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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?

It’s interesting that college is actually a time when most United States students first have the chance to specialize. Barring attendance at a magnet school or other special arrangement, “majors” first pop up during the college years. And of course, the argued value of this approach is specialization and building on students’ strengths, rather than simply building “well-roundedness” for the rest of their lives (for lack of a better description).

On the other hand, we know college students aren’t always clear on their strengths/talents/passions/career paths. (Understatement?) College is a time for figuring things out, and even those who choose a “track” often choose a different one while still within those college years.

So here’s one thing college ministers should think about: In a different but vital way, the same thing is happening for your student leaders and their “impact paths.” The roles they’re playing right now in your campus ministry are strengthening their ministry muscles in certain directions for a lifetime. This is happening both broadly – leading a discussion group, building a team, hospitality, etc. – and more narrowly – focusing on evangelism, or helping with media, or leading worship, or focusing on fellowship-building events.

But have you realized these things are long-term preparation for your leaders? When you do, the whole effort takes on additional discipling elements, and consider not only how student leaders are set up for success in the short-term, but also how they’re growing in these ways long-term.

And you come back to what I discussed at the beginning: recognizing the tension of training specifically and cross-training. Some students should receive chances to lead more deeply from a particular passion or skill. But other student leaders – even though they’re extremely useful in their present role – should be moved, allowing them to flex those muscles in different ways (or flex other muscles altogether).

I’m writing this with the assumption that you already have some leaders slated for the fall (or are using some this summer). But if not, this might be worth putting on your calendar.

Have you ever asked a new student leader what they think could be added to / deleted from / changed about the role? Or how their unique makeup might cause them to “tweak” the job description for maximum impact? You know, if they were in charge?

They should be in charge of their role!

Sure, sure, they’ll need some direction from above. Maybe “co-in-charge” is better. But the point is ownership.

It’s easy to assume your student leaders believe they have the latitude to tweak or evolve their student leadership role. But unless they’re the first ones in that particular role, they may not even ponder it. They’ve seen it in action, possibly served underneath the former leader for a year or more, and haven’t seen staff members suggest the role should be any different.

Or even if they do ponder a change, then having a meaningful conversation, prompted by the questions above, might unlock a world of creative ownership for them – plus help them create a role in which their strengths can be utilized best.

Here’s an interesting student leader role to consider for the new school year:

What if you set up a guest experience evaluator?

I was listening to a podcast recently that highlighted this role at a church. While that was a staff role overseeing the church’s various hospitality efforts around worship services, there could be a lot more to it in a college ministry than that. For all the recognition of college students who “fall through the cracks” in a given year, this position might just help a lot.

I realize this person wouldn’t have to be a manager. They could simply be a “quality-control” specialist, watching month after month for gaps in a campus ministry’s touchpoints with students (and especially new students).

I’m thinking an upperclassman marketing major, business major, even sociology or psychology major might just devour this opportunity. You could easily do a short first-run effort the August and September and see what feedback you glean.

(You could easily do a short first-run effort the August and September and see what feedback you glean.)

Many of you have a leadership team (and/or small group leaders) ready to go for the fall. Others have made plans for student leader selections, whether you’ll establish them this summer or at school year’s start. And a few of you have student leaders active this summer.

That being said, here’s this week’s Fridea: Add apprentice leaders all over the place.

What if nearly every leadership position (ministry teams, small group leaders, roles adult volunteers have, even “leaders of leaders” if you’re big enough for that) had “apprentices,” “associates,” “trainees,” etc.? In some cases they might have an additional role: prayer partners, events planner, fill-in when the leader’s out, etc. But this is a huge way to build your leadership pipeline…

…and there’s not requirement that every apprentice is really just a leader-in-waiting. Some may lead in the role they first apprentice for. Some may lead in another capacity next semester or next year. Some will pioneer a new leadership role next year. Some won’t be a fit for future leadership at all. Some will need to be “fired” early – but that’s a discipleship opportunity too.

But whatever “apprentices” end up doing, right now they get training, help the leaders, and allow you to raise the value of leadership (and leadership training) throughout your college ministry.

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.

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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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