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I’ve written this week about preparing student leaders to welcome new students really well. But one of the biggest opportunities for a great welcome is simply to, somehow, remember new students’ names. If a leader meets a new student at a welcome booth, or the first time they visit Large Group Meeting, etc…. they need to do everything they reasonably can to remember that name for the next time.

Right? Isn’t this pretty easy and fairly important?

So how can that be done? Ah, that’s the trickier notion. I think it begins with raising the value of this effort; if student leaders really believe it’s important, then they’re far more likely to do it.

Well-known “tricks” also help – like the whole “Be sure to say their name in the conversation at least a couple of times” tip, as well as the, “While they’re walking up to you, remind yourself over and over to remember this person’s name” old standby.

But you can also consider other means:

  • Photos, obviously, can be key. So why not have some roaming photographers at your first meeting… followed by a post-meeting student leader collaboration, where leaders help each other remember as many new faces/names as possible?
  • Nametags for the win! Try to squeeze nametags in anytime it’s not too awkward (emphasis on too – I think most times it’s less weird than college ministers think it is). I still think nametags rise to the level of one of the Best Practices in college ministry.
  • Just write the names down of students you meet, then use Facebook to attach faces later, as best you can. Each student leader should leave a recruiting booth of the first Large Group Meeting with a handful of names.
  • Teach your students memory tricks. Sometimes being hospitable simply comes down to using all available means to serve others – and if that’s a name-remembering course, is that an unspiritual use of student leaders’ time? But I also bet there are a few short YouTube videos or Google-able how-tos that would help immediately, too.

We’ve talked this week about highlighting basic doctrinal comparisons and basic methodological distinctives, so that student leaders are prepared to welcome new students to your college ministry – or recruit them in the first place.

One other route that would be worth walking with your student leaders – perhaps simply by way of reminder – is the discussion of differences in personality they will encounter.

College students often aren’t quite at that age where they’ve figured out that everyone is different and/or not like themselves. (They often haven’t gotten very far in realizing how distinct they themselves are in personality or giftings, either.)

Simply reminding students to watch for cues as they speak with students (at the recruiting booth, in the classroom, or when they walk through the doors of your ministry) would go a long way. Is this person before me excited? Shy? Thoughtful? Open? Bold? Timid? Curious? Indecisive? Possibly too decisive? Fun-loving? Loud? Quiet?

If your student leaders aren’t tailoring their welcome and their “pitch,” adjusting tone and even content to serve best each student they’re talking to, then that’s on you, O college minister! They may not have arrived equipped to do that, but you can equip them.

If your student leaders have only gotten deeply involved in your college ministry, then how well do they actually understand your college ministry’s distinctives?

It’s like those adults who say, “When I was little, I thought every family drove to Nebraska every summer!” Your student leaders rarely have any context for describing your collegiate ministry in terms of its differences. They may not know how your programs are different, how you focus especially hard on one-on-one disciplemaking or small groups or interactive worship or whatever. They may not even realize where the theology runs in different streams from other ministries.

And one time knowing these distinctives really matters is when they’re connecting with new students who are checking out your ministry.

I’m not suggesting student leaders should constantly be pointing out comparisons with other ministries. They can highlight distinctives simply by saying, “These are the things our ministry especially focuses on” and leave it at that (most of the time). But it’s not wrong to point out differences, too, especially if they can do it in a way that celebrates other campus groups.

Knowing a campus ministry’s distinctives doesn’t just matter for basic “recruitment” purposes – although that’s useful. It also allows student leaders to help freshmen and other new students process this decision. They can actually disciple that person standing in front of them really well – if they have something to say about the factors that go into their decision.

This can all be done in a Kingdom-minded way, and far from being wrongly competitive can actually help students as they make this life-changing – yes, it’s potentially quite life-changing! – decision about the college ministry they’ll participate in.

(And by the way, if you lead a church-based college ministry, your leaders not only need to know the distinctives of your college ministry, but also the distinctives of your church!)

I thought I’d write this week about ways to prepare a college ministry’s student leaders for those about to walk on your campus or (especially) walk through the doors of your ministry. With some basic readings, discussions, or other resources, those student leaders can be much more prepared to welcome, connect with, and hopefully shepherd the diverse crowd that’s coming… as well as to avoid any unnecessary early debates before people get to know each other.

First thought: Help students understand the varying theological backgrounds of Christians who will try out your ministry.

It certainly seems more common for college ministries to position themselves as non-denominationally as they can… even when they do, in fact, come from a denominational heritage (or even a specific church). And I don’t mean they’re deceiving or baiting-and-switching; they simply don’t choose to wear those particular theological commitments on their sleeves, and they are happy to welcome students from other traditions. (Some do. But most don’t.)

And even truly non-denominational college ministries generally have theological commitments of some sort, in some stream of Christianity that differs from other streams. If your ministry is “a little more Charismatic” (or less), has a Calvinist bent (or bends the other way), focuses on building a diverse membership (or generally attracts certain types of students), focuses heavily on international missions (or doesn’t), etc. … then you too have some specific commitments.

