the myth of college ministry Best Practices

Catalyst begins today, and last night a few of us college ministers got to hang out. It was definitely good times. The article below is the second of two that I included in this week’s program. It’s a revamp of a fairly recent blog, but it’s one of those ideas that keeps me humble… and keeps me collaborating.

I’ll be tweeting – especially about our Cohort activities – but you can also follow all kinds of Catalyst goings on simply by searching on Twitter for #cat10 – or just click here.

Popularly, we use the term “Best Practice” to indicate a method that has proven to be best in a high percentage of situations. It doesn’t mean it’s the only good way; it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be exceptions. But as a general rule, a Best Practice should be a go-to method unless you’ve got a good reason to try something else.

And so, of course, college ministers are always looking for Best Practices. I can’t blame us: It seems like there should be many big methods that are worth highlighting as Best Practices as we work among the campus tribes. It seems like we’ve each observed some obviously great methods that would be just as great – and just as obvious – on campuses across the country. It seems like establishing a successful college ministry could be largely cut-and-paste, as long as we’re willing to learn the right “college ministry plays” as used by the most successful college ministries.

But it’s a myth.

Maybe the title of this article is a bit hyperbolic. There are indeed some Best Practices in college ministry. But they’re surprisingly rare. There are far more methods that are “great ideas” but which don’t meet the threshold of being “Best Practices.”

These great ideas are useful for some, but they’re certainly not “default,” go-to methods.

They’re not clearly most effective in most situations.

They’re just great ideas, and they may or may not be best on my campus, at this time, for our particular purposes. So I need to keep looking, keep collaborating—all while I’m getting to know my campus and seeking the Lord’s guidance for reaching it best.

Before I took my yearlong road trip a few years ago, I had no idea how insufficient my own understanding was, despite the fact that I had served several campuses in three very different cities and attended perhaps a dozen college ministry training conferences. I had seen a lot. But there was plenty more to see.

Now, I can speak with some authority on the diversity out there. For instance, I recently wrote a post on my blog with forty-nine variations I’ve seen in college ministries’ Large Group Meetings. Forty-nine! If there are that many ways to “adjust” one of college ministry’s classic methods, certainly we should be very careful about assuming that any single experience, any one ministry, or even any one region will give us all we need to know.

I do believe that as our field grows, identifying Best Practices will be a part of it. But claiming “Best Practices” or forming other “How-to” lists too quickly actually harms us. It keeps us from seeking the methods that will actually lead to our own college ministries’ greatest effectiveness.

So when we’re in a few-Best-Practices field of ministry, how shall we now learn?

  • We should learn broadly
  • We should learn humbly
  • We should learn continually

And of course, we should share with others what we’ve learned. Because we never know when our own practices might be best for another college ministry!


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