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I’ve spent the week at a “Big Data and the Church” gathering (which explains my blogging lack), and I heard lots of intriguing things.

It also made me realize that many college ministers have access to many thousands (or millions) of dollars worth of research on their mission fields – because their schools are paying for such research. Who’s doing that for churches?

There may be a variety of rules/strings attached to viewing the data your campus compiles. But there’s just as likely to be access that would surprise you – especially because schools seek student continuation… and participation in campus organizations is a key factor in that.

When’s the last time you at least asked? And what’s more important, when’s the last time you spent time with any data you do have access to – even if it’s on the school’s web site – and brainstormed what that could or might or should mean for your college ministry?

This isn’t about finding something profound or shocking. It’s about using data – whatever it is – to prompt discussion. If your campus has a number of Caribbean students, or Kinesiology majors, or junior college transfers, or National Merit Scholars… does that prompt your wheels to turn? At the very least, it’s a thinking exercise, and those can always lead to something.

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.

I’m writing this with the assumption that you already have some leaders slated for the fall (or are using some this summer). But if not, this might be worth putting on your calendar.

Have you ever asked a new student leader what they think could be added to / deleted from / changed about the role? Or how their unique makeup might cause them to “tweak” the job description for maximum impact? You know, if they were in charge?

They should be in charge of their role!

Sure, sure, they’ll need some direction from above. Maybe “co-in-charge” is better. But the point is ownership.

It’s easy to assume your student leaders believe they have the latitude to tweak or evolve their student leadership role. But unless they’re the first ones in that particular role, they may not even ponder it. They’ve seen it in action, possibly served underneath the former leader for a year or more, and haven’t seen staff members suggest the role should be any different.

Or even if they do ponder a change, then having a meaningful conversation, prompted by the questions above, might unlock a world of creative ownership for them – plus help them create a role in which their strengths can be utilized best.

Is there any niche on your campus where you’re known, simply because you’ve been present?

A college minister’s ministry of presence can successfully grow in common spaces, in student centers or dining halls or dorm lobbies.

But God has created you as more than just a minister, too. And it’s likely you have passions that you could feed while developing a very focused ministry of presence, too.

Could your ministry’s next great inroads come at the spot where your own enjoyments and the campus intersect?

What if you began watching soccer games regularly, while developing relationships with fans and athletes? Are you into art? I know there’s a whole artistic community on your campus that could get to know you through your recital attendance, gallery browsing, or other patronage. Maybe you’ll regularly attend guest seminars in the Business school. You could join a book club with Lit students. You could offer to help with Alternative Spring Break, volunteer caddy for the Golf Team, or help prepare Mock Trial teams. Or maybe you’ll even connect with the School of Religion in a participatory way, because, you know, it is your line of work.

But I’m just guessing. You know your passions (don’t you?). And it’s possible that connecting them with your campus – and building relationships through them – is something God has had in mind all along.

What if the next time you got together with other college ministers on your campus (or even just grabbed coffee or lunch with one other), you purposely limited yourselves to the discussion of ONE topic?

General questions/discussions can be great: “What’s new in your ministry?” “What are you seeing in students this year?” “Tell me about your biggest changes this year.” But if you really want to improve in an area that two (or more) college ministers share, spend some time digging deeper, not wider.

Thirty minutes chatting about How We Do Small Groups can be far more valuable than 3 minutes talking about 10 topics. Or go even “smaller”: Small Group Curriculum (What We Use and How We Choose). I recently watched a bunch of ministries go for an hour on Tracking Volunteers… not recruiting, but simply tracking and connecting with them.

By limiting the questions to, well, one, it forces everyone involved to think beyond their normal spiel, whatever’s top-of-mind, or the paragraph they wrote in the most recent supporter letter. And don’t worry about filling the time: New sub-topics produce new questions, producing new lines of inquiry and edifying rabbit-trails in turn.

There are a couple of ways to look at delegation within a college ministry – the first involves filling a role that will, once everything starts working smoothly, save you and other staff members a good bit of time. That’s the form a minister is more likely to invest in; even though it can be hard to delegate, good delegation ends up offering a solid return, and both the staff member and the new volunteer/student leader are benefitted.

But college ministers should invest in the second form of delegation, too. This form involves delegating activities that aren’t actually tying a minister up all that much. In fact, it may involve tasks that – for one reason or another – the minister kind of likes! But even among these tasks, there can be fertile soil for delegation.

This sort of delegation may not seem – at least originally – like it provides a great return when it comes to time-saving. (In fact, it may offer all the annoyance of the delegation process with none of the time savings.)

But the latter benefit mentioned above still applies – this delegation allows a student to get involved who may not have been previously, or it allows for student ownership where there wasn’t student ownership before. In many cases it allows for involvement a student wouldn’t have even imagined, one that isn’t upfront but still matters.

For example, let’s imagine your weekly Large Group Meeting has a portion dedicated to ministry announcements. It may be that you’ve already delegated delivering those announcements to students.

But who finalizes the actual list of announcements? Who serves as “editor” or “producer” of that segment? Have you even realized that this is a job (one you’re probably doing)?

Many college ministries might not have delegated either of those roles– not the giving of the announcements or the creation of the announcements. But I imagine it’s far more likely to see students in the first role than the second.

You may not feel that role – of “announcement segment producer” – is anything a student would want to do. And you may also feel that giving it away would be unwise; you feel the need for final editorial control. But this doesn’t mean you can’t have that final say. And to the first objection, I would first ask, Are you sure? I personally would have really enjoyed that role as a college student – I’m much more of an editor than I am a performer, or even many times a solo-style leader. And second, it’s easy for all of us to forget that people see value in being “a part of something,” even when the role seems small-ish. Someone collating, curating, and signing off on announcements is very much a part of the larger team presenting the Large Group Meeting. What student wouldn’t get some encouragement from that?

