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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 often do you establish requirements for students who wish to participate in certain ministry activities?

Clearly, most of what a college ministry offers – from “front doors” like Large Group Meetings to most forms of small groups to campus events – wouldn’t draw lines on who can or can’t participate. On the other hand, many have leadership opportunities that do indeed necessitate an application process or at least a few qualifications.

But there’s an in-between category that might too quickly get lumped in with the former group (requiring nothing but “just showing up”), without enough consideration given to potential requirements. In the end, one college minister might land differently than another here, but I’d argue it’s worth considering.

Two common activities spring to mind here, and they can serve as examples to weigh other activities:

  • Participation in a mission trip
  • Serving on a ministry team within the college ministry

In both of these cases, I’m specifically referring to participants, not leaders. (In the case of leaders, you’d likely – hopefully – have some expectations/qualifications already.) In both cases, though, these activities differ from most “entry level” opportunities because

  • They require a level of commitment to work best (for the mission and the people involved)
  • They are greatly aided by a level of maturity – because of the team dynamic and the mission

Sure, some ministries will treat either of these chances as great opportunities to involve people who, before this point, have stayed around the edges of a ministry. And that may indeed be best for your situation and your students. But I’m simply arguing that it’s worth considering turning these activities – or others like them – into more selective opportunities. Hopefully you can see the upside to that approach, in regards to team dynamics, commitment-keeping, impact through these endeavors, and even raising the interest level among your students.

And there may still room in some such activities to add an “entry level” component. In ministry teams, for instance, you might end up establishing the ongoing “Team” but also offer a much more open door for “Volunteers” who serve alongside the Team.

Here’s a question for you:

If someone new visits your college ministry this week, how likely are they to become regulars? Are they more or less likely than if they’d visited last September? That assessment is this week’s Fridea!

There are plenty of variables here, but it might be useful to think about each one: Is this theoretical visitor a freshman, or older? Did they come with a friend, or not? These two variables alone greatly affect their likelihood of returning. (And I’m sure you can run this scenario with a few other variables, too.)

And the question this week is how likely those students are to keep coming.

In some college ministries, nearly everything is set up for success at the beginning of the year: lots of explanation, easy entry into next steps (like small groups), student leaders and others whose hospitality efforts are turned up to 11, even a system for contacting visitors ASAP. Fliers are abundant, excitement is abundant, directions are abundant.

In others, I’d imagine, it’s far easier to get well-connected later: easier to feel like you know the leadership, less confusing and hubbub-filled, easier to find answers to questions, less likelihood of falling through the cracks – like slipping out un-greeted, and so on. Ten on-their-game leaders for every visitor might just make connections and hospitality inevitable.

Ultimately, you’re looking for ways to make the whole year visitor-welcoming, and you can learn from the strengths of each season.

A double-Fridea that I’ve posted before but gives you something great to consider for the week after students return!

Why not put some extra effort into recruitment in January? I think this is one of our most-missed opportunities to draw students to our college ministries. Plenty of students will be looking for something to do, will have a new schedule, will transfer in, will come back from studying abroad, never got well-connected in the fall…

…and…

Consider holding a Winter Break “reunion” before your first Large Group Meeting. Let your students reconnect with each other early so they can be “outward focused” to welcome guests at the Large Group. Plus, this can be a neat way to debrief with your students about what God did or challenges they faced over the break.

We’re starting to work again on my church’s Church Leaders Conference, which means (among lots else) thinking about advertising. And one element I always try to encourage is raising awareness among those who have already proven to be learners. In our case, those who have already shown an interest are (obviously) some of the most likely to be interested in this chance, too.

This particular type of high-“return on investment” advertising makes a lot of sense. But it’s also surprisingly easy to miss. It seems like most of us are far more likely to think about reach – how many people we can get the word out to – than we are to think about likelihood of response. Both types of advertising are important, but the latter is more efficient. So we certainly don’t want to leave that out.

Where are such people to be found in college ministry? Where is the pump already primed in such a way that students are more likely to check out your collegiate work?

As I sat down to think about some answers, I found myself gravitating toward the students who are already believers, students who come out of another ministry (like a youth group), and/or students who have already begun to pursue spiritual things on campus (like finding a church). If there are ways to identify those students, it would be highly useful – to you and to those students – to hear about what you’re doing.

But are there opportunities beyond that? Maybe it’s worth looking for students who are particularly looking to get involved (which is why organization fairs and ministry fairs are so important). You might also find interested parties in the rolls of transfer students. Otherwise, they may come in other niches you know about on your campus.

Beyond that, you might need to think deeply about your own campus, because much of this would be contextual. Your schedule might affect things, for instance – what if you purposely advertised right where a class lets out on the night of your ministry’s Large Group Meeting? Lots of clever little ideas might come to mind if you thought creatively here.

Right now on college campuses, “freshmen are everything” – or at least that’s what it can seem like.

But as college ministers, it’s really important not to “play favorites” – at least not in a way that causes your hospitality, shepherding, and even “re-recruiting” of former ministry members to take a back seat.

