poles #1: cooperation vs. independence


Yesterday I announced the beginning of a new semi-regular series, “College Ministry Poles,” looking at key collegiate ministry issues that are often fleshed out between two extremes. My hope is to stretch our thinking, especially as we realize that in many cases, a large number of college ministers have chosen – and found success with – methods from across each spectrum.

We begin with a big issue that unites and divides college ministries “on the ground”: Cooperation vs. Independence.

For heavy cooperation between ministries

I’ve heard it argued that various college ministers at a single campus could/should function as “elders” over the campus, ultimately comparing calendars, avoiding overlapping segments of campus, and nearly meshing ministries. Clearly, this model is one “pole” along this continuum.

Not quite as polar but still on this side of the spectrum are ministries that have fleshed out cooperation in various forms:

  • Direct partnership in regular ministry activities
  • A college ministry taking a purposely complementary approach
  • A ministry purposefly focusing on a niche not already reached
  • Direct cooperation in single events / efforts on campus

There are some obvious positives here – like not duplicating ministry activity, revealing Christian unity to a watching campus, gaining wisdom from “many counselors,” increasing group size, helping disciple students in diversity / unity, and so on.

For clear independence from other ministries

While I don’t necessarily hear it argued too often, it’s clear that many other ministries have placed a low priority on intentional cooperation or partnership. Instead, these ministers’ focus is impacting students through their organization as best as they possibly can. In the more extreme cases, there is little or no contact between leaders of these ministries and other leaders in town.

But before the more collaborative-minded blame those who seem isolationist, realize that there are clearly good reasons to take a stance somewhere on this side of the continuum:

  • All of us have chosen our ministry organizations for real reasons, presumably; cooperation and partnership often take us away from (or at least water down) our ministry’s own distinctives – both methodological and theological.
  • Supporters and overseers expect ministers to practice ministry according to these sorts of distinctives, too.
  • We all know college ministry is time-consuming and difficult. Collaboration – to any degree – always takes time and energy, while always producing messiness. It makes a lot of sense to focus on what we’re best at.
  • In some cases, past cooperative attempts might not have produced hoped-for results, might have been championed by ineffective people, or might never have had well-defined purposes to begin with.

Between the poles and other questions

My guess is that most college ministries in the country believe in being somewhere on the cooperative of the spectrum, but that most function pretty far to the right side of the spectrum (even by default). Hmmm…

Remember, every aspect of a college ministry has been chosen, even if we don’t realize it.

Thoughts to ponder (on your own, or in the comments):

  1. What’s your stance? Are either of the poles necessarily wrong? Is being “somewhere in the middle” necessarily right?
  2. Are there any good keys for choosing cooperation vs. independence?
  3. How could a ministry functioning on one side of the spectrum possibly move toward the other side?
  4. What are some Best Practices for more cooperative college ministry styles? What about for more independent college ministry styles?

Remember… Day 30 of College Union’s 40 Days of Prayer for Campus Ministry!


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  1. Ben

    It definitely is hard to say that campus fellowships should work together or partner because each has their own vision and purpose on the campus. There is the fellowship with all the popular kids, the other with the kids who want to be popular but like Star Wars a little too much. Then there are those that prefer really small, intimate groups and others that enjoy being chameleons. That alone can be daunting in the attempt of campus unity.

    In my experience, that was why I left the college fellowships altogether and worked on my own for campus unity. By removing myself from the groups, I had the time to meet with most of the groups consistently, while not having a dog in the fight. Now, that was what I felt God called me to do AND I was grounded in a local church anyway so not being apart of one college group was not bad.

    I almost think you need to have someone who isn’t involved to pull those who have a desire for campus unity together. By doing that you can develop a campus long-term vision that everyone can pray and agree on. Also, holding a campus event that focuses on prayer and unity and encourage the campus Body of Christ.

    That is my take on it at least.

  2. Ben Coleman

    Hey Benson! Great questions today. I’m in Austin where I get to work with several college ministries in cooperation to reach the campuses in our area. As far as where we are on the spectrum…I’m not sure how it would be defined. But several of us have committed to adopt the same campus-reaching strategy of mobilizing students into Missional Communities and then going a step further in connecting our students with ones from other ministries who are trying to reach the same segment of campus.

    I think one fear that I use to have in partnering with other ministries is the fear that my students would discover that the other ministry was better than mine! I would then justify that fear by telling myself (and others) that I did not want to do anything that encouraged “church hoping”.

    However, what the Lord has shown me over the last 2 years here is that by adopting the same strategy and communicating to our students that all our ministries are trying to do the same thing…reduce the lostness of our campuses…our students have developed a larger understanding of the global Church. They have also discovered that there really is not much difference between several of the ministries and they should just get plugged into where they can find community.

    Soooo, I guess you could say we are in strong partnership in reaching people but separate in the discipleship of those we reach.