I would consider making it a goal to have a few new student volunteer spots – whether they’re truly “leadership spots” or plain ol’ volunteer spots – each year. I bet, if you’re willing to put your thinking cap on, it would be several years before you maxed out in this direction.

While paid staff tends to be tied to fiscal issues and fiscal calendar, volunteer roles… aren’t.

This calls for brainstorming.

What might happen if you pulled together your present leaders – or even a bigger cross-section of your college ministry – to brainstorm a few completely new leadership roles for the next school year?

As I’ve said (on occasion), I feel like college ministries are far too similar to each other, at least in light of the wide diversity of the campuses actually served. This is one way to break that up – to let the student leadership spectrum evolve past simply consisting of small group leaders, Large Group setup team, Events team, Evangelism team, and the other mostly standard roles. These may be pillars and perfectly required. But your context probably asks for more. (And some students who haven’t quite found their exhilarating fit will benefit too.)

What innovative new leadership roles might come your way?

Finishing out my vacation week and a look at posts from Novembers past, here’s a Fridea…

Ultimately, it’s important that Student Leaders come to see themselves as your fellow College Ministers, just as international missionaries work to raise up indigenous leaders who fully “own” the mission (while remaining part of the tribe).

If you can get your students to that point, then spending time brainstorming with them about the mission only makes sense.Yes, they’ll need direction. Yes, they’ll probably have to hear some “Nos” to their Big Ideas – although

Yes, they’ll need direction and guardrails for that brainstorming. Yes, they’ll probably have to hear some “Nos” to their Big Ideas – although couching that response in “we’ll have to see if it works out” terms may be good. (Better, help your newly-fellow college ministers see why lots of good ideas, though “good,” aren’t best.)

Taking this a step toward the concrete: What if this sort of brainstorming became the focus of a special night – or even a college student (or leadership team) retreat?

“Brainstorming Brouhaha?” “Conspire Camp?” “Rack-our-brains Retreat?” Whatever you call it, if it’s done well, letting students brainstorm about specific areas of the ministry and possibilities for the upcoming semester or school year could unleash all sorts of great new ideas. They are, after all, the indigenous leaders – there are lots of reasons foreign missionaries try to raise them up to impact their own tribes, but one of them is because indigenous leaders know their tribe best.

One tip for making this great

Before I close out this Fridea, I want to point back to a principle that will make-or-break this experience for your ministry: teaching your students (and yourself) to build methods around purposes, not vice versa. (I call it Backwards College Ministry, and you can read about it here.) Teach your students that stuff first, and this activity really could generate some fantastic next steps for your campus ministry.

This is nothing new to many, but it’s so vital that it’s worth saying anyway.

When you’re planning an event – whether it’s weekly or annual or happening just this one time – it’s crucial that you name the audience you’re going for. Very few college ministry activities should actually be targeting “any student who wants to come.” They may be open to attendance by that broad, generic crew, but that’s not the same as noting who your target is. Or if we want to think of things in primary, secondary, and even tertiary audiences, we can do that. Very rarely would (should) your target or primary audience be “everybody” or “every student.”

For instance, your Large Group Meeting may have as its primary audience the regulars in your college ministry, while still loving the chance to impact new people who show up. Or its primary audience may be less mature Christian students – whether they’re regular or not – who need a “taste” of community with God’s people. Or it may be new students to the ministry, even if there are fewer of them than the regulars.

This audience-identification (before you start planning) matters deeply for “programming” (what you choose to actually do at the event in question). Just as you would tailor one-on-one discipling to the individual, so college ministers should tailor their large-group discipleship (in whatever forms it takes place – including the most basic awareness-raising or recruiting efforts).

Who are you trying to reach here? Does your design match that? Are you trying too hard to cram too many audiences into the “primary” category? Once your plan is in place, can we honestly say that the primary audience is likely to respond well to that plan?

Who’s the “engine” of your college ministry for thinking about ways to advance your mission into new territory? I don’t mean continuing the present mission in all its effectiveness, or even tweaking things so that even more fruit is gained (although both of those are important pursuits). Today I’m asking if someone in your campus ministry gets to spend significant time thinking about new areas of fruit-bearing altogether.

In many college ministries, this task would fall to the college minister. And that’s great… if he or she has been able to delegate a lot of other oversight to students, volunteers, or staff.

In some college ministries, there might be a staff member or two who are wired entrepreneurially. They might provide this engine… if, again, they have space in their schedules for entrepreneurship. If they’re mostly running the Large Group Meeting or have six discipleship appointments each week, then R&D will (and should) take a back seat. Or it might just stay in the trunk.

I hope that some ministries let students be an engine for R&D, even if staff members are also thinking about advancement too. For the right kind of student, a yearlong focus on “what could be” will be an incredible growing experience – both for them and for the ministry.

Whatever the case, the title of this post presents the crux: If student leaders, staff members, or the director don’t make room for R&D, then it will not happen. And room has to be made, not simply watched for and then grabbed when it comes along. There’s always more urgent tasks on the calendar, there are always ways to fulfill the ministry you’ve already undertaken, something can always be better. So if the collegiate ministry is going to move forward into new places and new ways, you probably shouldn’t just wait for the prime month of July (or a few weeks of Christmas break) to provide all your R&D-ing space each year.

Someone’s got to be making some room for it, starting today.

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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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