Looking back and going forward: an update on the change and the pandemic effect on our ministries

Updated: May 18

As believers we should not live under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, but in the shadow of the Almighty God whom we serve. Our challenge to-date has not been the declining numbers of international students or seeing the students we are working with graduate and leave. Rather, the challenge has been in waiting on the Lord - quietly listening and seeking wisdom for the present and the future. When we see the activities we relied on to engage with international students halted, and Bible studies and activities we used to build responsive students declining, can we say that we really understand God’s purposes? No, we can’t - but we are not alone in this. What we can say is that the initial novelty of moving ministry online has worn off. We have craved face-to-face meetings with those God had called us to minister amongst, but who have been prevented from returning to our campuses, and our regular relied upon activities have been rendered ineffective.


Wow! It’s been a challenge being a missionary and not being able to go and engage with those one believes one has been called to, and sent amongst. These two years of pandemic have shown us a lot, but now we have the prospect of the New Zealand border reopening and international student numbers returning. The question we must face is this: what have we learned in the interim that might contribute to us being better missionaries in this context in the future? We need to look back and learn as we move forward.


What we have learnt in the past two years

Three clear areas of learning stand-out and have led to a pandemic sharpened focus:

  1. The value of a disciple-making focus

  2. The value of working in post-academic transitions: re-entry to home and transitioning to work in New Zealand

  3. The value of review and rethinking how we will approach ministries in the future.

Disciple-making is at the heart of our work and relies on commitment to care and nurture new believers as they become life-long followers of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2 v7,8). The pandemic sharpened that focus with small groups and one-to-one engagement our main activities and events. These have often occurred online, and this has helped us grow our skills in using online mediums. Having only a few new students has also benefitted our existing relationships and disciple-making.


The two-year gap in new student flow has freed up time and attention to support current students as they’ve grown, graduated and left. In the gap, we have been able to give more attention to assisting graduates move to the next stage of life - often helping them to find work here in New Zealand or in preparing them to re-enter their home countries and adjust to work and life there. Becoming more adept in the online space has assisted the support, encouragement and inclusion we have been able to provide. Many of our online Bible groups have encouraged graduates in their post-academic transition to work and life beyond study. Where needed, resources have been found and developed to assist our graduates in this transition and especially in finding work.


This time of pause has led us to review and reflect on the past and the future. It has not only been us who have done so, but the whole of the international education sector. Fortunately, the international education sector went through a significant process of reflection and review just before the pandemic hit, and came up with a future strategy or direction of travel for the sector: https://enz.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/International-Education-Strategy-2018-2030.pdf.

This strategy, with only a few minor adjustments was fit for purpose and has become a guiding document for the reset of international education in New Zealand.



Areas of improvement needed in International Education

One outcome of this review in the international education sector is a focus on areas for improvement. Of special interest are opportunities for connecting with international students and contributing to their living and learning support experiences. Education NZ, https://enz.govt.nz/, has a student experience team working with the sector to help improve the experience of future international students. Community groups and services play an important part in assisting good international student experience. Our local ISMNZ communities can easily connect within local initiatives and contribute to the well-being and experience of international students so it is important to build on good relationships within education providers.


Over the course of the pandemic, small cohorts of international students have been allowed into New Zealand. Along with students yet to finish or those engaging in further study, there are only a few thousand international students (between 10,000 and 20,000) still studying in New Zealand. However, a cohort of 5,000 new international students is to come for the second half of this year (https://enz.govt.nz/cohort-4) and from October, international students will be able to apply to study here. Policy intentions are to increase the flow of international students and for there to be significant intakes in 2023. Some of these new students will already have begun their studies online.


Photo: Students arrive. The Conversation: Covid Halved international student Numbers… 1 Feb 2022.



Changes on which international students will return


Good news! International students are returning but with some policy modifications in place around choice of courses. The main modifications relate to the strategy for resetting international education in New Zealand. Three principles in particular stand out:

  1. A focus on recruiting “higher value” international students. Essentially, favouring those who are doing higher standard and longer duration courses that align with New Zealand’s longer term settlement goals and labour migration thinking.

