Going on a Soul Quest

by Caitlin Gipson

Thirty minutes changed Jonathan Verdugo’s life. One night, his Azusa Pacific University Master of Business Administration (MBA) class took a “SoulQuest break,” a pause for refreshments and Bible study led by APU chaplain Kevin Mannoia, PhD. God used those 30 minutes to redirect his career. “I worked for California Edison during downsizing, and I felt devalued; Kevin’s talk spoke right to that,” Verdugo said. “He shared about job choice, emphasizing that Christians seek more than a ‘good’ job, we seek the ‘right’ job—the position we’re called to.” That point struck Verdugo and prompted a job change. “I talked to my wife that night, and pursued my position with the Department of Homeland Security.” Now, he prepares communities for national disasters and stands ready to serve survivors.

Verdugo’s experience exemplifies the life-changing fruit of SoulQuest, APU’s spiritual care ministry for graduate and professional students. Celebrating 10 years, SoulQuest, and the 15 chaplains it brings to APU’s Azusa and regional campuses, dramatically impacts student lives.

The seeds for SoulQuest began germinating in 2003, when Mannoia served as dean of APU’s School of Theology. Then-provost Michael Whyte, PhD, convened a task force to address spiritual care for adult and professional students. “APU richly invested in residential undergraduates,” Mannoia said. “As graduate and professional students outnumbered undergraduates, the need to serve them became apparent.”

Graduate students did not live on campus, attend chapel, or regularly interact with APU’s staff. Many worked in their field and viewed degrees as commodities. “APU’s existing systems didn’t apply well here,” said Mannoia. “How could we transform students’ lives so they could advance God’s work? In mid-2004, I agreed to address this important task.”

The endeavor started slowly. “No models existed,” Mannoia said. “It was like church planting, creating something from nothing.” First, he outlined three primary goals: to provide an encounter with Jesus Christ, to minister to students at their point of need, and to communicate APU’s Christian commitment. “Every student should know what APU stands for and what Christianity means.”

The program began small with the School of Business and Management. Professors agreed to position their 30-minute dinner period as “a SoulQuest break,” and Mannoia appealed to students with food and a Bible study.

Gradually, he discovered that this regular contact led to deep relationships and conversations. “I was able to introduce people to Christ more frequently than ever before,” he said. “I became part of the big events in their lives.” Students, and even staff, began to ask him for counseling, to lead retreats, to baptize them, or to preside over weddings and funerals. “Spiritual care started with 30 minutes and evolved into reminding students of God’s abiding love in hard times, helping unlock potential, and exploring life’s deepest questions.”

As the program grew to include dedicated chaplains for each school and regional campus, the food and “SoulQuest break” were the only constants. “It’s contextual by design,” said Col. Rick Givens ’83, MA ’03, MDiv, APU’s first associate chaplain for SoulQuest and more than 600 military students. “It’s not an out-of-the-box program implemented the same way everywhere. The regional campuses, schools, and our military ministry do SoulQuest differently, because each audience has different needs. Our chaplains seek out face-to-face connection, to be present for life now, so that we’re on students’ radar when they need us.”

Mannoia elaborated, “SoulQuest boils down to a ‘ministry of presence.’ Our presence is more important than our words. Chaplains are free to minister as they see fit, to bring spiritual care alive wherever they are deployed.”

According to Barbara Smith-Mustin, DMin ’16, the School of Nursing chaplain, the “deployment” mentality increases the program’s reach. “At the seminary I attended, if they offered a chaplain service, you had to seek it out,” she said. “SoulQuest reaches out to students, meeting them at their point of need.”

Mannoia points to the lack of a central office as a benefit. “SoulQuest is mainlined into the life of the university. We use office and regional campus administrative staff, which taps into their latent desire to make a difference. SoulQuest empowers frontline staff to extend SoulQuest to students as they see spiritual concerns.”

Rev. Gino Pasquariello, EdD, the San Diego Regional Campus chaplain, finds that SoulQuest encourages degree completion. “Most adult students go through major events during their program. They have kids, lose jobs, get in car accidents—life happens, and many need inspiration to persevere in pursuing their calling and education without getting derailed.”

This proved true for Robin Xu, a Chinese scholar who brought her daughter with her to the U.S. She felt disconnected and replied to the weekly SoulQuest email with a prayer request. Mannoia responded immediately, and Liz Leahy, MLS, M.A.T., professor of theological bibliography and research, and 1 of the 70 APU faculty and staff members who pray for SoulQuest students, decided to befriend her. “I enjoyed reading the SoulQuest email every week,” said Xu. “The vivid words were encouraging, but more importantly, I received practical help from Liz. I praise God for providing Kevin and Liz, angels who helped me out of academic anxiety.” Xu went back to China this year, with a lifelong friend and strengthened faith—another quiet victory for SoulQuest.

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer and search engine optimizer living in Central California. [email protected]

Originally published in the Summer '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.