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What happens at your campus during the summer?

Is it “business as usual,” albeit with a bit smaller attendance? While hundreds or thousands of students might indeed be taking classes this summer, even then there’s a good chance some irregular things are taking place, too – from summer camps to campus construction to offices moving to new initiatives getting underway. You’ve got new student orientations, high schoolers visiting with their parents, athletic team practices, and community events or even conferences taking place on a campus that usually doesn’t have room for them. And on and on.

So why bring this up? Two reasons:

  1. College ministers should know these things. If you’re not quite sure what’s taking place on your campus(es) this summer, then that’s an opportunity to get to know your campus better. At the very least, the missionaries to the campus tribes should be vaguely familiar with those tribes’ goings-on, even in “out of season” moments for your college ministry.
  2. You might find opportunities in these activities. Besides new student orientations, it’s easy for college ministers to overlook these particular chances to impact (and I’m not sure Orientation is always utilized, either). This is where brainstorming comes in – but fortunately you’re brainstorming from a list of events. “How could our college ministry connect with visiting high schoolers?,” you might ask. Or, “Could we serve our school somehow as they host cheerleading camps?”

Between ways to serve the school, ways to serve outsiders, and some chances to help future students think about joining a college ministry, you’ve got some pretty obvious possibilities. But you may also have the chance to learn about new campus initiatives, make new relationships with staff or faculty, or even share Christ with those on campus for one reason or another. Your students might staff the welcome desk for an incoming conference, bring snacks to the football team, move boxes for the Psychology Department as it changes offices, or sign up en masse as tour guides.

And on and on. And on and on. You get to brainstorm. But first you have to know what’s happening.

Who’s coming to your college ministry to ask for assistance?

Would campus officials, local churches, community non-profits, or anyone think of your ministry as a resource for volunteers, “owning” a special event, Help in a crisis or with a pop-up need, or other help?

Getting there requires relationships, availability, and a history of helpfulness. So the knocks on the door serve as a little bit of an assessment. While every context is different and you probably shouldn’t expect fifty asks a year (and I’m not suggesting you should say Yes to every ask either), a college ministry’s role in the campus community should lend itself to being a help.

Ready to evaluate last school year, and head into the next? One simple instrument frames that evaluation in a fantastic way. I’ve noted it before, and you may already be familiar with it. But it’s so valuable – and so straightforward – that it was worth spending a Fridea on.

This tool involves three questions:

  • What should we start?
  • What should we stop?
  • What should we continue?

It’s so simple that you could easily send it to every student leader (or every student!) in your ministry. And it goes so in-depth that you could easily spend a whole planning retreat just working through those questions.

It’s interesting that college is actually a time when most United States students first have the chance to specialize. Barring attendance at a magnet school or other special arrangement, “majors” first pop up during the college years. And of course, the argued value of this approach is specialization and building on students’ strengths, rather than simply building “well-roundedness” for the rest of their lives (for lack of a better description).

On the other hand, we know college students aren’t always clear on their strengths/talents/passions/career paths. (Understatement?) College is a time for figuring things out, and even those who choose a “track” often choose a different one while still within those college years.

So here’s one thing college ministers should think about: In a different but vital way, the same thing is happening for your student leaders and their “impact paths.” The roles they’re playing right now in your campus ministry are strengthening their ministry muscles in certain directions for a lifetime. This is happening both broadly – leading a discussion group, building a team, hospitality, etc. – and more narrowly – focusing on evangelism, or helping with media, or leading worship, or focusing on fellowship-building events.

But have you realized these things are long-term preparation for your leaders? When you do, the whole effort takes on additional discipling elements, and consider not only how student leaders are set up for success in the short-term, but also how they’re growing in these ways long-term.

And you come back to what I discussed at the beginning: recognizing the tension of training specifically and cross-training. Some students should receive chances to lead more deeply from a particular passion or skill. But other student leaders – even though they’re extremely useful in their present role – should be moved, allowing them to flex those muscles in different ways (or flex other muscles altogether).

Here’s an interesting student leader role to consider for the new school year:

What if you set up a guest experience evaluator?

I was listening to a podcast recently that highlighted this role at a church. While that was a staff role overseeing the church’s various hospitality efforts around worship services, there could be a lot more to it in a college ministry than that. For all the recognition of college students who “fall through the cracks” in a given year, this position might just help a lot.

I realize this person wouldn’t have to be a manager. They could simply be a “quality-control” specialist, watching month after month for gaps in a campus ministry’s touchpoints with students (and especially new students).

I’m thinking an upperclassman marketing major, business major, even sociology or psychology major might just devour this opportunity. You could easily do a short first-run effort the August and September and see what feedback you glean.

(You could easily do a short first-run effort the August and September and see what feedback you glean.)

We’re holding our big Church Leaders Conference this week. As a piece of that, tomorrow I’ll have the opportunity to tour some Outreach Pastors around town. But our goal isn’t to show them Dallas, because why would outsiders need to know Dallas? Our goals include using the tour as a platform to talk about our values in action, and also to provide them with a model so they can give their own tours back home.

Why bring this up?

Because it’s an easy assessment for college ministers: How well could you give a campus tour?

Or another is like it: Do you know your campus as thoroughly as a church planter knows his or her community?

That second question gets to the heart of the matter. Because it’s less important that you know the name of every single campus building, than that you know what the school’s top majors are, where its students come from (near and far), and what its leadership’s goals are.

