesus, is becoming like Jesus, and is on mission with Jesus. We are also focused on identifying various stages of faith of our students so we can purposely help them take their next steps in their faith journey. One of the ways we’ve done this is by creating various levels of engagement for our midweek small groups: 1) Come and SEE, 2) Come and ENGAGE and 3) Come and PRACTICE. Then, based on [these variables], we have created a new discipleship grid for our midweek small group topics/gatherings.

Q: How is discipling this generation of students different and/or more challenging than that of previous generations?


Julie: Our students have grown up in a culture of outrage and division. They especially need us to demonstrate the fruit of the spirit that gives testimony to a life led by God (in contrast to the loud, frenetic world).

Shawn: Generally speaking, this generation is more distracted and overwhelmed than previous generations. Their reality has been deeply impacted by technology, social media and a pandemic. However, like all generations, authentic relationships matter. And where trust can be built and genuine love can be shown, deep relationships can be forged, faith can grow and spiritual maturity can occur. We see this happening every year.

Q: What personal experiences or life lessons during your Bethel experience have helped you grow in your own faith?


Julie: Nothing compares to the experience of God’s love washed over you through His people. During these years at Bethel, I’ve been shaped by so many people who spoke Jesus to me and received Him from my care as well. Most recently for me, I think of one year ago, when I’d received a cancer diagnosis. I could see the valley in front of me, with unknown depth and width. On my last day of work before beginning treatment, I experienced a tidal wave of His love washing over me from prayers offered, cards written, and hugs given by His people at Bethel. I had this clear sense from the Lord that He was defining that valley for me by the giant-sized wave of His love filling it up.

Shawn: My relationship with Christ and overall spiritual maturity was deeply impacted by the staff and faculty mentors who invested in me during my time at Bethel. I connected with several godly men during my student years who were approachable, wise and encouraging as I sought to understand God, the Bible and my identity as a child of God.

Q: How can we reach students where they are to help them grow in their faith?


Julie: We can reach them by helping them find and value community with other believers so that they are intentional and discerning about the voices they are inviting into their lives, and demonstrating what wholeness in Christ looks like – not being perfect but embracing humility, commitment and honesty with the Lord, ourselves and others.

Every year God blesses Bethel with a new class of incoming students. The best way to reach them is to know them, love them and commit to investing in them. And the best way to do that is often in one-on-one and small group relationships where trust is built and real-life conversations can occur. This is why Bethel invests a great deal of time and resources in our discipleship groups and spiritual mentoring relationships.