As I continue my series on “Adding to Their Zeal,” here’s a longer post – building on two posts from long past – about helping students’ service be best.

Service, like the other things we urge, is an area that needs our shepherding – not just our encouragement.

Yet I fear that even for Christian students, even for Christian students within our college ministries, there are times that “zeal without knowledge” is the order of the day. And when that’s the case, I fear our service outcomes will be closer to saying “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (Jam 2:16 esv) than producing actually full bellies and actually clothed shoulders.

One of my favorite service activities at a former church was helping at a “checkpoint” during our local Dallas Marathon. So using that, here are some notes on how service can go awry… and how it can go “aright,” too. Hopefully these make a good backbone for adding wisdom to your students’ zeal for service.

Service goes awry when it’s selfish

When supporting the marathon runners, it wasn’t uncommon for volunteers to get so excited about handing a runner a cup of Gatorade that they actually got in the way of runners to accomplish that “service.” Likewise, the effectiveness of our students’ service is often watered down as they follow the dictates of desire – from whom they want to hang out with while they serve, to how physically uncomfortable they’re willing to be, to how much a role “fits” them as a person.

Service goes awry when enjoyment is the priority

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 students, too. While drawing students to service opportunities probably involves 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). If our students only serve when and how it happens to be “fun,” something is wrong.

Service goes awry when service is untaught

Other times, service suffers because volunteers don’t know how to do it best. As I was filling water cups during the marathon Sunday, I forgot to fill them only halfway (which is more helpful to the runners). Later, I got the chance to share with another volunteer the best way to hold the cup for runner to grab it on the go – in your palm, fingers flat. These are small details, but their importance is found in whether they help, not how “big” the details 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.

Service goes awry when it’s dismissed as unimportant

Interestingly enough, not all churches in Dallas felt participating in serving runners on a Sunday morning was a very good thing to do. And that – the dismissal of service – is a reality we’ll face… and something we have to make sure we don’t participate in. Do I believe that some service projects are bad ideas? Absolutely – and if we encourage every project our students dream up, then we’ve ceased to shepherd them. But many of us (me included) have a tendency to say No to the unusual or untested – and that’s a tendency we should keep in check.

Good service is outcome-driven

I would argue that organizing and practicing our service around the outcomes most needed is imperative. Offering marathon runners only Gatorade may seem “better” and “more excellent” to the uninitiated… but some marathoners prefer water. Likewise, our students need to learn that there’s no such thing as a “good service project” that doesn’t accomplish what’s actually needed. So if this means research, planning, and a whole lot of asking questions, so be it.

Good service may look foolish

And when we start talking about good service, we’d better prepare our students for the fact that the best service won’t always have a direct relationship with dignity! In the case of cheering on the marathon, I fully recognized that many of the volunteers around me didn’t understand my… vigor with which I encouraged the runners. I yelled loudly (enough to get through earbuds) and personally, calling individuals’ names and often pointing or otherwise gesturing wildly. But after a few years of this project, this seemed to be what was needed, at least for many of the runners. So despite looking foolish to those around me, I was cheering for the runners. So I’ll offer whatever seems to help them most.

Good service may feel foolish, too

The truth is, that kind of “vigor” isn’t natural for me. At a basketball game, I would only rarely yell like that; at the marathon, it was 3 hours straight. I’m not particularly great with strangers, but during the marathon I got fairly personal with strangers who were on Mile 25 of their really crazy mid-morning adventure. Are we training our students not only to set aside their dignity (when needed) to serve effectively, but even to set aside their personalities (when needed) to serve effectively?

Good service may be delegated

A fellow volunteer offered me a cup of Gatorade to share with the runners, but I declined. Why? While passing out Gatorade to these flagging marathoners is actually pretty thrilling, I recognize that it interferes with the “vigorous cheering” I mentioned above. Plenty of other volunteers passed out Gatorade and water. Some people filled water & Gatorade cups so they could be passed out by others. Some volunteers cooked breakfast for the rest of us. And still others needed to focus on overseeing our large task, keeping everything running smoothly. Many service projects will be best handled through delegation – but, lo and behold, that means not every student will get to do everything they’d like to do.

Good service is focused

A big rule of thumb for cheering the marathon was to focus on individuals. While some level of general rah-rah cheering was exciting, the runners were often most excited when you called their first name (which was included on their placard) or otherwise identified them (“Go Longhorn!,” “You’ve got this, Orange!”). The same principle holds for other service opportunities, too: If our service seems like a great idea but doesn’t actually aim to help real individuals, then who’s it really helping?

Good service is “servee-centric”

So when it comes down to it, we’ve got to help our students be “servee-centric” at every step of their service endeavors. While focusing on people’s actual needs seems like common sense, it’s not necessarily common practice. In the marathon, servee-centeredness was why only filling cups halfway mattered, why yelling loud enough to be heard through headphones mattered, and why knowing what we were aiming for mattered – because the people we were serving mattered.