  3. Pingback: Partnering in Ministry « Ben Coleman//Austin, TX

  4. Interesting topic. Can anyone share their experience on moving from one pole to the other?

    We have had limited success in producing long-term unity on our campus. After one or two years of poorly-attended combo meetings, we seem to all go our separate ways and stop talking on a regular basis. My feeling now is that most ministries on our campus are not aware of the goings on of each other, and are certainly not aware of who is/isn’t being reached.

    Anyone have a success story to share?

  5. Jen

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for the post today. I’m definitely more toward the Cooperation end of the spectrum. On my campus there is one “big” Christian ministry that I wish would collaborate with our smaller ones more. I’d rather not be vying for a share of the few believers on our campus, but be reaching the vast 95% that don’t know Christ here. My focus in collaboration is to find like-minded ministry leaders despite denomination who are willing to work together to reach the unreached on our campus in a way that doesn’t involve attractional ministry. It’s a lot easier for us to think out of the box together for some reason…maybe I’m just lucky to have some great campus partners?

  6. We’ve had okay success working with other groups on our campus. We have a monthly-ish meeting of campus ministers and any one else who wants to work with college students call “Big Common Ground.” The idea is that though we may have differences in the way we do some things or in some of the ways we think things should work, we all agree that bringing students toward Jesus is our main goal, and we can work toward that together.

    We do a giant Steak dinner for campus at the beginning of the year where everyone chips in to help (aptly named “Meat the Freshmen”), then we do a couple of community service things throughout the year. We also are working on a crisis management plan, so if there are any major crises (death of students, school shootings, etc.) we all have a plan on what to do as Christians at our school.

    Other than that though, we all work separate. All the ministries on our campus kind of reach different groups, so we really don’t step on each others toes that much. And over the years, we’ve even laid out the schedule so that nothing is overlapping anyone else’s main meeting times.

    I used to be of the “isolationist” mindset – that what we had was enough ministries and when new groups came around I was always annoyed. But over my few years on campus, I’m more of a “the more, the merrier” mind now. There are a lot of kids out there that no one gets to still. I meed people every week who didn’t know there was any Christian groups on campus at all – despite all of our flyers, and sidewalk chalk, and Campus TV announcements, and steak dinners, and ultimate frisbee games. And I’m not even on a very big campus (7,500 students or so).

  7. hey benson great series! VERY applicable for those on the field.

    i heard a great quote from one of the elder statesmen of Campus Crusade: “partner only with other groups in prayer and evangelism”

    now obviously he did not mean do not have anything to do with other ministries but the underlying issues at stake were:

    –spreading resources thin and thus diluting our capacity to reach our organizational objectives and live out God’s calling for our ministry.
    –spending time and energy on things that may be of value in the short-run but hinder the long-run.

    i see this often with socials; it’s a lot of work to coordinate, plan, and promote a social event with other ministries, with a very little yield.

    since CCC is a missions org we certainly steward our resources a little differently than church ministries in my experience, because our stewardship in relation to believers/non-believers is not 50/50.

    it’s been a great principle for me to follow as i’ve lead at Chico State in Northern California for the last 4 years.

  8. I think we need to lay a theological foundation for this: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness….” I suppose Jesus could have said a lot of things to seek first. Seek salvation, seek love, seek justice, seek the church, seek me. Yet, the kingdom really encompasses all that and more.

    The kingdom has to do with the rule and reign of God in this world. It is distinguished from the church in that the church has to do with the people within God’s rule. The church, then, might be said to be the means to the end of establishing God’s kingdom rule. The kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the church because it aims at nothing less than the complete control of all manifestations of life. It represents the dominion of God in every sphere of humanity.

    The church proclaims the gospel and brings people into the church. They then begin to enjoy all the blessings of God’s kingdom rule in their lives: victory over sin and the availability of the power of the Holy Spirit. If we lose sight of the kingdom of God, we become insular and think that our particular church or ministry is the goal of ministry, and that issues outside our ministry have no real merit for our attention. Apart from the kingdom, the systemic problems surrounding justice, racial reconciliation, and poverty all take a backseat to personal expressions of faith in my limited sphere.

    When it comes to college ministry, if we have a kingdom mindset, we desire to see God’s reign expand across our campus and we will work collaboratively to see this realized. Then it does not become MY ministry and YOUR ministry, but OUR ministry. It is no longer you and me, but WE as kingdom minded people. This takes time and effort. But after all, our focus is to be in seeking first the kingdom as priority for ministry.

  9. logsatm04


    When you have time, check out http://www.renovateut.com it’s the work of college ministries at the University of Texas that Ben Coleman is a part of that is collaberating in training, resouces, sharing information, and hopefully sharing people and coaching structures to reach the campus.

    Much prayer and debate went into getting on the same page to accomplish this together.

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