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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!)

Here’s a great periodic assessment question for your leaders (and fellow college ministry staff): Is there anywhere in our ministry where we might be sending students mixed messages?

This is a deep-thought question, which means you’re not likely to get a lot of answers when you actually ask it! But having this top-of-mind (or at least middle-of-mind) for all leaders could be really valuable, so they notice when things DO come up. And this has everything to do with producing a good, discipleship-focused “customer experience” for your students (which is what I’ve been blogging about this week).

Examples could abound, so ultimately the Lord will have to reveal this in your ministry. But a few potential mixed-messages include:

  • Not teaching the Bible in ways you’d encourage students to study it. Remember, every time someone teaches (from the stage or in a small group), one of their most important jobs is exemplifying how the audience should study Scripture on their own. Your approach should be one you’d want them to emulate in their own personal Bible study. So if you (or other teachers, including small group leaders) stretch passages to make applications, ignore the context, read into the text things that aren’t really there, rely on shoddy sources, switch translations just to suit what you want to say, skip over obvious difficulties, etc. … then you’re sending mixed messages about how to study the Bible well.
  • Championing students as leaders… who shouldn’t be. In some college ministries, it’s very easy for students who are known for lacking integrity, lacking focus, lacking direction, lacking commitment, etc., to ascend through the ranks if they’re popular or have a skill or two. So how certain are you that each of your student leaders is known for HAVING – not lacking – these things, among the students who know them best?
  • Professing certain “pillars” or values with no matching actions. We can claim we’re all for unity… but never actually do anything with other college ministries. We can say we want to be really welcoming… but not build structures to make sure people feel welcomed. We can say small groups are vital, but not make it easy to dive in (or only allow students in to small groups once a year). We can say we love our campus, but never actually do anything to serve it, support it, celebrate it, or spend time on it. We can say churchmanship is biblical, but never facilitate students finding a good church, never hold students accountable to significant participation, or never prepare them to choose a great church in their new city after graduation. Have you operationalized each of your collegiate ministry’s values?

I’m thinking about the “customer experience” within college ministry – how college ministers can help a ministry’s participants, from newcomers to core members, truly thrive.

One element that comes to mind is the opportunity – within the time of a student’s involvement – to discover and be deployed in at least one major area of strength.

College ministry – with its 3 or 4 “prime years” with a student (if we’re lucky) – still offers a big enough canvas to give this a shot. While many students won’t f fully grasp their strengths or “best and highest use” for several more years, collegiate ministry should start them on that journey. And, I’d argue, that “start” should do more than simply offer them a little bit of latitude to “try stuff” in their very last semesters on campus.

Instead, I’d hope that many campus ministries would take an aggressive approach in this area. I would hope that early on – by the middle of sophomore year at the latest – students well-involved in a college ministry might have begun identifying very specific bailiwicks and even start getting chances to serve/shine in those particular areas.

Of course, those two activities – discovery and deployment – can be a bit reciprocal. Students might get deployed in order to (better) discover, too. But my point here is that collegiate shepherds should help guide their sheep in these paths of realization, with the goal that very few graduate without knowing strengths – and, as much as possible, having implemented those strengths in key ways within the ministry, on campus, in a workplace, or in town.

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 just how valuable college seniors could be for improving your ministry?

Sure, you may already be using seniors in major discipleship arenas – discipling individual underclassmen, teaching, running ministry teams, etc. And that may be right where they need to stay.

But this idea still could fit some of those seniors (as a “side job”), other seniors whose plates are too full for larger ventures, and even seniors who aren’t ready to lead – but have faithfully persisted in your campus ministry over the years.

What if you looked at these students’ skills – especially the careers they’ve chosen – and imagine how each might build the college ministry? Instead of putting each individual on a team, this option would mean treating a few chosen seniors as “consultants,” charged with examining or improving some portion of the ministry.

Not everything may line up perfectly, but you might surprise yourself with a little brainstorming. A graphic design student might create your next logo… or even design an entire “marketing” plan for the next few years (for recruiting students OR for fundraising). An engineer might take a look at your building (if you have a building), but she could also set her analytical gaze on your student tracking system. A student who’s proven time and time again to be great at teaching may actually need to pull back from teaching this year… and instead become a coach of underclassmen who are teaching or leading small groups.