It’s not just about making old members feel alienated – while that’s a danger, it’s probably fairly rare for freshman-philia to extend to a highly noticeable place. But it’s worth examining whether a college ministry’s efforts simply aren’t balanced enough (whether anyone notices or not). Those not in your ministry are certainly worth reaching, and that recruiting is even an act of discipleship. But your “regulars” are your flock, the guys and gals God has given you to shepherd and steward. After they’ve likely spent three months without your direct attention, nobody wants to make them wait another one to dive in.

Part of doing student recruitment as good discipleship is making it easier for students to respond, as I argued last week. Adding to last week’s list, today I hit a couple of others.

Honesty

What is it really like to come to your college ministry? This is one of the ways recruitment that recognizes its disciplemaking role differs the most from that which doesn’t.

Our goal shouldn’t be simply to get as many people into our ministry by any means necessary SO the discipleship can start. From the first moment, we should be discipling – which includes giving people an honest look at what our ministry offers, and what it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean you have to accentuate the negatives – but you can’t claim positives you don’t have, whether that’s friendliness or “lots of fun parties” or a big attendance or “a bunch of service opportunities” or “leadership roles for students.”

Students are making a life-changing decision here; bait-and-switch isn’t right.

Distinctives

Similar to honesty, it’s important for a college ministry to share some of how their ministry is different from other ministries. This too helps students make this big decision.

I’m not encouraging contrasting as much as simply including your distinctives as you tell about your ministry. If your specific denominational theology runs throughout your ministry and its teaching, it should run through your recruitment some, too. If small groups are a key part of your DNA, they should be mentioned early and often. Are the students you draw mostly introverted… or extroverted? You don’t have to chase the other crew away, but it’s worth sharing the atmosphere of your different environments. Is your ministry the biggest (or smallest) on campus? Then it’s good to share the size to give students an accurate expectation.

What methods, characteristics, or philosophies make you different from other college ministries on your campus? Students need to hear about those distinctives.

I’ve been talking about recruitment as discipleship this week – a philosophical shift for some of us, to be sure. Today I wanted to point out another aspect of discipleship that should be part of our recruiting: making it easier for people to respond.

Jesus Himself chastised the Pharisees for not aiding people as they discipled them:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4 NIV)

If recruitment doesn’t “lift a finger” to help students actually follow, then it’s a bad form of discipleship WHILE being less effective at drawing students. In fact, by looking at recruitment through the discipleship lens, asking just how helpful you’re being toward students you’re recruiting, you’re likely to accomplish better what you’re hoping for – getting students into your ministry.

Just about any form of recruitment can be audited for “helpfulness.” And you’ll want to think along these lines:

Clarity

Is what we’re encouraging extremely clear, even for those who have been on campus for a week or less?

Could a stranger follow the directions to find the building? Are the title and description perfectly clear for a non-Christian, someone from a different denomination, or someone unfamiliar with collegiate culture? Are we not only clear in print, but is our 20-second elevator pitch also clear in these ways?

One Step

Are we primarily inviting students to an on-ramp? Sometimes we only present Our Full Ministry, without giving students an easy first step.

While I do believe it’s really useful to share about the entire ministry, it’s also important to offer an easy way for them to start their involvement or even just “check it out.” (And this is true not only at the front of the school year, but also within it. Maybe your Large Group Meeting provides this on-ramp weekly, but it’s worth considering whether that meeting is truly a great front door for ALL students.)

Details

It can seem almost contradictory to the call for clarity, but some students truly will want details on your ministry – its plans, its goals, its philosophy, its theology. Is there a good place to find these (ideally the web)?


Next time, I’ll dive in to even more ways to “audit” our recruitment for helpfulness. (Here’s that post.)

This year, I’ve taken several chances to discuss a vital principle: Recruitment is discipleship, whether we do it well or not, because we’re tugging people toward something we believe brings spiritual benefit.

Yesterday, I narrowed that larger discussion to the act of recruiting new students to a college ministry. (Because of course, ’tis the season.) But I said there it would be hard, and it is. So today I wanted to share some methods for injecting a discipling DNA within efforts to recruit this fall. They’re taken from some things I wrote earlier, but now focused directly on this “new student” type of recruitment.

(And don’t forget – we’ve got to share this with our students, too, who will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting in their dorms, on Facebook, in classes, and at your early events.)

Help students desire SOME sort of involvement in spiritual things

Don’t let involvement in your ministry be the only goal that comes through in your recruitment, whether it’s at a booth, in a posted advertisement, or on Facebook. Some students won’t be ready for your ministry (or any other) until you share why spiritual involvement matters at all.

One way to disciple college students is by encouraging them toward involvement in something. Even if they don’t jump in to our ministry or into the opportunity we’re pushing, we have the chance to raise their interest level.

Of course, this means that disciplemaking-recruitment requires us to be Kingdom-minded and open-handed, knowing that not every student will “land” where we might hope. In any case, stirring their desires for involvement is an impactful step.

