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I can’t believe it’s almost been two decades since my first Finals Week as a college student.

It’s probably because of that distance that I don’t really remember being challenged about “finishing strong” when it came to Finals Week. What happened with the school calendar seems like it was pretty distant from the college ministry, especially since college ministry functions often stopped before our “dead week” for studying up.

In any case, with 19 years of retrospect, I offer you some encouragement to play the “Finish Strong” encouragement role with your students in a couple of ways:

Finish strong in studies, because studies matter. Students who see their educational opportunities as a stewardship and an opportunity are doing better than those who simply see them as necessary evils. And Finals Week means a unique opportunity for you to preach that: Reminding them that “locking in what they’ve learned” is actually valuable beyond that little test they take, as well as reminding them that excellence matters spiritually.

Fulfill their ministry now, because everything changes. Many students may not remember – and freshmen don’t realize – that everything about the spring semester will look a little different. If they’ve begun relationships with classmates, professors, even people they tend to run into on campus, now is likely the time to “fulfill that ministry,” or at least doing whatever they need to when proximity isn’t guaranteed in 2018. This may mean (finally) taking someone to coffee with a spiritual conversation in mind – and Finals Week can be a great time for that – or at least getting contact info, seeking clarity on whether that person “has a faith,” and/or other strategic opportunities.

Now would be a great time of your semester to check up on students’ church involvement: especially freshmen, but anyone could find their churchmanship waning at any point in college.

And this is applicable even if you run a church-based ministry or collegiate church. (Are those students involved in a healthy way?)

It’s easy for college ministers to say they care about church involvement, but if it’s never a topic of conversation – and a topic of accountability – then it’s probably not an actual priority. On the other hand, if you do “make a big deal about church,” you’ll remind students that, yes, this is a priority for each semester and season of their lives.

In my current role, I work hard to get church people to find their “fit” for serving others. Obviously, finding a place to impact others, where passions and spiritual gifting and strengths and schedule, is a great goal for every Christian – even if we all learn along the way that sometimes “getting done what’s needed” may be our calling in the moment, too.

But the setup of many college ministries probably aids students in exploring the latter (doing necessary things) a lot more than the former (finding their fit). Even student leadership structures that offer a diversity of roles may “lock students in” to a particular path their Sophomore year. They’re small group leaders, then leaders of small group leaders… or they serve on the tech team, then they lead the tech team… And so on.

But do you think students gain new insight about passions/gifts/strengths during their college years? Shouldn’t this be a season when they (1) get to explore options, and (2) figure out their “best and highest use” for impacting others?

You’re not necessarily called to make a new leadership position for every student, positions that are as unique as the students that populate them. But I can also say that one of the “output goals” for college ministry should probably be students knowing their leadership bent, knowing their strengths, knowing their spiritual gifts… and having at least an inkling of ways they might be deployed in their “best and highest use” for years to come. But discipling in those things will require some sort of structure aligned around that goal.

So somewhere, somehow, college ministries need options and flexibility enough for leadership disambiguation along the way. How can you start students on the path to their unique “good works prepared beforehand”?

What happens when your students face an “underwater week”?

The difficult mid-semester week, when it seems like all projects are due and mid-terms come calling and a paper or two still need to be written, is a universal facet of collegiate existence.

My question is this: How do you use these moments to shepherd students?

“Underwater Weeks” are phenomenal opportunities for (1) pastoral care, and (2) mentoring… even if the latter is done after the fact. Whether it’s you as college minister or students’ small group leaders, somebody has a great chance to care for students in the midst of the mini-crisis of a very long, very hard week. Just think of the possibilities for action steps…

As such a week looms ahead: Talk with students about their particular temptations in the middle of these weeks. Do they get angry? Get anxious? Slip into looking at porn? Become a bad roommate? And then ask how you – or others – can help. Are these students asking for help when they need to?

In the middle of the Underwater Week: Let students know you’re praying for them (and actually pray for them!). Hold them accountable on stuff discussed earlier. Offer them space to study, encouragement to sleep, and whatever other resources they need. Round up encouragers and encouragements.

After the week: Sit down to discuss how it could have gone better. Was the craziness pretty unavoidable… or could they organize better in the aftermath? Did sin “get ’em” during this stressful time? How should next time look different? And in the midst of the trial, how was God big and real and close? What did He teach them? In other words, debrief.

When you confront student leaders, how often do you push them on behavior, and how often do you push them on character?

That question immediately suggests a few tangents…

  • Do you intentionally and diligently seek to shape your student leaders? I hope so.
  • How often do you confront student leaders about sin? This should probably be a pretty regular occurrence, depending on your numbers.
  • Are you more likely to confront about a specific behavior than to point out patterns? That’s the point of my question above.

Certainly, confronting sin often means saying only, “I noticed you did this action.” It’s about a behavior. It’s straightforward and simple. And the person can deal with the Lord on any deeper issues connected to that behavior.

But I wonder if sometimes ministers are tempted to stop there. Maybe that’s a personality thing; it’s certainly possible that some people prefer never to point out individual behaviors, only “lowering the boom” when a pattern is suspected. That’s not a great balance, either.

But some shepherds only point out individual behaviors, never quite willing to discuss the patterns and the character flaws they’ve noticed while working with this person. Yet it’s there, in the underneath, in the heart, that God’s greater concern lies. These students’ opportunity for abundant life, future ministry, great marriages, life-giving friendships, raising up a next generation, and God-glorification all hinge on what’s inside.