These things are the stuff of good ministry planting, whether it’s in a city (as a church) or on a campus.

How great would your tour be?

I was pondering a good Fridea for a week where I’ve written about a college ministry’s “back door” (here, here, and here). And while it would be easy to promote an exit survey or other means of measurement, I realized one notion has to come before others:

Get a good “list” of who’s involved in your ministry. Then review it occasionally.

Some college ministries could print out their “involved” list right now. But for most, I think the list of involved students – not just leaders, not just small group members, but students who would simply call the ministry “home” – isn’t so clear. But it can be.

Maybe you push a ministry-wide survey, and you ask the kinds of questions that let you know who’s a “regular.” Maybe you just pick a point in the semester (like one month into every semester) and just write out a list, with the help of student leaders. Method depends on how big the ministry is.

You might set your “involved” bar higher or lower – it could just include those in small groups, or it could be anyone who’s ever shown up at all. But for the purposes of examining the Back Door, I’d vote for the middle-ground – students who have been regular enough that their absence would indeed indicate a change.

If you did have such a list, it wouldn’t be so tough to run through it twice a semester… and I bet between you and your leaders, you’d be able to remember where 90% of them had gone. (And with a little research or reaching-out, you could get even closer to 100%.)

That sort of analysis is the beginning of measuring this well, and measuring this well would teach you a lot about your college ministry.

This week I’ve been contemplating some basics about the “back door” of a college ministry – how and why students exit. (Read here and here.)

But it’s important to remember that the old principle, “What wins them, keeps them,” applies here. Many students drift away from a college ministry because of the “entryway” experience… but there are a few facets to that:

1. There’s a difference between convincing students to try and convincing them to stay. New students may eventually check out a college ministry because of a big event, an intriguing poster, or simply because they’re trying out several. But it’s the next step that matters most: What convinces them to stay? If they’re “won” by elements that aren’t static or easily change, your back door will likely be crowded soon enough.

2. You have the chance to teach students how to pick their time investments. How often do you address “Why you should be a part of our college ministry”? Or better yet, “How you should choose an organization to join”? Of course, you might address this in different ways with believers and non-believers, and other groups may need different approaches too. But if you’re not discipling students about how to choose, then – and this is a bold statement – you may start with some students who really shouldn’t have joined in the first place.

3. You can design your entryway to be a “taste” of life in the house. It would be weird to walk into a home’s entryway that’s filled with dainty fixtures and a traditional feel… then find that the living room is quite modern. But college ministries may be tempted to have “first experiences” and “deeper experiences” that feel completely detached. While these don’t have to be the same, it can be very useful and kind to include elements that purposely point to the deeper experience available in the ministry. After all, the actual problem with “bait and switch” isn’t the “bait” – if you’ll pardon that term – but the “switch.”

  • How many students who were regular attenders last semester haven’t been around this semester?
  • Do you have any idea why?
  • How many students from small groups aren’t involved anymore, or aren’t involved as much as they used to be?
  • Do your small group leaders talk about it with you?
  • Why did all those students who visited back in August or September not stick around?
  • What former “core students” – or even student leaders – have drifted into much less involvement than they used to have?
  • Which of your ministry’s students are off-campus this semester, studying abroad or for some other reason?
  • How many students graduated last semester? How many will graduate in May or August?
  • Are graduates thriving in the months after graduation?

These kinds of questions revolve around one concept: a college ministry’s “back door.” There are lots of reasons a student might come once, come many times, or be deeply involved… and then either disappear or move to the periphery of your ministry. Some reasons are right and good (like graduation!), others are troubling (problems at home, a falling out with someone in your ministry, a backsliding in faith, and many more), and others are pretty “neutral” (studying abroad, class schedule conflicts…).

But understanding your back door means understanding your campus ministry better. And more importantly, it means “shepherding the flock of God among you” better – and in this case, potentially shepherding people who particularly need it.

I mentioned getting to participate in a Using-Data-for-Ministry conference last week, and this is one of the notions that we ruminated on. I have a feeling we’ll keep right on ruminating on this concept, because it’s tricky and because it’s enormously important.

So how strong of an understanding do you have on your collegiate ministry’s back door? What can you do to understand it better?

I have the excellent opportunity to attend the first of four “Accelerator” sessions (across the next 2 years!) with Leadership Network. We’re covering the topic of “Big Data” and how we use it to impact people.

A key question asked yesterday was simply, “Does data have a seat at the table” in your ministry? So I ask the same thing of you: Does data help you make decisions?

But in the world of college ministry, some ministries simply need to realize that data is available to be gathered. Yes, some organizations are really good at collecting data, but others – especially if overseers aren’t asking for it – may not attend here much. Data doesn’t just mean numbers – though they’re included – but also great pieces of info like “How students heard about us” or “What kinds of students are most likely to bring other students.”

And while data only matters inasmuch as we remember that it connects with people, examining and using the data available to you may indeed offer the next step of growth for your campus ministry.

(And if you need help figuring this out, ask some data-loving, data-studying students to help. Win win!)

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Welcome to Exploring College Ministry

After ministering to college students for 8 years, I've spent the last 6 years trying to help push our whole field forward. This meant, among other things, a yearlong road trip, an e-book (Reaching the Campus Tribes), exploring 250+ campuses, consulting, writing, speaking, and more. I love any opportunity to serve college ministers or others who want to reach college students better. To learn more, explore the header links or the tools below.

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