Teach them, don’t just tug them

It’s easy for our recruitment to be heavy on the sis-boom-bah of promoting involvement and be quite light on impacting them inside this process. So to make our recruitment more “disciply,” what could we teach the students we encounter in this period?

  • How to make decisions in general
  • Good and bad reasons to choose a college ministry
  • The importance of not jumping in to too many organizations or commitments

As you or your students encounter potential recruits, they need wisdom on these points and more. This includes what you teach or say during your early events, whether that’s a kickball tournament or your first few Large Group Meetings.

Are you teaching or only “tugging”?

Help students process their decision

Students coming in to college will rarely understand the decision-making process in front of them. But you can help. This can include:

  1. Offering reasons they should consider our particular ministry
  2. Pointing them to other ministries that might be a fit (and helping them see why)

I’m a big believer in all three of these. First, I do believe we should present to students – in charitable and wise ways – what our ministry offers and why it could be the best ministry for them. It’s better for every college minister to present the distinctives of their ministry, rather than to talk (dishonestly) as though they feel every ministry is equal. (I’ve called this effort “Kingdom-minded Competition.”)

In fact, by doing that, we give students a basis for deciding on a ministry – something they likely haven’t processed as well as they could have. With all our emphasis on recruiting, we’ve sometimes missed the chance to disciple students in the deeper (and lifelong) issue: how they decide among the varieties of spiritual involvement.

Finally, if we’re really honest about helping students make the best possible choice, we will help them find the very best ministry for them, even if it’s another ministry. And we might even help facilitate the connection to the other ministry.

Look for opportunities to impact “off-topic”

While the task of recruitment is important (it is, after all, discipleship!), there are going to be student-encounters that require something different. We never know where a student’s coming from when they approach our Orientation booth or show up to our first big event.

If we’re open to it, God will reveal – when needed – what He’s up to in students’ lives. But we may need to go “off-task” to partner with Him; if a student needs strategies for overcoming homesickness, we don’t want her just to walk away knowing the large group meeting is in Baker Hall on Tuesday nights. And we may need to invest some time – even during this incredibly busy season – in a lunch with a student for deeper conversation. Don’t forget this is what you’re a college minister for – to impact the students God’s already working on. When He brings them your way, don’t miss that chance.

Be sure to train your students in this, too. Their conversations may start with a goal of inviting to the ministry; sometimes they should end with something different.

Love the student

This, of course, goes without saying. But as we recruit students to our ministries, love-for-each-student certainly can cover a multitude of the mistakes we might make.

We may be a little too competitive at times, a little under-prepared, a little scattered, a little worn-out. But if we really love this individual student standing in front of us right now, most of us will pretty naturally disciple him or her. (Because that’s your original purpose here, right?) And because we love them, we’ll have no problem helping them find what they need – whether it’s our ministry, the gospel, or something else.

It’s the last week of August, so you’re probably beginning to think about recruiting another round of freshmen (and others). So I wanted to add to this year’s discussion of recruitment as discipleship… which I hope will be on your mind. (It can be a truly radical philosophy to adopt.)

[If you’ve missed the earlier discussion, be sure to see Recruiting is Discipleship.]

Today, I look at the temptation to “get the job done” but not disciple very well while we’re doing it.

Trickier to Keep Discipleship in Mind

When it comes to recruiting new students to your ministry, you don’t really have the chance to know your audience – at least not before you get into conversation. You also may be recruiting – through posters, a booth, handout cards, or a variety of means – that don’t give you a direct connection with “recruits” at all. Further, recruiting to join a college ministry tends to be an “all call” much more than recruiting to a particular volunteer position or leadership spot.

So it’s harder – with this HUGE part of collegiate ministry – to keep discipleship principles at the forefront of our recruiting. But even this type of recruitment, at the first of the school year, the kind of recruitment that feels like the lifeblood of a college ministry and the entire focus of a college minister’s first few weeks… this form of recruitment still requires (if we’re going to fulfill our ministry) a discipling focus.

Not an Option: It Is Discipleship

When you’re recruiting, you are discipling – you’re inviting people into a spiritual opportunity. But plenty of distractions make it hard to disciple well, even when we get dozens or hundreds to show up:

  • Volume: Because a college minister or his students usually want to draw as many as possible, the “process” of recruiting can sometimes overwhelm the “people” aspect.
  • Variety: As I noted above, this may be a time when you’re trying to reach lots of different students. So that has its own way of making a discipleship focus trickier, since you can’t narrow in on one particular audience (including the students you’re used to reaching weekly).
  • Unity: In most cases, we’re recruiting in the midst of other college ministries. So this may lessen our emphasis on the value of our ministry… even though this is important. (I’ll talk more about that this week.)
  • Busyness: Recruiting is a college ministry staff’s full-time job for the first 2-4 weeks of school. So that makes it harder to “keep your wits about you” and not lose the discipleship plot in the midst of the craziness.

Next, I’ll share about recruiting and discipleship in the midst of all this. And don’t worry: This isn’t about adding “one more thing” in a busy time, it’s about injecting our recruitment with discipleship DNA.

 

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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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