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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?

The rhythm of collegiate ministry is an interesting thing – hardly comparable to any other form of ministry. Even youth ministry, which does have to account for the school year, tends to have a continuing flock during the summer – as well as a steadier roster (because of the influence of parents).

College ministry’s unique rhythm, among other things, carries with it natural deadlines – particularly that yearly one called The Start of School in August or September. Perhaps the second most dramatic deadline is in May. And don’t forget the “shepherding deadline” for each student before he or she graduates.

These deadlines (hopefully) work for you, not against you. You’re forced to prioritize and push when asking things like,

  • What improvements will we make for the upcoming school year?
  • Are our recruiting materials ready?
  • What are the most important themes to teach before summer?
  • How will I prepare them for summer?
  • How will I prepare them for life beyond college?
  • What leaders will serve with us in the new school year?

And on and on.

I know these deadlines can feel like a scourge sometimes. But their presence forces, as I said, prioritization. And prayer. And practicality. And all those things are fantastic for moving along, improving year after year, “making the most of every opportunity,” “numbering our days.”

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?

An oldie but goodie – and there’s good room to do this in the summer if students are around.

When’s the last time you took a young collegiate couple on a double date with you and your wife?

That might seem like an awkward idea – and no doubt there would be some awkwardness – but I can’t think of a better way to call college students to date well… and marry well, too. (If you’ve got adult volunteers or want to recruit some – even just for this – that could be really great too.)

Whether you’re married or not, I hope college students get to hang out at your house on occasion. I hope they see you in your “work life,” too, even if that’s simply more college ministry work. I hope they rub shoulders with you in your other ministry habitats, too – like your church, your neighborhood, and your city.

Letting students into our lives is a chance to show them what they should aspire to – as adults (whatever our age happens to be), as spouses, as family men and family women, as employees, as church members. And even, right now, as really great dates.

I’ve posted this before but probably can’t say it enough.

Summer slows down for me a bit, so, for example, I might get the chance to press forward on the theory and strategy side of my ministry by reading a variety of books. I’ve attended heavy-duty conferences in summers past, or started working on something spring simply didn’t provide time for.

Crash-coursing can be a joy.

I don’t know what your summer looks like, but here’s one thing I can guess is true: There’s at least one portion of your college ministry which, if you improved during this summer, would truly (and forever) impact the ministry as a whole.

So the question is, can you take the time this summer to make that advance?

Could you take a few days, or an hour every day for a couple of weeks, or a weekend retreat, or some other “crash course” season to move the ball forward in that area? Sure, a crash course is not the only way to learn – maybe not even the best way. But it can work for certain topics – and even more importantly, it may actually be something you’ll actually do!

If you HAD to choose something to take a crash course on, what would it be?

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.

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.

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?

Many college ministries have made overseas missions a priority. Whether by taking mission trips together, encouraging students to consider short-term or mid-term missions opportunities, or simply seeking to lift up students’ eyes to the (overseas) fields, international missions is a regular “push” for many college ministries.

So in light of yesterday’s themed reminder, I want to encourage some of that zeal to be channeled toward the campus tribes.

My wife and I are planning a vacation (to Hawaii, in fact), and as I often do, I looked for college ministries I might visit while we’re there.

And so far I’ve found… very little.

I’ll keep looking, but it reminded me that plenty of campuses remain largely “unreached” (from a missiological standpoint) – and in this case, that status may be applicable to an entire island or two. Hopefully I just haven’t found these ministries yet.

But my encouragement stands: Would you urge students to consider if God might call them to college campuses? “Unreached” campus tribes aren’t the point – though hopefully it’s part of the consideration. The point is recognizing that missionaries are needed all over the place, and that college campus offer one of the greatest opportunities for that very pursuit.

A very simple Fridea that I first shared eight years ago…

Share purposes with your students.

How often do you relate – explicitly – why certain things take place in your college ministry? Even weekly events or other very basic things? Have you ever shared, “This is why we have our Large Group Meeting,” or “Here’s specifically why we’re planning this retreat”?

Sharing what we hope to accomplish in a ministry – directly– might actually help those goals occur more readily. It also gives participants ownership and the opportunity to serve or lead to make sure those purposes are accomplished. And it holds us accountable, in front of everyone, to keeping our aim steady.

Sharing your purposes also might make your campus ministry more friendly to outsiders, who may legitimately wonder why you meet or why you sing or why you pray in groups or why you have crazy skits or why you play ultimate frisbee each Sunday afternoon. Some types of students will care more than others… but some, at least, will care. And whether they care or not, sharing purposes invites students inside, into the considerations of leadership.

What if every time you held a Large Group Meeting, you shared the purposes in a brief sentence or two (even on the screen)? Or what if for the next fellowship event, you (at least) shared the “method behind the madness” with your student leaders? How else could this methodology function in your ministry? Is it worth trying?

With college ministers, some of your purposes need to remain in your heads (but I hope they’re at least very clear there). But sometimes, student leaders should be privy to those details. And oftentimes, the whole group would benefit from knowing that yours is indeed a purpose-filled ministry, and that there are specific gains you hope to make in every step you take.

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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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