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Here’s a weird one that could be quite applicable…

I don’t know what role “conflict resolution” plays in your ministry. I don’t know if you teach it or foster it or see it happen a lot. Hopefully it’s not needed all the time, but if you have more than a handful of students (and even if you don’t), it’s likely that students face conflict with each other… and certainly the students in your ministry occasionally conflict with others in their lives.

So what if you pushed them to clean the slate over the summer? To think back either to mutual conflict or to ways they may have sinned against people – roommates, friends, classmates, family members, even professors?

There’s something about summer break that gives space and time to think about this stuff – although it likewise breeds “out of sight, out of mind” too. Well, maybe it’s your job to bring it (back) into mind, encouraging students to get up to date on all apologies, reconciliations, and amends that remain outstanding.

This week I’ve been contemplating some basics about the “back door” of a college ministry – how and why students exit. (Read here and here.)

But it’s important to remember that the old principle, “What wins them, keeps them,” applies here. Many students drift away from a college ministry because of the “entryway” experience… but there are a few facets to that:

1. There’s a difference between convincing students to try and convincing them to stay. New students may eventually check out a college ministry because of a big event, an intriguing poster, or simply because they’re trying out several. But it’s the next step that matters most: What convinces them to stay? If they’re “won” by elements that aren’t static or easily change, your back door will likely be crowded soon enough.

2. You have the chance to teach students how to pick their time investments. How often do you address “Why you should be a part of our college ministry”? Or better yet, “How you should choose an organization to join”? Of course, you might address this in different ways with believers and non-believers, and other groups may need different approaches too. But if you’re not discipling students about how to choose, then – and this is a bold statement – you may start with some students who really shouldn’t have joined in the first place.

3. You can design your entryway to be a “taste” of life in the house. It would be weird to walk into a home’s entryway that’s filled with dainty fixtures and a traditional feel… then find that the living room is quite modern. But college ministries may be tempted to have “first experiences” and “deeper experiences” that feel completely detached. While these don’t have to be the same, it can be very useful and kind to include elements that purposely point to the deeper experience available in the ministry. After all, the actual problem with “bait and switch” isn’t the “bait” – if you’ll pardon that term – but the “switch.”

I broached the topic of a college ministry’s “back door” in the last post, but here’s a simple follow-up:

Do your students see involvement in your ministry as enough of a “membership” that choosing to leave – or even pausing for a season – feels like it has some friction? Or would students in your ministry find it weird for you (or student leaders they know) to ask where they had been, or why they dropped out?

If a campus minister never expresses the notion that students are “part of something,” then students won’t feel they’re “leaving something,” naturally. And in some ways, a college ministry’s recruiting efforts – that make joining fun and… well, effortless – ,could make it far too simple for students to slip away when they’re not feeling it anymore, or when outside influences (like busyness or sinfulness) ramp up.

Even occasionally letting students know that you care they’re there – and that you care if they disappear – would go a long way toward encouraging a sense of belonging now, and an easier conversation if their involvement drops.

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.

A quick thought on where “we who teach” find application steps to push people to take…

If a college minister is discipling people, he or she should expect fruit, right? Of course there are always fits-and-starts among our students, some complete backsliding, and other frustrations. But someone, somewhere is learning from the discipleship.

And as a college student (or anyone) works out their salvation, they’ll apply truth – if it has really soaked into their bones – in ultimately personal ways. Someone will take your message on trusting the Lord and apply it very specifically to their decisions about next summer. A sophomore will hear you teach on evangelism, and they’ll develop – unprompted by you – a goal to grab lunch with five people from their Intro Psychology class.

And on and on, application being driven by the Spirit as a result of God’s word seeping into lives. Presumably that’s the story of your life, too: of countless Bible passages and messages, presented pretty broadly, but then applied by yourself to some pretty unique corners of your existence. Sure, many times too a teacher offered an application step that applied directly and distinctly to your life, no adjustments needed. But not nearly always, right? Don’t application steps usually provide examples, springboards for us to find personal application that may look quite different?

