why a college ministry might shrink

A friend noted the other day, with some surprise, that the college ministry he’d been a part of had grown quite a bit smaller.

In this case, the ministry was running several hundred back when my friend was in school. Originally a student-run affair, those students had grown up but stuck around, and some now served as the leadership of the ongoing ministry. Financial support has been generous and comes from a local church and some other sources, though the ministry remains independent.

I know nothing about this ministry besides the little my friend told me. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to ask questions.

And since we all need to be about the practice of asking questions – often – about our ministries, I figured I’d clue you in on what we discussed and some questions I asked. Or in some cases, these are questions I could have asked if we’d had longer to discuss it – or if I was meeting with the ministry’s leaders or their supporters.

1. Is the school itself drawing a different sort of student? This might not even be a bad question to ask first when you see a change (positive or negative). Over time, schools may change admission policies, reach new sorts of students, or face a shifting demographic for other reasons. Of course, that will affect your ministry, too.

2. Have other college ministries popped up – or started drawing a lot more students? At this school, a Young Life College chapter had started since my friend left, and they’re likely to draw the same sort of student. On any campus, it’s entirely possible that the introduction of one ministry – over time – could shift students’ attendance to that ministry.

3. Is the style or “feel” of the ministry different? This one’s a double-edged sword of a question. A change to the fundamental “feel” of the ministry could cause fewer students to join over time… but so could the lack of a change, too. Remember, the students themselves are always changing as the semesters (and graduations) roll on.

And that’s especially true when facing an enormous generational shift like the one we’ve seen since my friend graduated – as the Millennials arrived on the scene. If your college ministry changes, it will affect the ways you attract students. But so will not changing.

4. Is the leadership still the best match for this ministry? Shrinking does not mean a college ministry isn’t right where God wants them to be. But of course we should still notice the decline and ask whether everything is as it should be. It’s possible that a leader’s tenure has run its course – or even if that’s not the case, it may be useful to bring in “new blood” to serve alongside him or her.

5. Have they really shrunk? In the name of due diligence, make sure you’re looking at some actual numbers as you assess. Don’t compare estimates, or memories. You might be remembering high-point numbers from the past and comparing them to low-point numbers right now.

6. Is this normal ebb-and-flow? Once you’re working with real numbers, this question is worth asking, too. Unlike church members, college ministry members have a very quick life cycle. So every semester is the opportunity for some major addition or subtraction… “just cause.” It’s normal to see statistically large shifts for indiscernible reasons.

7. Was there an inflection point? Very humbly and with input from others, consider when/how you first saw attendance either take a major hit or start to slide… You may not be able to trace this to one event, one problem, or one semester. But if you can – or if you can even theorize a possible correlation – it’s very worth examining. (This question probably shouldn’t have been last, but I don’t feel like re-numbering!)

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