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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.

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.)

Hopefully, during the school year, news of a major event in a student’s life would make its way to student leaders and/or staff in your college ministry. But what about this summer?

That’s a great assessment for just how well you’ve grown the “family” feel. Would a student whose dad was sick reach out? What about a student who lost their job – or who landed a fantastic job for post-graduation? Would you know if a student led someone to the Lord… or would anyone else in the college ministry know? What if a student got engaged? If they failed a summer school course – or aced it? If they got hurt or landed in the hospital? Or if a student realized they weren’t able to return to school in the fall?

Maybe a college minister shouldn’t settle for this threshold of “major events”; maybe a true family would know a lot more about each other – at least at the level of small groups or other “intimate community” structures. But this is a start at an evaluation.

If every student who returns in the fall needs to catch everyone up on their lives, then there might be room to improve the “community” aspect of your campus ministry. And even now, a little reach-out to students (or through student leaders) couldn’t hurt.

Have you considered visiting any of your students who are away for the summer?

You might not be able to accomplish this for all your students, but a misplaced “fairness” shouldn’t keep you from visiting others. If there’s a city where several of them live (or are working this summer), all the better. Or maybe you’d try to visit as many of your student leaders as you could, or those about to be juniors, or some other segment.

Your staff could split this up, or even student leaders might get in on the act, visiting other students to grab lunch or whatever.

Yes, it takes time and a little budget. But it’s a powerful way to remind everyone that this college ministry is a family. And it will get you in touch with that “other world” of your students – you know, since y’all usually just hang out inside the campus bubble.

College ministries don’t often have “membership classes”… because they don’t tend to have “membership.”

But what if you imagined a way for new students (not just freshmen, but anyone new) to learn your ministry’s “secret sauce” – its pillar values and mission statement and involvement pathway and leadership opportunities?

Some ministries may do a fantastic enough job discussing these very regularly in Large Group Meeting. But other than purposely outlining each of these things at least once a semester, how else could you help students know them?

Your structure for this doesn’t have to look like a membership class. It might involve a 30-minute low-down after a Large Group meeting once a month. It could take place within a prerequisite “kick off meeting” for every student who’s joining a small group. Perhaps making it part of a “future leaders” class would suffice, if that class is pushed for just about anyone who plans to stick around your ministry.

Or it might simply be a standalone session, offered to students who have clearly made your ministry their home. (You could even consider doing it by invite only – not exclude, but to entice students to show up.) Remember, students don’t necessarily dislike the notion of “belonging” to something – you may not call it “membership,” but they might be open to something along those lines.

What role does celebration of individual accomplishment play within your college ministry?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is underway right now. While it’s not a college student effort, it’s edifying to imagine how these kids’ schools, churches/synagogues/mosques,, and even whole towns are cheering them on.

How does your college ministry respond when a student…

  • Competes in a student body election, or seeks another leadership post?
  • Secures a competitive internship for the summer?
  • Gets a job prior to graduation?
  • Publishes an article or literary piece in a prestigious journal?
  • Gets accepted to graduate school?
  • Enters a campus competition – or wins it?
  • Makes it to the NCAA playoffs in their sport?

It could be cheering students on as they compete. It could be celebrating when they win. (It could also be encouraging them when they don’t win.) But surely a college ministry should be a place of “rejoicing with those who rejoice” at the very least, right?

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.)

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.”

I broached the topic of a college ministry’s “back door” in the last post, but here’s a simple follow-up:

Do your students see involvement in your ministry as enough of a “membership” that choosing to leave – or even pausing for a season – feels like it has some friction? Or would students in your ministry find it weird for you (or student leaders they know) to ask where they had been, or why they dropped out?

If a campus minister never expresses the notion that students are “part of something,” then students won’t feel they’re “leaving something,” naturally. And in some ways, a college ministry’s recruiting efforts – that make joining fun and… well, effortless – ,could make it far too simple for students to slip away when they’re not feeling it anymore, or when outside influences (like busyness or sinfulness) ramp up.

Even occasionally letting students know that you care they’re there – and that you care if they disappear – would go a long way toward encouraging a sense of belonging now, and an easier conversation if their involvement drops.

“Adopt-a-student” programs aren’t unusual within church-based college ministries, but even for those guys it’s an idea definitely worth spending a Fridea on… and it’s worth every other branch of college ministry considering how they, too, can connect students with individual families.

The idea, if you’re unfamiliar, is for a church family to “adopt” a student – likely for at least a school year. This means (at least) occasional meals in their home but often can mean service both ways – babysitting by the student, an opportunity for the student to do laundry, etc. This is one of those activities where a little training goes a long way – and it’s wise to train the students as well as the adults.

But it’s the practical beauty that you’ll want to focus on. How awesome it is to get college students around babies and soccer games and family tables! Let alone the impact on the families (though it can be substantial) – imagine the blessing for your students in seeing a strong home in action, driving “home” all that you’ve been teaching about marriage and adulting and career and conflict and probably several other things. These are potential mentors, definite role models, accomplices as you try to draw students outside of their own little worlds.

As best you can, get your students a family!

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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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