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College ministers can hide.

It’s not hard. Unless you’re a campus-based college minister, few of your overseers actually understand what you do. If you’re a campus-based college minister, they’re still not on campus with you.

Your students don’t stick around for oh so long, and they’re in your inner circle (as student leaders or similarly) for an even shorter amount of time. So they may not really have time to recognize oyour leadership (or character) weaknesses, at least not enough to coherently confront you.

And the students who do pick up on those weaknesses… well, they’re students. They’re rarely mature enough, ready enough, and/or brave enough to exhort this guy or gal who leads this successful ministry. They’re much more likely just to move on, and no one will bat an eye. (That’s just what students do.)

If you’re a college minister, then, you’ve got to have perhaps the most radical mindset about seeking evaluation/confrontation/exhortation of any minister (although we might lump church planters and missionaries and “celebrity” teachers into that bucket too). Entrepreneurial ministers – and college ministers are certainly that! – need to be entrepreneurial about seeking radical feedback. This includes plopping yourself into intimate community that you “don’t have time for,” asking for blunt feedback from students who “don’t know me yet” and who may not say things well or very precisely, and probably finding another college minister (or other minister) who will ask lots of questions so they can, intelligently and wisely, point out some of your mess and your messiness.

Because you’re not the leader you could be. No one is. And while God can shape you directly as much as He wants, He seems to want to use people to do that, oftentimes. So where, exactly, could that happen in your schedule and your relationships right now?

Ever since I started dating my wife, I’ve grown in my appreciation of fantastic restaurant experiences. It’s one of our hobbies – though we partake less often now that we’ve got two kids under two… But that appreciation is still there.

I was reminded recently of this post from five Augusts back. It’s not just about chefs – that’s just the example – but it’s definitely about college ministry. It’s my hope it would characterize more college ministries every year.

Here’s a question that only gets tougher as you think about it:

If a future chef walks into your college ministry this fall, will he or she be impacted over the next four years in such a way that they actually turn out to be a better chef because of your ministry?

Surely our walk with the Lord should touch every aspect of our lives – including our habits, our decisions, our effort, our faithfulness. And these things, for college students, are much of what makes them become everything God meant for them to be. So does an increasing understanding – over our college years and beyond – of how spirituality connects with our chosen field, whether that field is Culinary Arts or Restaurant Management or Waitressing… or Structural Engineering or Creative Writing or the dozens or hundreds of vocations your recent grads have chosen. Glorifying God in the kitchen, boardroom, workshop, or classroom isn’t just about evangelism. It’s about excellence and ethics and great leadership and producing great food and even producing art – all things God created people to reflect His image through.

Will your ministry help produce better chefs? Or will it – as I’m afraid is often the case – help each student grow in basic spiritual disciplines without helping Jesus be Lord of (and immensely glorified within) their vocation?

How many “great chefs” are you sending out each May?

Yesterday I wrote about the value of a basic “journey map” for college students. What’s the “path” that a student tends to experience as they hear about, join, and go deeper in your college ministry? What are the pain points along the way? Where is the journey smoothest?

But “customer experience” journey maps work best when we consider the journeys of various kinds of people. And that, I believe, is one of the more common failings among college ministries: neglecting various sheep who don’t follow the standard involvement path.

Journey mapping for those “other” kinds of students can radically increase leaders’ empathy. So you, your staff, and even your student leaders should contemplate the journey of students who might not fit the norm for your campus ministry.

How would these students hear about your ministry? What would they experience at their first event, and what would they understand or not understand? What next steps would they hear about? What next steps could they take immediately? What next steps would they be likely to take? How would they find a small group, a service opportunity, or a leadership opportunity? How might they find help, or recovery, or friends, or someone to disciple them, or someone to tell them about Jesus? How would they get help plugging in to a church?

Start with these, and then come up with your own!

  • A freshman who starts attending in February
  • A transfer student who comes right when all the new students do
  • Someone who’s never been exposed to Christianity at all
  • A student from China
  • Someone who was leading in a college ministry at their previous campus, or at their church
  • A graduate student
  • Anyone who starts attending now but will graduate in 2 years or less
  • A student who’s already very involved/leading in their local church’s ministry (if you’re a campus-based ministry), or who’s already very involved/leading in a ministry on campus (if you’re a church-based ministry)
  • A student who lives wherever most of your students don’t (with their parents, an apartment, fraternity house, etc.)

In the Customer Experience world, something called “journey mapping” is apparently a big deal.

