After leaving behind a 12-year legacy as President and First Lady of Bethel University, Jay and Barb Barnes move onto new adventures.
By Anna Pearson
Hand-carved wooden animal statues from Kenya sit atop a shelf, across the room from colorfully painted Swedish Dala horses and a German cowbell. Evidence of 52 years of travel decorates the home of Jay and Barb Barnes, the former president of Bethel University and his wife, who have a legacy of travels far and wide beyond the Bethel Bubble.
Besides filling their schedules with reading biographies about what God is doing in other people’s lives, renovating their townhouse with their kids and finding spots to display their newest souvenirs from travels, Barnes hasn’t quite left the title of “president” behind. After retiring, they each took up part-time roles with the Christian College Consortium, Barnes as the President and Barb as Assistant to the President.
The CCC is a group of presidents and provosts from 13 colleges and universities across the United States that assist each other in reaching the goals of their respective organizations, as well as lean on other leaders in higher education.
“We’re trying to be like a pastoral couple to those leaders, because sometimes they deal with really challenging issues,” Barnes said. “We always have a time of sharing and prayer together about personal things, family stuff and all that in addition to what’s happening on the campuses.”
While at Bethel under the Barneses leadership, the university honed in on its focus to increase diversity, equity and inclusion as an institution. They invited LGBTQ+ advocate group Soulforce onto campus to have discussions about biblical views of sexuality and gender, navigated vandalism of the Kresge rock, started the BUILD program, became involved with the Act Six program and scholarship and began the Prism LGBTQ+ student group during Barnes’ 12 years as president.
When Barnes became Provost of Bethel in 1995, there was an ongoing partnership between the CCC’s 13 schools and Daystar University in Athi River, Kenya. For every three Bethel students who participated in the exchange program, they could subsidize one Daystar student to study at Bethel. After visiting Daystar for the first time together in 2003, Jay and Barb fell in love with Kenya.
“For me, it was so out of the box and out of my comfort zone,” Barb said. “You come home and go to the faucet and get a glass of water – you can’t do that there. To see similar effects in students who have gone – it’s life changing.”
Since their first trip, Barnes has been back to Kenya 19 times and Barb 15, and have two trips planned next winter in December and February. Their living room is adorned with photos of a leopard, a cheetah and lions taken by Barb on their trips, some from only 15 feet away. When Jay and Barb attended college in the ‘60s, the opportunity to study abroad was rare. In the ‘90s, Bethel had little more than 20 students a year attending study abroad programs other than England term, communication studies’ Europe term or the business department trip – “comfortable trips,” as Barb said – all to western European countries.
They pushed to make Bethel a leader in studying abroad – now, approximately 50% of Bethel undergrad students attend an international education program. After hearing about the budget cut changes to Bethel’s semester-long study abroad programs, Jay and Barb knew that they wanted to contribute to more generations of Bethel students getting the same transformative experiences that they had abroad.
“You see God differently. You see your own country differently. You see the world differently,” Barnes said. “You see yourself differently, because you have to become more confident of your ability to navigate in a situation that’s completely different from how you grew up.”
After giving 25 years of their lives to Bethel, Jay and Barb say they have loved seeing students change from their experiences studying abroad, and wish that every student could have the opportunity.
Fall 2023 is the first semester the Jay and Barb Barnes Global Study Scholarship will be offered to students pursuing Christian semester-long programs in non-traditional international locations. The scholarship requires students to live with a host family or with other students from the host country for at least two weeks. Although they are proud of the work that students do during Interim abroad trips, they say the 14-week experience forces students to become more than just tourists.
In their own experiences with travel, Jay and Barb admire the love and trust in Jesus that they see in Christians all over the world. They’ve visited and eaten dinner with people whose homes have outhouses for bathrooms and no running water – their only source of water being a reservoir shared with animals. Their Daystar student tour guide told them he grew up drinking this water, but if they did, it would probably kill them.
They’ve been told they have cleaner water in our toilet bowls than some of the people they visit will ever have.
“To realize how much those folks love Jesus, how they trust Him for daily provisions in a way that most of us never will – how generous they are with everything they have,” Barnes said. “They are more willing to share than we are willing to share. It’s a rebuke to our greediness.”
As long as their health prevails, they plan on returning to Kenya as many times as possible. The first time that they landed in Amsterdam on their way back to the U.S., Barb nearly kissed the floor – but now she says it’s her happy place.
Regardless, their life in Minnesota goes on.
After moving to a townhouse in February 2020, renovations followed. They tore up the carpet on the main level and worked with their son James to install a new tongue and groove oak floor and replaced the foundation plantings. Barb enjoyed getting into power tools but tore her meniscus on the last day of renovations.
Another change that Jay and Barb took upon themselves was attending a new church. After going to Calvary Church in Roseville for more than 25 years, they discovered Salem Covenant Church on Zoom during the height of COVID-19 quarantine.
At Calvary, they started a Sunday morning group for the “young marrieds” in 1997, and stayed with them as mentors for 24 years – some now have kids at Bethel. The couples have now become some of their closest friends, even attending a trip to Kenya with the Barneses in January.
At Salem, they began a small group called “The Encouragers” for people ages 25-40. Upon joining Salem, the couple found that there was no small group for people of that age group like the one they had at Calvary, so began leading their own, for spiritual growth and developing community.
Continuing to be a pastoral couple in all of their communities is something that the Barneses say they have always held close. Although Jay and Barb say they hold “traditional biblical views” on issues related to sexuality and gender, they strive to emphasize loving others as the main focus of their lives and interactions with their community.
During their time at Bethel, the advocacy group Soulforce was welcomed onto campus to open a space of discussion between themselves and Bethel students and faculty. The Barneses have close family members who are a part of the LGBTQ community, one of whom committed suicide two years ago.
“These discussions are not just theoretical to us, they’re personal,” Barnes said. “We know that no matter what we believe about Biblical teachings, the Biblical teachings about loving people and caring for them are equally clear.”
For all students on campus who have dealt with feeling alone or isolated, they hope that there will always be a place on campus for them to feel welcomed, listened to, loved and respected.
Moving forward, Jay and Barb plan to stay healthy and to travel, continue their work at Salem and the CCC and go on daily four-mile walks. Barb has written a devotional book and plans on giving to their kids. Barnes’ library continues to expand with biographies of people such as Jennifer Doudna, one of the key discoverers of the mRNA vaccine, and the issues she’s dealt with as a woman in science.
Jay and Barb miss daily interactions with students and life on campus – nothing in the “after campus” life is equivalent to it, as Barnes said. They still love Bethel, and will take any opportunity to return to campus for events, such as track meets, donor dinners and more.
“We’re hoping God gives us many more years together. We’ll be married 52 years in June, and we’re grateful for that. It’s an incredible blessing,” Barnes said. “Things we never would’ve imagined doing, even before we were married – God’s opened doors that we are really grateful we were able to walk through with people who are great friends.”
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