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Your student leaders would gain a lot by watching what you do all week. Even if you don’t have a special viewing room with a two-way mirror.

How often do you bring them along for what you’re doing? I’m talking about just about everything, like:

  • Planning a message
  • Spending time on campus / “ministry of presence”
  • Planning out the semester or summer
  • Budgeting
  • Chatting with other student leaders or ministry teams
  • Sharing your fundraising appeal
  • Discussing the ministry with your boss
  • Editing a video
  • Preparing announcements
  • Meeting with your staff or adult volunteers
  • Visiting another college minister (on your campus or otherwise)

Any more options? I’m sure there are. The point is, you’ve got the chance to bring students along for all of it. Sometimes – sure – you shouldn’t. But more often, you should be asking yourself, Why not?

I’m no expert on delegation, neither an expert in understanding nor experience. But I want to be better.

One thing I’ve learned is that quality delegation will nearly always hurt, at least for a while. If you’re only delegating to student leaders the very parts of your campus ministry that

  1. you hate doing
  2. the students will do the same as you would

…then you’re at the bottom rungs of the delegation ladder. That’s fine and all, and it’s good you’re saving yourself some time and energy and giving them “at bats” in execution.

But you’re training ministers (whether they’ll ever be paid for it or not). They need at-bats on strategy, on actual leadership, on decision-making, and even on delegation themselves. For your benefit and (perhaps even especially) their benefit, consider loosening the reins on areas students might do differently than you would. Assign them the chance to come up with strategy, then actually let them run that out. If it’s obviously terrible for reasons they don’t understand, fine, maybe redirect before it even gets off the ground.

But otherwise, you’ll have to face some anxiety while you wait for their strategy to play out.

The same is true for delegating leadership, delegating speaking, delegating ministry functions (like setting up for Large Group Meeting or making a video), and so on. If it doesn’t hurt you to delegate, you’re probably not delegating enough.

Two ways to build community and culture are so simple (and so effective) they almost feel cliche:

  • honoring examples of the culture you’re trying to build
  • self-deprecation

While these two avenues seem worlds apart, they can share a common mode, one method that can accomplish either (or even both): a “best of” ceremony. Whether you’re awarding people humorously (offering “awards” for funny mistakes and goofball moments) or seriously (awarding people for greatness), each avenue presents an opportunity. Either you’re doubling down on what you want… or you’re building community by helping everyone not take your ministry (and each other) too seriously.

Examples of the humorous route: Each year at our staff-wide retreat, a few staff members present an “Oscars”-style awards show… which is basically a “roast” of various staff members. No one’s exempt; top leaders are just as likely (or probably more likely) to “win” as admins or new staffers are. Another example is the weekly wrap-up on a sports radio station I listen to, when three “bloopers” from the week are presented and then voted on by listeners.

Examples of the straightforward route: On the other hand, awards for things like “Volunteer of the Year” can go a long way toward highlighting what you want to see more of. You might not have to chain yourself to a particular category, either – instead offering something vague like the “Ministry Innovation” award once in awhile. (I used to have a team member who would hand out little “Great Job” tickets for various successes she noticed. It meant a lot!)

Whichever route you go, the point is to think about publicly building culture. Could an award ceremony (or an “award” ceremony) be just what you need?

There’s still a lot of meat left on the bone of this semester, and among other things, that means you’ve got room to adjust your student leadership roles and structure in meaningful ways. I’ve written about this opportunity before, so here you go:

You’ve heard the Good to Great principle of getting the right people on the bus, then into the right seats. The latter describes making sure everyone on the team is in the best possible position (for them and for the organization).

Are your leaders – from the ones leading ministry teams, to small group leaders, to musicians, to interns – maximizing their potential in the role they’ve got? For each person, is this role their “best and highest use”? Or is there a different role they’d really be better in – whether it’s because they’re “underperforming” where they are, or (hopefully) because they’d be even more excellent in another spot?

