I’ve been sharing some topics I’d hope students would learn earlier rather than later…

Establish the habits

My pastor in high school used to say that the habits established in the first three weeks of college largely determine how the rest of college will go.

It’s true.

And that would apply to each school year and each semester, too, so this isn’t just an exhortation for freshmen. There’s an urgency toward beginning a routine of daily time with the Lord, finding (and participating in) accountability and other pieces of intentional community, plugging in to a church (beyond just attending), plugging in to your college ministry (also beyond just attending), and even habitually meeting people and building relationships (as I wrote last time).

Students often think they can start these habits after “things settle down.” But they’re wrong about the likelihood of that, and they’re wrong about how the semester will go. (Part of the “settling down” should be “settling in” to these habits as soon as possible.) If we can help students get started now, the habits are much more likely to be… habitual.

This week, I’m looking at good “points of emphasis” for students even before your normal teaching gets underway. Use as needed!

Start by Sowing

I’m an introvert, as you may or may not know, so this is one I especially need to preach to myself as well.

It’s easy to slide into a new school year with one’s intentionality delayed, including a Christian student’s intentionality around connecting with other students. New dorm-mates, new classmates, new clubmates, new people in your college ministry, and other new acquaintances are all around. And yet many students “don’t get around” to thinking about building relationship until after they feel a little more settled.

Yet this is the prime time for meeting people, right? So even as classes are beginning, students need an exhortation to start sowing the seeds of relationship now. Meet people, remember names, even take notes (once you’ve walked away, probably!). And then begin to pray for those around you – the “donut” of seats around yours in class, the hallmates in the dorm or apartment, and so on.

This isn’t just for evangelism – though that’s a big piece. It’s to love others of all stripes. Christian students should be the friendliest on campus… even us introverts.

Following a couple of weeks of quick thoughts for your work, I thought I’d follow with some – still brief – thoughts to share with your students. These likely won’t be “messages,” but more like a “tip” you’d share in your email or as part of a message. But through my own experience directly ministering to students and then years more of interacting with college ministers, you’ll see some principles, etc., that it’s probably good to proclaim ASAP.

And since everybody’s still getting things started, I’ll keep ’em short.

Guard Your Signature

Have you already warned your students – especially any freshmen you get around – to “guard their signature” in these early days of school?

The busyness of the semester isn’t a calculus curve, nicely sloping its way to gradually-more-busy. It’s got cliffs and chasms, but most everybody starts in a chasm. It feels natural and fun to start signing up, and freshmen especially don’t realize…

  • They’ll feel busier than they’ve ever felt in about 3 weeks
  • Interest and impact spread across several organizations isn’t very useful at all
  • They should be thinking about four years of impact
  • …so making those decisions slowly, if needed, isn’t a bad idea
  • The Bible is clear: Actual commitments can’t be broken (without the “commitment-holder” releasing you), so be sure you’re clear on what level of commitment is actually being asked for

I first wrote this post several years ago in snowy, rainy, Fargo, North Dakota, on Road Trip 13. As a follow-up to yesterday’s note from Psalm 127, I’m hopeful you find it useful as you begin another year.

God rocked me – once again – with Psalm 127 this week, but this time in regards to college ministry specifically.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep. (v. 1-2 ESV)

I realized that a huge portion of our time as college ministers is spent on the two tasks from verse 1: building and guarding.

We’re building our ministries as a whole, we’re building individual activities and projects, we’re building our members as a group, and we’re building individual students.

We’re guarding, too – guarding students from spiritual failure, guarding from unhealthy groups and people, guarding from problematic campus forces, and even guarding from ministry members or our own overseers who might misunderstand (and interfere with) what’s being accomplished.

So if that’s true, then Psalm 127 intersects with most of what we college ministers do on a daily and yearly basis. And I’d argue that the passage actually reveals TWO truths which sound the same but prove powerful in their slight differences:

  1. We desperately need God to work
  2. We don’t desperately need our work

On the one hand, these verses shout our desperate need for God Himself to build and to guard.

If He doesn’t, then our efforts at building and guarding – again, a huge portion of our ministry work – are in vain. If He doesn’t act, if He doesn’t “show up,” if He’s not architecting and watchman-ing, then we college ministers are better off going into Sales or taking a nap.

But on the other hand, this passage declares that we don’t desperately need us.

This truth means, despite the message in fuzzy-Christianity, that I’m not actually supposed to “work like it all depends on me.” It’s easy to read verse 1 and miss this side of the coin, but look closely: we are not exactly “co-builders” or “co-watchmen” in this passage. We’re Assistant Builders and Assistant Watchmen (build-stewards and watch-stewards?), at best. Still a duty – but vanity, vanity if He’s not the ultimate Builder or the ultimate Guard.