But welcoming all-comers – and even deeply believing they can be shepherded well in your ministry – doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare well for the welcome. Good disciplers get to know their audience.

So how well will your student leaders interact with someone, say, who grew up in a Pentecostal church? A Fundamentalist Baptist one? A heavily Reformed upbringing? A Church of Christ, a very mainline upbringing, or a King James-Only spot? And how well will they interact with any of these people who bring up their own unique theological commitments, or hope to “vet” your ministry through this lens?

You may not need to set student leaders up for success on all of these types of people… or there may be several others you need to consider. You know who comes to your ministry (I hope). But it’s also not hard to prepare a number of FAQs or – even better for this purpose – Talking Points to help student leaders navigate those conversations – and any differences – well. (In fact, a few theologically-minded students could probably knock out this task for you!)

Perhaps your ministry already serves incoming freshmen – a move-in day, for instance. But have you considered other ways to add value for incoming students, to serve them (even when the “return on investment” has more to do with actually serving them than wooing them to your ministry)?

We don’t have to pick one or the other, but hopefully you and your current students do have a bent toward “giveaway” service that doesn’t have to receive something back in proportion to what you’ve given.

So in no particular order, here are some opportunities that come to mind:

  • Campus maps with “the places Freshmen really need to know”
  • Campus tours
  • City tour
  • Tour of churches
  • “Off-the-Map Orientation” session
  • Study skills session
  • Dorm organization session
  • “Catalog” of what you really need in a dorm room (written by students)
  • Session for parents
  • “Rest stop” for students and parents as they move in, do orientation, etc.
  • Any of the above things for parents, or for parents to do with students

Since I’ve been on this “customer experience in college ministry” kick, I’ll offer a Fridea to match:

Prepare FAQs for the important next steps you want incoming students to take.

For instance, do you have a strong means for helping students understand how to get involved in a church (from choosing to joining to participating)? Where’s the step-by-step for small group involvement? Or for leading within the ministry – even if that won’t happen just yet?

The format could vary, but having these items in front of your students both proclaims their value and offers a concrete next step. And (presumably) they could be used year-round, not just at the start of school.

In the Customer Experience world, something called “journey mapping” is apparently a big deal.

A customer journey map tells the story of the customer’s experience: from initial contact, through the process of engagement and into a long-term relationship. It may focus on a particular part of the story or give an overview of the entire experience. (from here)

What’s more, journey mapping can be applied to different types of customers – not simply those following the “usual” funnel, but also those who might connect with an organization in a less-than-usual way (or sometimes a less-than-ideal way – like when they have a problem and need customer support).

For college ministers, the journey mapping process offers a whole lot of value for improving “member experience.” But I fear that many college ministers aren’t all that studied in the usual pathway for students in their organization, let alone for all the students who might come into contact with the ministry outside that normal pathway. When I interviewed 300-ish college ministers on my yearlong road trip, the “usual student pathway” question was one I asked regularly – inquiring about the road students tended to travel from first contact through the ministry’s various opportunities for assimilation, community, service, and leadership. It was rare for a college minister to clearly enunciate that common pathway, which certainly didn’t mean they were ignorant on the issue – but did mean it probably wasn’t something they thought about often.

But my point in asking that question was a little different than the point of journey mapping. The former (knowing students’ “usual pathway”) allows collegiate ministry leadership to tinker with helping students go deeper, and also to express best the hopes/expectations/opportunities for students in the ministry. The latter, journey mapping, more pointedly allows for empathy for what students experience… and with it, improvements in various parts of the “journey.”

I’ll chat more about journey mapping for college ministry this week, but hopefully this gets you started thinking. How clearly can you express what various students experience in trying to “navigate” your campus ministry? What do they experience as they try to gain the “hopes” I discussed yesterday?

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.)

What if your student leaders and other “core” students took some time this summer to share about your ministry with incoming freshmen?

And what if they reached out because of a connection – same home city might or of course same high school when available. Maybe other characteristics can help, too – same denominational background, or same major, or same sport in high school.

How does one get this sort of info? And how can we keep from just sending a bunch of spam?

As for getting the info, every school is different on what it provides. But they might provide student organizations with some level of info on incomers. If you just have a mailing address, someone can still send a note. But you should be polling a lot of the youth pastors in your state, to help share about your ministry with their incoming students. It’s amazing what social media connections can do, too – and there might be a “Class of 2021” group out there for your campus already (offering you students to connect with).

As for the spam angle, different ministers will draw different lines here. It’s important to respect students and their info and their “space.” But it’s also okay to recognize that they’re used to getting contacted and may even like it. One (wise) reach-out, with something a student actually might care about, on social media or email may not seem invasive.

Your students, honestly, may be more clear on what will seem “awkward” than you will be. Social norms matter (as long as they don’t enslave us), so don’t run forward without thinking them through. But with all the fliers, reach-outs, mailings, booths, and other efforts to reach them they’ll face between now and October, it might be okay to offer a “chance to do something spiritual” in there, too – especially if they’re offering to connect with them (regardless of whether they come to the college ministry or not). Freshmen still know they’re freshmen, and some of them are pretty freaked out. However your students serve them in the midst of that, it’s likely a win.

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.

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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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