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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.

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!)

Ever since I started dating my wife, I’ve grown in my appreciation of fantastic restaurant experiences. It’s one of our hobbies – though we partake less often now that we’ve got two kids under two… But that appreciation is still there.

I was reminded recently of this post from five Augusts back. It’s not just about chefs – that’s just the example – but it’s definitely about college ministry. It’s my hope it would characterize more college ministries every year.

Here’s a question that only gets tougher as you think about it:

If a future chef walks into your college ministry this fall, will he or she be impacted over the next four years in such a way that they actually turn out to be a better chef because of your ministry?

Surely our walk with the Lord should touch every aspect of our lives – including our habits, our decisions, our effort, our faithfulness. And these things, for college students, are much of what makes them become everything God meant for them to be. So does an increasing understanding – over our college years and beyond – of how spirituality connects with our chosen field, whether that field is Culinary Arts or Restaurant Management or Waitressing… or Structural Engineering or Creative Writing or the dozens or hundreds of vocations your recent grads have chosen. Glorifying God in the kitchen, boardroom, workshop, or classroom isn’t just about evangelism. It’s about excellence and ethics and great leadership and producing great food and even producing art – all things God created people to reflect His image through.

Will your ministry help produce better chefs? Or will it – as I’m afraid is often the case – help each student grow in basic spiritual disciplines without helping Jesus be Lord of (and immensely glorified within) their vocation?

How many “great chefs” are you sending out each May?

Yesterday I wrote about the value of a basic “journey map” for college students. What’s the “path” that a student tends to experience as they hear about, join, and go deeper in your college ministry? What are the pain points along the way? Where is the journey smoothest?

But “customer experience” journey maps work best when we consider the journeys of various kinds of people. And that, I believe, is one of the more common failings among college ministries: neglecting various sheep who don’t follow the standard involvement path.

Journey mapping for those “other” kinds of students can radically increase leaders’ empathy. So you, your staff, and even your student leaders should contemplate the journey of students who might not fit the norm for your campus ministry.

How would these students hear about your ministry? What would they experience at their first event, and what would they understand or not understand? What next steps would they hear about? What next steps could they take immediately? What next steps would they be likely to take? How would they find a small group, a service opportunity, or a leadership opportunity? How might they find help, or recovery, or friends, or someone to disciple them, or someone to tell them about Jesus? How would they get help plugging in to a church?

Start with these, and then come up with your own!

  • A freshman who starts attending in February
  • A transfer student who comes right when all the new students do
  • Someone who’s never been exposed to Christianity at all
  • A student from China
  • Someone who was leading in a college ministry at their previous campus, or at their church
  • A graduate student
  • Anyone who starts attending now but will graduate in 2 years or less
  • A student who’s already very involved/leading in their local church’s ministry (if you’re a campus-based ministry), or who’s already very involved/leading in a ministry on campus (if you’re a church-based ministry)
  • A student who lives wherever most of your students don’t (with their parents, an apartment, fraternity house, etc.)

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?

I’ve been writing about “customer experience” in college ministry, because any college minister should care deeply about the actual experience of the ministry’s members, whether or not it translates into “numbers,” etc.

One big opportunity to improve students’ experience within your campus ministry will arise if/when you become familiar with what they hope your ministry provides. Many college ministries already have some sort of “Get to Know You” form that new guests fill out. Many ministries also make a point to have a leader sit down with those visitors ASAP. In both cases, though, I wonder how often students are asked,

“What do you hope to get out of this college ministry?”

(If they’re clearly still in the deciding process, you could change “this” to “a” and accomplish the same thing.)

Clearly, students will have a variety of reasons for attending – some more noble than others, some more practical than others, and some more actionable than others. But don’t you think knowing this information – for as many students as possible – would help your staff and leaders think better about providing a great experience? Even when a student “just wants to find a girlfriend” or otherwise hasn’t set their hopes high enough, it’s very useful information for discipling him (or her). And plenty of students might surprise you, even leading you to consider new activities or new emphases.

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t about “meeting customer preferences” to keep people or get new members. I’m talking about discipleship, which should always concern itself with how well forms fit the audience.

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.

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?

I’m a big believer in a diversity of disciplers, which is a longitudinal application of the “multitude of counselors” exhortation (delivered three times in Proverbs!). Beyond the steady influence of church and their parents, for instance, I hope my own children are discipled by a variety of people as they grow up. They’ll need to be deeply influenced by people other than my wife and me, in hopes that they’ll grow in ways we’re weak in, get to know Jesus through the lens of other personalities and experiences, and so on.

Your students need that, too, even over the course of these four years.

So how have you encouraged them to “get discipled,” say, while they’re home for the summer? Because we all know it’s very likely that many students won’t find any particular level of impact during these three months. And while they may not fall away and may even continue to have dynamic personal time with the Lord, that’s still a bummer, right?

Hopefully your students are being impacted by a variety of people, over time, even during the in-school seasons. But if there’s any time when it could happen most naturally, it’s summertime.

What role does celebration of individual accomplishment play within your college ministry?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is underway right now. While it’s not a college student effort, it’s edifying to imagine how these kids’ schools, churches/synagogues/mosques,, and even whole towns are cheering them on.

How does your college ministry respond when a student…

  • Competes in a student body election, or seeks another leadership post?
  • Secures a competitive internship for the summer?
  • Gets a job prior to graduation?
  • Publishes an article or literary piece in a prestigious journal?
  • Gets accepted to graduate school?
  • Enters a campus competition – or wins it?
  • Makes it to the NCAA playoffs in their sport?

It could be cheering students on as they compete. It could be celebrating when they win. (It could also be encouraging them when they don’t win.) But surely a college ministry should be a place of “rejoicing with those who rejoice” at the very least, right?

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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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