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How do you say No to potential leaders… or to present leaders/volunteers who need to be “fired”?

College ministers realize that No can be a great discipleship moment. It’s vital – for the campus ministry, yes, but also for the interested leader or volunteer – to hear No when it’s necessary.

But one principle of No-saying is that elongating the No can sometimes add to the discipleship process. And I don’t mean simply saying “Nooooooooooooooooooooooo.”

Sometimes a leader has to say an immediate No, removing a bad leader or simply shooting straight with a potential leader. But other times, you can take that same student on a discipleship journey that makes it less painful for you and for them, as well as deepening the discipleship you have with them.

Here are some ways to “elongate a No”:

  • In the case of a present leader/volunteer, sometimes you can meet with a student multiple times rather than just once, helping them transition out (or to another role) via what feels a little more like mutual decision. That doesn’t mean you don’t stick to your guns if a No is really needed and they don’t agree. But unless the ministry’s in jeopardy, a present volunteer or student leader has the chance here to process the issues and not just the “rejection.”
  • The same goes for anyone who steps up to lead for the first time. Treat their idea (that they should lead) like you would a big idea for a new event: Hear them out, ask probing questions, make them process related ideas (and Scriptures about leadership), etc. While this may not be as simple if you’ve got a scheduled influx of leaders once a year (for instance), even in that case, you might be able to offer honesty and transparency as you work through someone’s leadership offer with them.
  • Offer Leadership Training for potential leaders before they begin applying for leadership roles. At worst, you’ve gained some mutual language for talking about why a No might be right (for now). They might also self-select out of the leadership pipeline for now.
  • An application process that goes well beyond just asking for name and contact info can accomplish something similar. Ask hard questions, and at least you’ll be allowing potential leaders the chance to process the very reasons you might eventually need to give them for a No. Or, again, they might self-select out – and be better because of the process.
  • Elongating the No may simply involve softening the No, too… by offering this individual another way to contribute or even move toward leadership. That might include a leadership class, apprenticing under a leader, or otherwise contributing and staying nearby for more discipleship.

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.

I’ve gotten a couple of chances to play in my creative side recently here at work. A report I planned to give to my team presented an opportunity to share data with gusto. And a video I shot allowed for some freewheeling fun.

So I’ve got a question for you: Do your creative students (and I don’t just mean the “artsy” ones, although I do mean them too) have outlets for that within your ministry? Are there great chances for humor scattered through a school year? What about graphic design – from handouts to backdrops to worship slides to T-shirts to…? Is there freedom enough in small group-leading and announcements-giving and event-planning that students inclined toward creative oomph can unleash in those venues?

Just a question. From a guy who appreciates those opportunities when they come along.

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.

I realize that most college ministry “structures” with leaders – small groups, ministry teams, volunteer teams, etc. – are based around the daily work of either pastoring or producing some sort of effect. Small group leaders certainly might have a general curriculum for the semester, but their “work” centers on the sheep in their fold (as it should). Large Group Meeting Team (which in most cases has a far more engaging name) focuses primarily on getting Tuesday nights “pulled off” with excellence and impact every week (as they should). Hospitality Team, meanwhile, stays hard at work making sure people feel welcomed (a vital task indeed).

But in the interests of presenting a stretchy possibility (the stuff of the weekly Frideas), let’s consider this: What if the leaders of these teams prepared “strategic plans” for their semester? All this would mean is offering goals – with how-to-get-theres and potentially even deadlines. And ideally, these goals would involve improvement, a moving-forward, something that might even outlast their tenure in this leadership role or at least describes where they hope to take the people under their care.

So a small group leader might outline the ground they feel their group should take in various measures – from Bible study methods to gaining humility. Evangelism Team leaders might identify a group on campus that seems underreached, and outline ideas for reaching those students. Your Events Team head may see room to involve more of your ministry’s students, or simply to cut costs.

College students aren’t regularly pushed to think about “plans” like an employee (including many ministers) might be. But why shouldn’t they be? This is one mechanism that might be worth playing around with, to see what fruit might come from asking your student leaders to focus both on the daily work and long-term growth.

How well have you taught your students to think Christianly about “everyday” things, like the media they consume?

