I started this week talking about my annual experience serving the runners of the White Rock Marathon. That always gets me thinking about service, and how we college ministers produce servants rather than just service projects.
If we’re willing to shepherd our students’ service, we wanna help them avoid some of the common (very common) pitfalls in Christian service. My help at the marathon has highlighted for me some of the things to avoid, and others come to mind as I consider what we’re trying to accomplish.
Hopefully as you shepherd students’ service, this will serve you as a helpful checklist.
1. Selfish service
When supporting a marathon, it’s not uncommon for volunteers to get so excited about handing a runner a cup of Gatorade that they actually get in the way of the race to accomplish that “service.” In the same way, the effectiveness of our students’ service is often watered down as they follow the dictates of desire – whether those desires involve who they want to hang out with while they serve, how physically uncomfortable they’re willing to be, how much a project or a role “fits” them, or other wants.
2. A focus on enjoyment
Along the same lines, it’s tempting to let enjoyment both motivate me to serve and direct me as I serve. And that’s tempting for our students, too. While drawing students to service opportunities may in fact involve some appeal to the enjoyment involved, we should remember to balance that motivation for our students (or, perhaps better, help them enjoy because of the impact and not just the fun they’re having). If our students only serve when and how it happens to be “fun,” something is terribly wrong.
3. Unskilled service
Other times, service suffers because volunteers don’t know how to do it best. In the past at the Marathon aid station, I’ve forgotten to fill the water cups only halfway (which is more helpful to the runners). Last Sunday, I got the chance to share with another volunteer the best way to hold the cup for runner to grab it – in your palm, fingers flat. (He replied that he preferred to hold it the other way…) Somebody else – apparently with some background in running – let me know that even at Mile 25, some runners get annoyed when we shout, “You’re almost there” – so even after four years, I’m tweaking my approach.
These are small details, but their importance is found in whether they help, not how “big” they seem. While there is room for some “merciful elasticity” as we help our students serve, we shouldn’t act like excellence isn’t worth aiming for. If we’ve taught students that it’s the “thought that counts” when it comes to their service, we’ve taught them to be bad servants.
4. Unprepared service
The cousin of unskilled service is unprepared service. If someone sets out to serve but doesn’t do the legwork necessary beforehand to be as effective as possible, then selfishness, laziness, or some other problem is limiting our service mightily.
As we’re helping college students serve, this may be one reason to mix in service projects that require preparation and research. If the only projects we participate in are ready-made – whether it’s bringing non-perishable food items or building a house – then we’ve never taught them about the wonders of serving “from the ground up.” I’m a big fan of those ready-made methods, to be sure. But it might be worth pondering how you can also teach collegians about the whole spectrum of service “from the need to the deed.”