A customer journey map tells the story of the customer’s experience: from initial contact, through the process of engagement and into a long-term relationship. It may focus on a particular part of the story or give an overview of the entire experience. (from here)

What’s more, journey mapping can be applied to different types of customers – not simply those following the “usual” funnel, but also those who might connect with an organization in a less-than-usual way (or sometimes a less-than-ideal way – like when they have a problem and need customer support).

For college ministers, the journey mapping process offers a whole lot of value for improving “member experience.” But I fear that many college ministers aren’t all that studied in the usual pathway for students in their organization, let alone for all the students who might come into contact with the ministry outside that normal pathway. When I interviewed 300-ish college ministers on my yearlong road trip, the “usual student pathway” question was one I asked regularly – inquiring about the road students tended to travel from first contact through the ministry’s various opportunities for assimilation, community, service, and leadership. It was rare for a college minister to clearly enunciate that common pathway, which certainly didn’t mean they were ignorant on the issue – but did mean it probably wasn’t something they thought about often.

But my point in asking that question was a little different than the point of journey mapping. The former (knowing students’ “usual pathway”) allows collegiate ministry leadership to tinker with helping students go deeper, and also to express best the hopes/expectations/opportunities for students in the ministry. The latter, journey mapping, more pointedly allows for empathy for what students experience… and with it, improvements in various parts of the “journey.”

I’ll chat more about journey mapping for college ministry this week, but hopefully this gets you started thinking. How clearly can you express what various students experience in trying to “navigate” your campus ministry? What do they experience as they try to gain the “hopes” I discussed yesterday?

I’ve been writing about “customer experience” in college ministry, because any college minister should care deeply about the actual experience of the ministry’s members, whether or not it translates into “numbers,” etc.

One big opportunity to improve students’ experience within your campus ministry will arise if/when you become familiar with what they hope your ministry provides. Many college ministries already have some sort of “Get to Know You” form that new guests fill out. Many ministries also make a point to have a leader sit down with those visitors ASAP. In both cases, though, I wonder how often students are asked,

“What do you hope to get out of this college ministry?”

(If they’re clearly still in the deciding process, you could change “this” to “a” and accomplish the same thing.)

Clearly, students will have a variety of reasons for attending – some more noble than others, some more practical than others, and some more actionable than others. But don’t you think knowing this information – for as many students as possible – would help your staff and leaders think better about providing a great experience? Even when a student “just wants to find a girlfriend” or otherwise hasn’t set their hopes high enough, it’s very useful information for discipling him (or her). And plenty of students might surprise you, even leading you to consider new activities or new emphases.

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t about “meeting customer preferences” to keep people or get new members. I’m talking about discipleship, which should always concern itself with how well forms fit the audience.

Here’s a great periodic assessment question for your leaders (and fellow college ministry staff): Is there anywhere in our ministry where we might be sending students mixed messages?

This is a deep-thought question, which means you’re not likely to get a lot of answers when you actually ask it! But having this top-of-mind (or at least middle-of-mind) for all leaders could be really valuable, so they notice when things DO come up. And this has everything to do with producing a good, discipleship-focused “customer experience” for your students (which is what I’ve been blogging about this week).

Examples could abound, so ultimately the Lord will have to reveal this in your ministry. But a few potential mixed-messages include:

  • Not teaching the Bible in ways you’d encourage students to study it. Remember, every time someone teaches (from the stage or in a small group), one of their most important jobs is exemplifying how the audience should study Scripture on their own. Your approach should be one you’d want them to emulate in their own personal Bible study. So if you (or other teachers, including small group leaders) stretch passages to make applications, ignore the context, read into the text things that aren’t really there, rely on shoddy sources, switch translations just to suit what you want to say, skip over obvious difficulties, etc. … then you’re sending mixed messages about how to study the Bible well.
  • Championing students as leaders… who shouldn’t be. In some college ministries, it’s very easy for students who are known for lacking integrity, lacking focus, lacking direction, lacking commitment, etc., to ascend through the ranks if they’re popular or have a skill or two. So how certain are you that each of your student leaders is known for HAVING – not lacking – these things, among the students who know them best?
  • Professing certain “pillars” or values with no matching actions. We can claim we’re all for unity… but never actually do anything with other college ministries. We can say we want to be really welcoming… but not build structures to make sure people feel welcomed. We can say small groups are vital, but not make it easy to dive in (or only allow students in to small groups once a year). We can say we love our campus, but never actually do anything to serve it, support it, celebrate it, or spend time on it. We can say churchmanship is biblical, but never facilitate students finding a good church, never hold students accountable to significant participation, or never prepare them to choose a great church in their new city after graduation. Have you operationalized each of your collegiate ministry’s values?