And that’s why verse 2 connects here, because it suggests that not only is work-without-God-working an empty proposition, so is overwork. Yes, we do work – verse 1 makes that clear. But we aren’t allowed to work like it’s up to us – we shouldn’t work “that way.” So though we work… we rest, we hope, we trust, we wait, and we’re open to the “adventures” that may come.

It’s the latter truth God had to remind me of this week, but both of ’em together can make a huge difference in how we carry out our task, as college ministers, of building and guarding.

I feel like this passage is especially valuable in a period most college ministers see as pretty vital to the success of their school year:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:1-2)

It’s not that you don’t need to work hard right now – you do. It’s just that you need to be able to lay your head on your pillow at night with the understanding that God’s got this covered as He sees fit.

Besides being brief exhortations as schools begin, there’s no real theme here…

Let your purposes determine structure and methods, even when it’s messier.

If you know certain activities need leaders or certain students are ready to lead, add to your leadership team (even if it was formally established in May).

If your message series will work best as an 11-week series, don’t stretch it just to fill the semester.

If last year’s most-loved event doesn’t accomplish much anymore, drop it from the schedule.

If community is better established by offering small groups throughout the week (or all on one night!), try to do that.

If you need to discuss a particular campus (or world) issue, scrap your usual plans – or add a special teaching night.

Remember, you’ll be tempted to “lose the plot” all year long, trading your focus on purposes/outcomes for methods that have already been planned, are easier to accomplish, or are well-liked. Don’t let methods “wag the dog.”

Here’s a quick notion as your campus gets going (or is close to it):

Beware your reaction to opinions.

We’re all humans, so the opinions of others – even those we’re shepherding – can affect us. And honestly, they should. Of course we should care about what our students respond to, what they prefer, and how they engage best.

But we always have to be careful not to let opinions sway us too much or too quickly. Here are a few opinions to watch out for:

  • The singular opinions. (Just because a student happened to say something, it doesn’t mean five other students feel the same way. But sometimes it’s tempting to believe it does.)
  • The hastily-formed opinions. (No one has an immediate read on whether your new Large Group Meeting format is wise or that big event you tried for the first time is worth doing again. So take immediate opinions with a grain of salt.)
  • Opinions coming from students who aren’t “with you” anyway. (This is a dangerous group in any college ministry – those who hang out but aren’t plugged in well, who might come to fun events or worship but won’t do small groups or serve… or vice versa! While you should consider everyone’s opinions, it’s far less important for you to “poll” this crowd. You’re not going to win them anyway.)

Another speedy notion before (or as) your school year gets started…

Hold your plans loosely (especially plans for the second semester).

It’s easy for college ministers to get a schedule down and then stick with it, but a campus is too fluid a place – and a college ministry is too fluid a community – for us not to expect God to show us new opportunities often (certainly more than just each summer).

I could build this argument more – in fact, I have. But think about one thing: what changed, what you learned, and how your ministry grew/changed just in the spring semester. Fall generally introduces more change than spring, right? So why would your plans for next spring (or even October!) be absolutely set in stone?

Another brief thought as school gets started (or starts soon):

If you teach your students about the inherent value of their vocation (and how to live it out as a Christian), you’ll probably be telling them something they’ve never heard before.

Besides evangelism in the classroom/workplace or donating skills outside of classroom/workplace, Evangelicals are usually pretty bad about discussing a Christian view of vocation. But there have been some recent efforts to change that (and some efforts that have been doing it all along, including in college ministry).

At this moment, though, if you do that, chances are you’ll be teaching students something they wouldn’t hear from any other college ministry on your campus, and didn’t hear from youth group or parents. Yet that’s how they’re going to be spending 40+ hours a week for the next 40+ years. If you can inject a robust theology and spirituality into that amount of time…

Another quick thought as you’re prepping for a brand new year:

The campus wants to know you’re “for it.”

You probably already have opportunities to take part in what the campus is up to, though I know it’s tough with all the preparation for your ministry you’re having to do. But don’t forget that the administration, staff, and faculty are all gearing up for the year, too…

What if this was the year they finally saw your organization and their organization as “in it together”?

Whether you can get started now or a month from now, college ministries of all stripes have the chance to promote the welfare of their campuses. Would your students say your ministry is loving the campus well? (Or would they be surprised to even hear that concept?)

Welcome to Exploring College Ministry

After ministering to college students for 8 years, I've spent the last 6 years trying to help push our whole field forward. This meant, among other things, a yearlong road trip, an e-book (Reaching the Campus Tribes), exploring 250+ campuses, consulting, writing, speaking, and more. I love any opportunity to serve college ministers or to consult with churches and others about reaching students better. To learn more, explore the header links or the tools below.

...and if I can help your ministry directly (or you want to support my mission), contact me!

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