You don’t have to wait for the usual “leader selections period” to make the change. And the time remaining this semester provides a good chance to experiment.

Switching people’s “seats” should always be on the table (any time of year), always worth considering, and often worth doing. Sure, a small group will be sad if their leader needs to move out (or their time gets divided with a new role). And yes, there will be a learning curve for the new guy working the sound board or leading your evangelism team. But you have to be open to this, and brave enough to do it when the opportunity arises.

Yesterday I discussed the need to look high and low for potential leaders, regardless of how well it seems the cream is already rising to the top.

In a recent paper I penned for Made to Flourish about mobilizing within the local church, I attacked that notion a bit:

Staff members may assure ourselves that “the cream will rise to the top,” that members with significant skills will be widely known and acknowledged—and thus be obvious when needed. But do we truly have reason to believe that every useful asset, volunteer, or leader will come to light organically? This levitating cream theory may apply fairly well to certain types: strong extroverts, those with easily visible giftings, or people with well-known conversion testimonies. But other members, perhaps just as fitting or even more so, may remain unnoticed and unasked.

So how can you “get to the bottom of” your ministry so that you find potential leaders? Here are some quick ideas:

  • Always offer leadership applications… and broadcast them
  • Regularly hold leadership training classes – a great chance to train for leadership AND assess potential
  • Ask your small group leaders for recommendations… and require them to suggest at least one “dark horse candidate”
  • Allow rolling leadership applications throughout the year or at least several times during the year
  • Advertise your ministry as a place that wants leaders and raises up leaders (if both of those are true!)
  • Make it very clear that “Leadership” is part of the pathway you hope students will walk within the college ministry
  • Ask students to share ways they’re leading outside your campus ministry – even small ways
  • Survey or otherwise look for leadership characteristics that students might not identify as “leadership”-related
  • Create opportunities for a variety of leaders – not just those skilled in small group facilitation, teaching, or manual service
  • Use “asset-based mobilization”: Discover the talents/skills/experiences of your students, and (as you’re able or as themes arise) build ministry teams, efforts, and leadership roles to fit
  • Ask for “peer nominations” for potential leaders
  • Ask every student if they see themselves as a potential leader, and then ask questions (and disciple appropriately) from there

In any college ministry, you’ve got to have ways to tap into unnoticed leadership potential, apart from whom you know well, fellow staff members know well, or student leaders know well. I realize that raising up “leaders who are known” is nearly a mantra, and I’m really not saying that potential leaders shouldn’t face a “proving period” if they haven’t been proven through the normal course already.

But often that mantra gets misapplied to the level of potential future leaders, so that anyone who doesn’t check the right extroversion boxes or meet the right people or have the right schedule that allows for the right attendance record wouldn’t get noticed for several semesters (at best). This is what must be avoided.

I don’t know what that means for your ministry. It may mean asking every single participating student if they’d be interested in leading in the future. Maybe it means that every small group leader is always on the lookout – and is thinking outside the box, not just about those students who speak up the most. It probably means making it very clear that leadership opportunities are available, opening applications widely, and honoring your current leaders – so that those who are interested might be more likely to let you know. It probably also means pushing students who wouldn’t normally think about it, because some great potential leaders wouldn’t fit the category of “interested” at all.

Yes, with a bigger pool to draw from you’ll be saying No more often and running the risk of running people off. But that in itself is a good leadership development opportunity – and a good test of leadership potential.

Whatever the case, you’ve got to get all the way to the bottom of your ministry, allowing potential leaders to be found early and often. It will make all the difference to your ministry, sure, but will change those students’ lives all the more.

I hope you plan to have one!

Seriously, I hope you’re regularly catching up with anyone who leads within your campus ministry. But a more formal, direct debrief concerning how things are going – even with a willingness to ask big questions like, “Should you be serving in another capacity?” – would be really valuable here.

So many improvements can be made – and big problems can be avoided, too – with some “awkwardly formal” moments before the break.