I’m thinking about the “customer experience” within college ministry – how college ministers can help a ministry’s participants, from newcomers to core members, truly thrive.

One element that comes to mind is the opportunity – within the time of a student’s involvement – to discover and be deployed in at least one major area of strength.

College ministry – with its 3 or 4 “prime years” with a student (if we’re lucky) – still offers a big enough canvas to give this a shot. While many students won’t f fully grasp their strengths or “best and highest use” for several more years, collegiate ministry should start them on that journey. And, I’d argue, that “start” should do more than simply offer them a little bit of latitude to “try stuff” in their very last semesters on campus.

Instead, I’d hope that many campus ministries would take an aggressive approach in this area. I would hope that early on – by the middle of sophomore year at the latest – students well-involved in a college ministry might have begun identifying very specific bailiwicks and even start getting chances to serve/shine in those particular areas.

Of course, those two activities – discovery and deployment – can be a bit reciprocal. Students might get deployed in order to (better) discover, too. But my point here is that collegiate shepherds should help guide their sheep in these paths of realization, with the goal that very few graduate without knowing strengths – and, as much as possible, having implemented those strengths in key ways within the ministry, on campus, in a workplace, or in town.

Here’s a tricky one: How would you (as college minister) know if your students were having a bad small group experience this school year?

The truth is, students are less likely to actually tell you than to

  • not realize their small group experience is sub-par or ineffective,
  • simply scoot away from the ministry (or at least from their small group), and/or
  • keep coming but not prioritize their small group (by coming infrequently, only keeping those relationships at a surface level, etc.).

But if college ministers should care about the experience of current participants (and they should), then this is one of the most pertinent areas to that experience (if small groups are a pillar of the particular college ministry as they often are).

So what means do you have to gauge their effectiveness… including to learn about groups from their participants? It can’t just be word-of-mouth… right?

And… I’m back. Our son’s birth went well, and we’re sleepy as we learn about life with two under two.

I’ve come to realize through the years that I’m drawn to all sorts of (what I would call) “ministry gaps” – areas the big-C Church seems to have under-served, under-appreciated, under-funded, etc.

That’s a big part of why I gravitated to college ministry nearly two decades ago.

And even as I do explore other ministry gaps, what’s great is that I can usually connect my pondering on those gaps to the world of collegiate ministry.

One thing I’ve had on my mind a lot lately is what you might call “user experience” within ministries. Since “UX” in the corporate world most often applies to digital settings (like how easily customers can navigate a company’s web page), the closest comparison here might actually be to CX – customer experience. But of course ministry people like us sometimes get a little queasy talking about attendees as “customers” – understandably.

So maybe it’s just “experience” for now. In the case of our field of ministry, CMX perhaps.

Whatever we call it, our “users’ experience” should be a major concern to anyone who leads a ministry. And significantly, for college ministers this MUST apply to “users” beyond freshmen.

Yet college ministries may function often like churches that put heavy investment into “first impressions” (for new guests) and “assimilation” for new regulars and/or new members… but then leave longer-term members largely to their own devices when it comes to going further up and further in.

So that’s what I’d like to blog about this week. It’s not a new discussion around here, but maybe some new thoughts in new ways will pop out.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to ask how your investments line up: What percentage of emphasis, activity, and resources is dedicated to students “pre-assimilation”? (In your ministry, a student may be “assimilated” when they’ve joined a small group… attended three times… attended something more than the Large Group Meeting… or whatever. It doesn’t have to be an official designation to be useful here.)

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3 Jn. 4 ESV)

As I write this blog, I’m listening to our 19-month-old play in the other room. It’s a joy to hear her busily poking and spinning the toys that are far higher-tech than mine were 35ish years ago.

I look forward to taking joy in her all her life. As I think is the case for many Christian parents, it gives me glimpses of how the Lord views us (and me!), how He takes joy in His children. But there’s another opportunity to reflect some part of that: in the joy we who shepherd get to take in our “children,” the various flocks/congregations/ministries/mentees God has given us some leadership in.

Until we forget to delight in them.

This post is an encouragement to make sure you’re spending enough time and/or emotional energy purely delighting in these college students God has allowed you to minister to. Go to recitals and games, talk with them about hobbies and dreams, watch them worship or teach. Enjoy them, smile to yourself about them, take the relational joys as part of the grand portion God has provided you in making you a college minister.

This coming school year, could you make more space – both in new calendar events and within the calendar events already in place – to delight in your college students?

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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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