  2. Discernment in terms of the countries that students are recruited from. This includes favouring students from visa waiver countries and placing a premium on students coming for higher value courses. Contextualising our ministries to fit will be important.

  3. Improving the international student experience is an area of growth for education providers. It includes education experience, living experiences and wider engagement in the New Zealand community.


“Higher value” refers not just to the fees that a student pays or the money that they spend in New Zealand while studying. It also refers to courses of study that have the potential to contribute to New Zealand’s labour needs longer term should the student stay on in New Zealand. Contribution to the knowledge economy and to building good relationships with New Zealand and New Zealanders are also included in this. In other words, “higher value” should include an ongoing contribution to New Zealand in terms of international relationships as well as labour and trade.


What does this mean for ISMNZ?


What emerges is that ISMNZ initiatives should at a local level seek ways of supporting the needs of education providers in providing support for their international students and contribute to the lives of international students in ways that align with the reset of international education. Of great value is that preference for longer and “higher value” courses results in a longer time for building relationships and involvement in disciplemaking events and activities.


Some of our activities particularly relational activities already contribute to this e.g., News Watch, International Friendship events, English corners, camps, BBQs, outdoors activities, bus trips to tourism spots and student experience activities, such as birthday parties, mountain trips and farmstays. Such activities are well received by education providers. However, it is important we fit into the context in which we minister and are part of the welcomes and extra events offered by ethnic community initiatives and regional international education groups. It’s about being an “insider” rather than an add-on when it comes to early contact with international students and gives us the opportunity to meet the new students and reduces the need for contact events and activities.


In all of this, it’s important to remember that our vision, mission and values have at their heart working amongst international students and influencing them to become lifelong followers of Jesus in the communities they go to beyond their campus experience. To do so our activities need to be amongst the international students and alongside them as they journey through the international student experience and beyond. We need to be involved with students over a significant period of their lives. Our vision if it is to succeed has implications:

  1. To lay down a foundation for vision realisation we engage in appropriate quality disciple-making that establishes and equips the students in their life journey with the Lord.

  2. We need to journey with students through their student learning and living transitions. And we prepare them for and if able journey with them through their post-academic transition, thus assisting in equipping and enabling them to be life-long followers of Jesus.

  3. As we review and rethink our activities, there is a need to call others to join us: workers, volunteers, churches, friends at various levels of involvement. Our review and rethink leads us to ask for prayers for labourers and the means for supporting them and the work they engage in. Prayer, finances and workers are foundational to implementing all that flows from prayerful review and rethinking.


What does this mean for individual ministry workers?


So, what am I doing? Well, I am involved with ISMNZ in Palmerston North and Wellington mainly, but occasionally elsewhere. I am actively seeking to be part of community initiatives in Wellington and Palmerston North to welcome new students and enhance their experience. I am doing so in connection with our ministry teams in each place, but I am also seeking for the wider church to contribute people who can engage positively with international students and enhance their experience. This could include providing homestays, hosting international students or offering friendship. It could also include providing volunteers or supporting ISMNZ initiatives through prayer and/or financial support. The reset encourages us to continue doing the things we do well but also to seek to try new things and improve on what we do. It also highlights the need for us to receive direction from the Lord rather than to assume direction or even to tell God how we want it to be without aligning to His purposes and leading.


The question we are left with is this: what will we do when international student numbers again rise to be over 100,000? This could likely happen over the next year or 2. Consider prayerfully what your part might be and what you could do to enhance this mission to the nations of the world, in and through the nations that come to us.



We are preparing for the new students coming in and are inviting others to join with us in whatever ways they can. Please do consider how you can assist us – maybe prayer, finances or joining our volunteers in some capacity.


Further enquiries to Terry McGrath, terry@ism.org.nz 0276033562.


Terry McGrath

Acting ISMNZ staff leader for Wellington

Consultant and Massey Postgraduate Ministry, ISMNZ


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