If you’ve got some students (as a result of your leading or otherwise) who are thoughtful about music, the latest Netflix series, movies, etc., could they take that thoughtfulness a step further by writing reviews for your ministry? (Or could you combo with other college ministries to produce this?) (Or could these reviews come in the form of videos, or within a special portion of your Large Group Meeting?) (And could these reviews ever impact the campus as a whole, through the student newspaper or via other means?)

The increasing options for “binge-worthy” shows on a variety of TV platforms has led to new prominence for this category, and (depending on your campus) this may be a primary media mode for your students. But anything from music (of course) to internet sites can be reviewed.

A “Christian review” of such subject matter can mean a lot of things. It certainly doesn’t only mean a “content review,” though Christian thoughtfulness has to brought to bear here. But getting students wrestling with not only what should be watched but also how to watch – including the deeper spiritual themes (whether pro-Christ or anti-) – is an enormous discipleship win. And if you have students whose callings – to the Arts or to Communications or to other relevant careers – make this a particular fitting task for them, then this is vocational discipleship they really shouldn’t miss during their time in your college ministry.

(If you need a place to start and good examples for your students, look at the work of Alissa Wilkinson.)

A few weeks ago, our fearless leader announced that we wouldn’t be having our normal weekly all-staff meeting. Instead, he encouraged us simply to spend that time with the Lord, in whatever way(s) worked best for us.

It was fantastic.

Have you ever considered doing something like that for your students, in lieu of a Large Group Meeting? Of course, you could still offer something for students who are freaked out by that idea, come for the first time, etc. You wouldn’t even have to announce it until everyone’s there. (You’ve got to watch out for bait-and-switch, so ponder this one. Maybe it’s even a half-evening or something.)

Another option would be offering this to Student Leaders. For even some of them, spending the normal hour or two just “with the Lord” would be intimidating. And that’s a teachable moment all of its own.

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?

As I’ve written many times, brainstorming is often easier (and often bears better fruit) when we begin with some sort of “springboard” and/or “guardrails.” Today’s suggestion is an obvious example of that, but it’s also a way to get students more deeply involved in your ministry.

What if you went down the list of majors represented in your ministry, and brainstormed – for each and every one – ways to get those people involved more deeply? This could include anything from raising up leaders to simply having students tag along for deeper ministry activities – the latter an amazing form of discipleship we often “never get around to.”

Some examples:

  • First up in your list you find a Psychology major. What if she joined a few of your pastoral care conversations with fellow students in the coming weeks?
  • Then you see a Communications major, and you know there are more. What if they formed a team to suggest – or carry out – recruitment campaigns for next semester?
  • Poli Sci majors. In this crazy political climate, they could give you the low-down on recent political happenings every two weeks (with a well thought-out Christian approach), and help your ministry know when/how to respond. (Kinda like I suggested here.)
  • History major. This guy could present a “This Day in Christian History” for each Large Group Meeting, he could join with the Poli Sci group I mentioned above, or he could write some “biblical response” articles for you – even if it’s not directly history, it’s likely he’s learning how to write strong papers.
  • Fashion major. He designs your next T-shirt, of course.
  • Business major. Depending on your organization’s setup, she could actually help with the “business” or accounting side. But she could also “consult” you on organizational principles in general, as you plan next year’s small groups.
  • Hospitality major. Too many opportunities to list.
  • Creative writing. Blog! Social media! Start putting student testimonies on paper!

Sure, it can get a little tricky as you go. But the idea behind taking an asset-based approach to ministry is starting with whom God has brought us. And we remember that the goal isn’t a perfect match of skills + activities; the goal is discipleship and deepening involvement. So even tangential connections between their major and your campus ministry could mean a lot to a student.

And of course, students can help brainstorm this too. They’ll realize connections you don’t.

A simple notion that can mean profound change: sometimes volunteers do better with more on their plate.

If you put more “job” into the “job description” of your student leaders, would they:

  • rise to the challenge?
  • feel more satisfied?
  • feel a bigger sense of ownership?
  • be less likely to get burned out?
  • grow more?

The answer to these isn’t always yes, but it’s often yes.

While you’d need to go about any commitment-adding gingerly if you’re mid-stream (although some leaders might jump at the chance), this may be a chance to upgrade for the next round of student leadership. Where could more turn out to be more?

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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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