Last night, our church held an “international potluck,” bringing together many of the international-born members of our congregation (and another couple of hundred American-born folks). It was a great chance to celebrate our church’s growing international population and growing diversity, as well as to encourage those born outside the U.S. (who may not always feel “seen” in our largely white church).

Are there any populations within your college ministry that would be impacted by their own “banquet” or other celebration?

Clearly, care must be shown so other populations don’t feel relegated to “non-favorite” status. Much care. But at the same time, sometimes it’s really valuable to gather students around commonalities – not simply to celebrate them, but also to equip them, encourage them, and even help add other students from their niche to your ministry.

You’re not FCA (unless you are FCA), so what if you held an athletes’ gathering? What about a Liberal Arts majors lunch? A Seniors’ banquet? A Christmas gift exchange for all those who live on the south side of campus? An international student potluck? An artists’ breakfast?

There are three points here that keep this wise, even if it doesn’t always seem fair:

  • Communicate. Share why you’re doing this. As long as you communicate well the reasons a certain group is being celebrated (or being gathered for other reasons), students should be open to that.
  • Be strategic. Don’t hold a special gathering just because certain students might like it – or worse, because it makes you feel like your college ministry is extra-cool. Hold the gathering because you have strong reasons to do so.
  • Involve students in planning. You may end up having lots of special gatherings, led by students in those niches. If Ag majors or musicians or those involved in student government want to rise up and plan something, then so be it! That way you’re certainly not playing favorites. And when a student asks where their niche’s gathering is… you can ask them if they’re prepared to lead it!

An oldie but goodie, and a good season for it…

What if your college ministry developed a “care team” to encourage, minister to, and practically help students who are sidelined?

While my original thought here was loving on sick students, this could also work (and might be even more important for) those sidelined with other situations – family stuff, funerals, a service project or mission trip that cuts into school days, etc.

This is a relatively easy chance to help students serve each other significantly. It may mean having a stash of Get Well Soon cards (or care packages) ready to send. Or a team might prepare something more extravagant – like sending in the troops to hand-deliver flowers, notes from their friends, or a blanket and candy… or whatever a student’s mom says they might enjoy. (Yes, you can call their parents to get ideas, and their parents will likely really appreciate your gesture).

For those missing school: Unlike high school, missing a college class often matters, especially when a student hasn’t planned ahead for the missed day. Does a student need to borrow somebody’s notes from class? Do they need info on assignments they can be working on? Talking to their profs about why a student is out might help, too. So could “filling in” if they have some sort of class or other commitment that really needs a fill-in.

I’m thrilled about this idea, especially because it’s a very practical and very useful way for students to serve their peers.

How would you know?

The truth is, even your college students probably haven’t had enough exposure to “bosses” – and certainly not ministry leaders – to know whether you’re a good one or a lousy one. It’s scary: You could honestly be pretty bad and still gain quite a following (and see lots of fruit in your campus ministry), especially because of the age group you’re serving. They’ll follow lots of different kinds of people, including bad ministry leaders. (Like I said – scary!)

But you can change your ignorance of your current excellence fairly easily. Not by asking, “Am I a good boss,” but by breaking down “good boss-ness” into components and asking for student leaders to talk about those elements. Do you listen well when students express issues in their ministry arena? Do you treat various leaders without partiality? Are you open to new ideas? Are you open to critiques, confrontations, pushback?

Even questions that don’t seem personal can shed light here: “What do you believe our mission is?” “How overwhelmed do you feel by your role?” “Are your strengths being used regularly?” These indicate something about your leadership, but students may be more likely to answer really honestly here.

And a few objective questions can help, too: How often do students share new ideas – or even critiques? (If it’s rare, something might be wrong.) How often do students share about their personal lives? (If they don’t, why not?)

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. There are leadership tools and Google searches for “good boss” and other ideas that can move you down the path here. But now would be a great time to find out, because it’s always a great time to get better.

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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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