If you think about this method student-by-student (rather than trying to brainstorm “ways to use people” without people actually in mind), you’re likely to come up with some pretty great options. After these trustworthy seniors have already spent years in your ministry teams, leading small groups, or – like I said – simply attending (but doing that faithfully), this request might mean more to them than you’d imagine (even causing seniors to stick around and stay plugged in if they’re liable to fall off, as sometimes happens).

And it could be a boon to your ministry, with impact that far outlasts these guys’ graduations.

Earlier this month, I offered an idea for college ministries’ large group gatherings: a “monologue” of sorts, chatting through the issues of the day.

Today’s Fridea offers a spin on that idea (and mostly comes from the fact that I love ESPN’s Around the Horn).

What if – weekly or occasionally – you offered a brief panel discussion on current events of the day? You may already use a panel on occasion, discussing Dating or Finding a church after college or Deciding about joining a sorority or fraternity. But couldn’t you do something similar for current events? What if trusted local Christian leaders – or even some of your student leaders – discussed/debated how they’re processing what’s taking place in the world (or in the city, or on campus).

The point – probably – wouldn’t be so much to argue a certain point of view, as much as to showcase how Christians are viewing “hot topics” through a Christian lens. (As long as everyone keeps this mission primary, it will go well.) Depending on the wisdom of your panel members and the topic under discussion, a panel could be as formulaic or as freewheeling as you want it to be. Anywhere on that spectrum, your students will get a view of how they too should process everything through a biblical worldview – even if that occasionally means mature believers still differ on their conclusions.

And don’t miss how I started this idea. While some panels could indeed take your entire Large Group Meeting, my original notion was akin to the “monologue” (of sorts) from a few weeks ago. This is something that many of your meetings could provide for a few minutes – and it might best hit its stated goal in that timeframe, anyway. That format – a 5-minute panel – could also be used on video (whether or not you did this in the Large Group Meeting at all!).

Not sure I can explain this one extremely well, but here’s an attempt.

If you lead a college ministry of a particular size (and I don’t think it takes too many students for this to be true), then there are likely students whose leadership potential is disproportionate to their relational connections within your ministry.

Student A’s Leadership Potential > How “Connected” Student A Is

“Student A” might be a freshman or transfer. They might be new to your college ministry for other reasons. They might have been really busy in the past, so they didn’t get involved as much as others. Maybe they’re just introverted. But for whatever reason, they’re simply not all that well-known – at least not by student leaders, staff, or anyone who would provide the “definitive reference” on a leadership application.

I believe this happens in churches all the time. College ministries – and this is fortunate – are a bit more of a “closed system” (usually), plus they tend to try really hard to encourage assimilation (which helps with this). But I would still argue that this is an ever-present possibility in, as I said, any campus ministry that’s bigger than a handful of students.

If that’s the case, what can be done about it?

Like it or not, some students are going to need a shortcut – not always a shortcut to becoming leaders, but certainly a shortcut to being known. If becoming better known reveals the character/chemistry/competence that would make a great leader, then they can get evaluated like anyone else. If a Sophomore transfers in to your school but spent a year being discipled in a fantastic college ministry across the state, does that Sophomore really need to “start over” as though they were freshmen? (And while we’re at it, does a freshman who’s been walking strongly with Christ for ten years have to stay in the shadows for a year or two before people are willing to invest in them?)

As I believe I’ve written before, there’s a balance here. It’s understandable that a student might need to hang out for a bit before you can corroborate their character/chemistry/competence. But if no one’s watching, then that corroboration isn’t happening. And that’s my point. Somewhere, somehow, the student who’s interested in leadership has to be able to shortcut (momentarily) any assumed “getting to know you process” to at least make it clear he or she wants to get involved. Once that’s made clear, they may simply return to general population… but now someone knows to keep an eye on them.

And in the hard cases (which happen often, and are probably one of the major reasons ministers don’t like offering a relational shortcut), a college minister or student leader has to tell a student they’re not ready to lead. But isn’t that the job of discipleship? If a student is frustrated they’re not known and don’t have chances to lead, wouldn’t it be better to work with them (even if some character-shaping or competence-building is called for) than to leave them withering, dithering, or complaining?

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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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