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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!)

I’m taking a vacation this week, so I’ll have a collection of favorite posts about one topic that hits most college ministries… the Large Group Meeting! Whether you have a classic “sing-n-speak” or some twist on the all-come gathering, I hope you’ll find these useful.

Do the front-line students (or other volunteers) in your ministry act more like hosts or hawkers?

On a vacation awhile back, my wife and I got to enjoy some restaurants and hotels where the customer service was top-notch. The front-line staff – hostesses, valets, front desk people, etc. – often did a great job of making us feel very welcome. (This can happen in non-“fancy” places, too, of course!)

But on that same vacation we also visited Maine’s Fryeburg Fair, a famed New England gathering of exhibitions, animals, crafts, booths, and carnival games.

There’s a lot of “hosting” happening at a fair, too. For instance, the carneys running the games have apparently found success with high-pressure efforts, trying the blunt-force, yell-across-the-way to reel people in to throw darts, guess a number, and win prizes. (My wife isn’t a big fan of that form of “hosting.”)

But it’s easy for college ministry greeters to come off more like the latter than the former – in part because they are hoping to recruit new students all the time.

Have you taken an honest look recently at how your front-line volunteers might appear to a stranger or someone else relatively new to your campus ministry? This doesn’t just include students greeting at a Large Group Meeting; true “hosts” should be found at info tables, passing out fliers, recruiting on campus, doing announcements, and anywhere else people are encountering your ministry for the first time. (It even includes the styles of your ads!) Are all these people and papers staying on the hospitable side of hosting, or have they wandered a little too much toward hawking?

 

Last week I wrote a post about the kind of “boring data,” about your ministry’s students, that can be oh so valuable for shepherding the flock of God among you.

But another type of data is both more readily available and just as valuable to your college ministry: details about your mission field, the campus(es) you serve.

It’s already there. Someone on your campus (or possibly from outside your campus) has already been paid to learn all sorts of interesting things about the Crimson Tide tribe or Tarheel tribe or whatever tribe you serve. Hopefully this sort of data is something you made use of, just like a church planter, before you came to campus. But whether you did or didn’t, it’s something you’ll want to refresh yourself on regularly – and share with your staff, volunteers, and student leaders on a regular basis.

A once-a-year rhythm of reminder/reexamination seems like a good starting place here, especially since it’s relatively easy to find students who can help in this endeavor – and even some who would love poring over the data.

Few campus ministers would doubt they should know about their campus. This is one very practical – and much more objective that most – means of doing just that.

A quick thought on where “we who teach” find application steps to push people to take…

If a college minister is discipling people, he or she should expect fruit, right? Of course there are always fits-and-starts among our students, some complete backsliding, and other frustrations. But someone, somewhere is learning from the discipleship.

And as a college student (or anyone) works out their salvation, they’ll apply truth – if it has really soaked into their bones – in ultimately personal ways. Someone will take your message on trusting the Lord and apply it very specifically to their decisions about next summer. A sophomore will hear you teach on evangelism, and they’ll develop – unprompted by you – a goal to grab lunch with five people from their Intro Psychology class.

And on and on, application being driven by the Spirit as a result of God’s word seeping into lives. Presumably that’s the story of your life, too: of countless Bible passages and messages, presented pretty broadly, but then applied by yourself to some pretty unique corners of your existence. Sure, many times too a teacher offered an application step that applied directly and distinctly to your life, no adjustments needed. But not nearly always, right? Don’t application steps usually provide examples, springboards for us to find personal application that may look quite different?

So I wonder if there’s meant to be a communication loop here, especially in college ministry. Can you do a better job of “collecting” students’ Spirit-led application steps, to broadcast those examples for the next round (or the current round) of students? I’m particularly thinking of the opportunity you have, just a few weeks after teaching on Hospitality or Unselfishness or Disciplemaking, to let students share their testimonies of applying those things to their particular day-to-days.

Christian ministers of all stripes are often good at presenting testimonies of salvations, and college ministry does this perhaps more than many. But how often do we present testimonies of faithful applications of other truths? Might these application steps inspire more students to more personal application, providing a cycle of deep obedience in your ministry?

How well – and how quickly – would your students be able to spot a cult on campus? What about something that isn’t unorthodox, but a ministry or teaching that doesn’t line up with the distinctives of your particular denomination?

Obviously, the former case is more important than the latter. But this question is more about assessing the work of a college ministry than even safeguarding students. Have you presented doctrine clearly enough that aberrations would be noticed?

I once saw a young adult minister purposely spend 30 minutes teaching false doctrine, just to see who might call him on it. I don’t know if I’m in favor of that experimental approach, but it did stick with me all these years. And the point was a good one: Many Christians (even well past their college years) aren’t clear enough, confident enough, or concerned enough to have a mental “check” when doctrine is off… let alone actually challenge it.

Your students are likely to face aberrant teaching somewhere, somehow on campus – even if it’s just through small talk in the dorm. (But let’s not discount the reality of full-blown, highly attractive weirdness.) And then your students will face another juncture when they leave school and choose a new church. What does it say about your ministry if your students feel quite comfortable in a new church that’s quite doctrinally different than what you’ve (supposedly) been teaching? (Do you know what churches your graduates from a year ago have landed in?)

This isn’t a call for disunity – part of teaching doctrine is teaching “primary” versus “secondary” and “tertiary” doctrines. But it is a call to make sure college students are being successfully entrusted with doctrine, and a good opportunity to evaluate a college ministry along those lines.

A little point of order that’s always a good exhortation:

Many college ministers have to (and get to!) deal with data in some form. This may be information overseers require – basics like number of spiritual conversations, head counts at events, new participants, etc. It’s clear those measures are useful, so they’re also used for supporters as well as internally, when college ministry staffs want to evaluate their efforts.

But when we’re dealing with ministry data, I’d offer a couple of pushes. (And maybe I can write on this at greater length soon.):

  1. Data can show you a lot, if you’re willing to dig. I’d encourage you to consider going beyond the measures above, looking more deeply at the numbers that make up your ministry. Some things are easier to count – small group sizes, for instance – and other things are harder but possible – like “regulars” last year who have stuck around this year. But if you’re willing to dive in – both in what you collect and how you examine it – you could find spots of weakness, spots of strength, and also valuable points of emphasis… it’s much easier to argue a need for greater outreach if you can say, “Only 12% of our students shared with someone about Jesus last semester.”
  2. Good data comes from careful examination. All sorts of errors can creep in even when we’re motive-free – and often a minister hopes the data will confirm what he already suspects. So getting this right requires all sorts of controls (double-checking, going at questions in a variety of ways, etc.), understanding about stats (like knowing that correlation doesn’t imply causation), and so on. Some information is more straightforward than others, but it’s vital we’re always asking ourselves, “Is this really as straightforward as I think it is?”

I know this is headier (nerdier) stuff. But it’s important, and it could provide a lot of value for your ministry.

And here’s some good news about gaining a lot of insight AND getting it right: You likely have students who could do this really well, serving alongside you in mining your ministry’s data. They’re being trained to do it right now in the classroom – better than you probably ever have been. Accounting majors, Psychology/Sociology majors, Econ majors, Statistics majors (of course), Marketing majors, and others likely have a lot to offer here. And a team of such people could build something awesome… and accurate!

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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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