Are you confronting enough about the inside?

Do your encouragements to invite friends leave an impression that longtime members are somehow less than?

It makes all the sense in the world to push students to invite. You should.

But as we’ve all noticed with “too sales-ish” email lists, pushy iPhone apps, and over-eager efforts to fundraise… most of us are turned off by feeling that “I matter because of something I can get you.” If your students hear too often that they need to bring more people – especially if it isn’t explained well – then that impression won’t sit well.

What’s more, we who “recruit” or “mobilize” face two particularly annoying challenges here:

  • Intent doesn’t really matter (in this regard). What we’re talking about here is the impression that’s left with people, not your heart. (And yes, caring about impressions is caring about people.)
  • Plenty can happen subconsciously. This is the scariest to me: People may not even realize that they’re a little irked. But somewhere, in the back of their mind, people may lose a little bit of steam (and ironically be less likely to invite!).

It’s unlikely you have official “membership” in your college ministry, which makes sense. While I can think of some advantages to having something official along those lines, there are disadvantages too.

But one disadvantage to not offering membership is that it’s easier for students to fall through the cracks. If an official list indicated which students, at some point in the past, had gone “all in” with your campus ministry, then you could occasionally identify if they’re still showing up for Large Group or participating in small groups.

But again, you probably don’t have an opt-in “membership” list. But what if you created that sort of list anyway? And what if you actually used it every few months to discover anyone that might have come up missing (or might be involved less than usual). Those students deserve a contact, don’t they? They’ve been all-in with your college ministry; now you can be all-in with them.

I realize there’s some trickiness attached to this (especially figuring out who’s missing if your ministry is sizeable). You may not arrive at a perfect solution. But something intentional will beat the “organic,” we’ll-probably-just-notice-who’s-missing approach nearly every time.

I’ve mentioned this sort of thing before, but now is a great time in the semester to lean into this… especially through your small groups, if that’s a structure you use.

It’s easy for any college student to isolate their spiritual growth and spiritual learnings simply to what takes place in their current city. Certainly, the campus and town are chock-full of spiritual application moments: the classroom, the dorm room, the parties, the ministry experiences, the new friendships, the dates, students’ local job, and students’ chosen church.

But all this means students might consciously or unconsciously leave their families behind. Some are unwilling to “go there” because home wasn’t great. Others simply don’t think about it, with the hubbub of this exciting collegiate context.

So while students may learn to communicate better with their suitemates, they might still go home this winter and undertake screaming matches with their parents. Students may learn to witness to classmates they’ve never met… but stay mum with a nonbelieving sibling back home. Students may make great strides in learning to stand up for orthodoxy in the face of culture wars – but feel quite lost in dealing with sinful lifestyles or opinions back home.Or this may simply show up in students’ willingness to grow by “moving forward” (whatever that means), but not

Or this may simply show up in students’ preference to grow by “moving forward” (whatever that means), without dealing with the pain/hurt/anxieties/sin they faced (or sometimes caused) in their families. (Do your small groups and other disciplemaking structures dive in to students’ home lives and pasts?)

God may use students’ time away at college to help in regards to home. But small group leaders, college ministers, and others will need to lean into this question to make that happen. Right?

This week, I’ll be posting (and occasionally updating) some solid ideas that you could pretty easily work on – or get students to work on – at this point in the semester. And if you’ve already done these things, I’d love to hear about it.

Today, a few ideas for questions to ask students as you get to know them – via survey, new student info card, or face-to-face:

1. Ask their passions.

My guess is you get some pretty good info on your students: Class Year, Major, Phone Number, maybe a Birthday or their Hometown.

Have you asked them their passions? (Surprisingly, these may not be the same as their majors…) Have you asked them the ways they really like to serve others, or what they’d do if they had unlimited time and opportunity and resources?

How do they hope to change the world? How do they hope to change their world, and soon?

Might God want to speak to you about the future of your ministry through the passions, strengths, talents, and other characteristics of the students He’s brought you? Or is the format and programming of your ministry far more about your passions, personality, etc., than it is about theirs?

2. Ask how they found you.

I think there are lots of ministries out there – even big ones – that never get a good sense of why people first come.

So what can we do?

Regarding how we draw students: If “exit interviews” for ministry-goers are uncommon, I’m sure “entrance interviews” are uncommon, too. But simply asking visitors “How’d you hear about us?” can go a long way toward developing strategies that double down on those forms of recruitment that are already working.

3. Ask why they’re coming.

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

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.

Among the very first things I would encourage you to share with freshmen – even before they walk through the doors of your ministry – is to beware jumping into a bunch of commitments right off the bat. A student joining a college ministry and the spelunking club and the intramural ultimate frisbee team and the Freshman Leadership Council will find herself in a very different situation than she might think.

I’ve penned this previously:

Have you already warned your students – especially any freshmen you get around – to “guard their signature” in these early days of school?

The busyness of the semester isn’t a calculus curve, nicely sloping its way to gradually-more-busy. It’s got cliffs and chasms, but most everybody starts in a chasm. It feels natural and fun to start signing up, and freshmen especially don’t realize…

  • They’ll feel busier than they’ve ever felt in about 3 weeks
  • Spreading interest and impact across several organizations isn’t very useful at all
  • They should be thinking about four years of impact
  • …so making those decisions slowly isn’t usually a bad idea
  • The Bible is clear: Actual commitments can’t be broken (without the “commitment-holder” releasing you), so be sure you’re clear on what level of commitment is actually being asked for

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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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