So I wonder if there’s meant to be a communication loop here, especially in college ministry. Can you do a better job of “collecting” students’ Spirit-led application steps, to broadcast those examples for the next round (or the current round) of students? I’m particularly thinking of the opportunity you have, just a few weeks after teaching on Hospitality or Unselfishness or Disciplemaking, to let students share their testimonies of applying those things to their particular day-to-days.

Christian ministers of all stripes are often good at presenting testimonies of salvations, and college ministry does this perhaps more than many. But how often do we present testimonies of faithful applications of other truths? Might these application steps inspire more students to more personal application, providing a cycle of deep obedience in your ministry?

It’s doubtful that your students will get recruited by a traveling circus.

But they – and especially your top leaders – are likely to get pulled into other commitments just as entangling. Studying abroad, a campus leadership post, a summer internship, maybe a year-round ministry role at a local church. Even just a commitment that pulls them from their college ministry community, because of the night it falls on or the work it requires.

Obviously, any of these could be really positive adventures, and exactly what the Lord would have those students do. But the vital thing is that students are prepared beforehand so they know how to process such decisions when the time comes.

I remember I once had a student leader who got whisked away after his first semester when an internship opportunity opened up. He struggled with the decision because of various factors… but not one of those factors was the issue of his prior leadership commitment. It’s not that I wouldn’t have released him from that commitment; it’s that he didn’t even imagine that his previously made commitment might impact his decision. In other words, he wasn’t prepared for the moment of decision.

It’s not just the issue of commitment that is my point here. There’s lots of biblical wisdom (alongside some biblical commands) that should be weighed in decisions like these – do your students know those? Would they ponder prior commitments? Will they weigh their decisions with the community closest to them (like their small group)? Will they seek out people not because they’ll tell them what they want to hear, but because they’ll shoot straight? Will they pray… and then wait for clarity, even if it means deadlines pass?

And so on.

When the circus comes calling, you won’t easily have the chance to shepherd decision-making – the elephants and sideshows will beckon very loudly and tug the emotions as powerfully as a strongman. In a world full of “big opportunities” like these, hopefully Christian college students are learning how to discern their callings – before the circus rolls through.

Every time I watch the Academy Awards, I find myself thrilled by the excellence being displayed and awarded (last-award flubs notwithstanding). However out-of-sync believers may feel the big bad “Hollywood” is when it comes to our worldview, it’s hard to deny that there were masters on that stage last night, who know how to produce and evoke and amaze and encourage.

(Almost?) every single student in your ministry is on a career path right now. Not all will stay on their present path over the next decade or next year, but college still is a collection of those who are thinking about career and contribution.

So what role are you playing in building big dreams about that contribution? In the world of college ministry, this clearly hasn’t been our strength – intentionally focusing on the opportunities before them within the world of work.

Will you raise up students who are more likely to be “on stage,” well-respected in their field because of your shepherding during these formative years? Is your campus ministry making them better scientists, better architects, even whatever the “Oscar winners” are for the world of sociology or accounting or health care? (And film, too, while we’re at it…)

Some of your students don’t have a “home church” because church wasn’t even on their minds before they came to college. But other students definitely do – with various levels of involvement in their histories – and will be back around this summer (again, with various levels of planned involvement).

This is one venue, though, where college ministers can train collegians in churchmanship – through the “lab” of church involvement during school breaks (and especially summertime). The same is true for those students who get an internship in an unfamiliar city, or who study abroad.

If students haven’t exercised their church-going (and sometimes church-finding) muscles in the midst of college, those muscles won’t be poised for use the day after graduation.

So how are you helping students practice, coach?

A simple but practical assessment of how discipleship is playing out in the “real world” for your students:

Is whatever discipleship students are undergoing in your college ministry making them the very best participants of any group projects they do? Or for those on Student Government teams, in other campus organizations, and the like – is their walk with Jesus translating into “favor and good repute” on those teams?

And is the level of cooperation – and the level of conflict – within your own ministry teams or leader pairings indicative of believers who have been soaked in the principles of Proverbs 3 or Philippians 2 or Romans 12 or…?

One day nearly all of your students will be known as “coworker” by somebody. And if a walk with the Lord doesn’t “translate” here, then how real is that supposed walk?

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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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