The Fruit of Partnership: CCO & First Presbyterian Church of Orlando

When the University of Central Florida began construction in 2017 to open a downtown Orlando campus, the leaders of First Presbyterian Church were energized by the opportunity to reach college students with the love of Jesus Christ. There were only two problems. They didn’t have a specific ministry to college students and no one on their staff knew how to train a college minister. 

The church heard about CCO through their denominational network (EPC) and began conversations about the prospect of partnership. They were excited but this was a new experience for FPC Orlando.

“We don’t have partnerships like this,” said Bret Allen, FPC’s Minister of Family Life. “We’re a big church with resources and that means that we usually just hire people to our staff team.”

As FPCO learned more about the CCO, a deep sense of alignment emerged around whole-life discipleship and preparing college students to faithfully serve Christ in both the church and society.

By the summer of 2019, CCO staff member Jonathan Wagner was called as FPCO’s Director of College Ministry and tasked with pioneering a new ministry to the more than 7,000 students present on the brand new campus of UCF. For Jonathan, the immediate focus of the new position was reaching college students with the gospel and connecting them to the life of the church, with a long-term goal of becoming a sending hub for other college ministers.

But then, just six months into that first academic year, everything came to a screeching halt due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jonathan and his emerging College Ministry Team (CMT) of church volunteers pressed on, focusing on the basics: relational ministryBible study, and small discipleship groups, using both virtual gatherings and smaller, in-person meetings once they were permitted to do so.

Things began to turn the corner in the summer of 2021 as church members started hosting fellowship meals in their homes for students and a few CCO students began to serve as Interns in FPC’s youth ministry. At the same time, Jonathan and student leaders were cultivating a healthy relationship with the campus, eventually becoming a recognized student organization.

For the 2021-22 academic year, Jonathan was joined by Emily Gaskins, a recent Clemson grad with a huge heart for college ministry. Emily came to FPC as part of the Orlando Fellows program, not knowing anything about the CCO. When Bret encouraged her to consider working in college ministry as the vocational focus of her fellowship year, she jumped at the chance and became a CCO Associate.

“I was really unsure of what campus ministry would entail at first, but I found it really fun to do life with students who are very different from me and from one another,” says Emily. “And I really came to love and appreciate Jonathan’s way of doing discipleship.”

Emily discovered that she loved opening the Scriptures with students each week. “It doesn’t really matter where they came from or what they grew up believing, it’s just been so refreshing to sit under God’s Word and process together how it both challenges and comforts us. I’m constantly reminding them that we’re not supposed to be able to read this and remain unchanged.” 

Jonathan was incredibly excited about the gifts and skills Emily brought to their ministry team as she led a total of 10 women in two different discipleship groups. “Multiple students have said that being a part of this discipleship group under Emily’s care has been the highlight of their year. What an affirmation of her call to ministry, to hear these women say ‘God is moving through you in my life!’”

The fruitfulness of the ministry led FPC to establish a second CCO staff position so Emily could continue in this work full-time, beginning in June 2022.

The long-term goal of becoming a hub for the formation and commissioning of other college ministers is beginning to come to fruition. With Jonathan, Emily, an incoming CCO Fellow, and potentially another Orlando Fellow, all working with students during the 2022-23 academic year, there’s an incredibly diverse and strong team beginning to take shape.

“I think there’s a lot of value in being a part of a team,” says Jonathan. “I think I’ve longed for that in different seasons of my time in the CCO—just the joy of celebrating victories and the comfort of suffering losses together. I’m excited that we’re starting to build that here.” 

Emily is overjoyed to be able to devote herself to ministry full-time and tap into parts of the work, like new student outreach, that she didn’t have the capacity to engage in this past year.

“I’m excited to make a deep commitment to this place, out of love for Christ and love for college students. I want them to know Jesus and to experience real community, finding security in the Lord and feeling ready to branch out and share Jesus with their friends.” Current ministry plans for next year involve deepening her existing relationships with the tennis team and a sorority house near campus. 

The senior leaders at FPC Orlando continue to be greatly encouraged by the partnership.

“This partnership has been so seamless, I don’t know how it could be better, to be honest,” says Bret. “Partnering with the CCO and working every day with Jonathan and now Emily has helped us become less selfish and more Kingdom-minded. We’re reaching and growing with a very ethnically and culturally diverse group of college students thanks to their leadership, which is shaped by the training provided by the CCO. Most of all, we’re learning a lot about how we can more fully participate in Jesus’ mission when no one cares who gets the credit.