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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?

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?

I hope you’ve got students who participate in campus activities with a large part of their motivation to build relationships with nonbelievers, to influence the campus for the common good, or to see a segment influenced for Christ.

(Of course, there’s something to be said for participation with other motives, too. But if students are ONLY padding a resume, acting on ambition, or “just having fun,” then that’s not what you’re probably seeking.)

What if you helped them think about opportunities?

What if you examined the list of student organizations, got a list of student government positions, even talked to administration about places they could use student help? What if you publicized these potential roles with your students this summer, encouraging them to look at their present commitments and weigh whether they could intentionally do something else.

This may mean stepping away from something else. It may not. It may only be a thinking exercise, without a lot of active fruit (yet). Whatever the case, it’s a bold way to remind students that their time on campus is (1) limited and (2) a huge opportunity. Teach them to number their days… and give them great ideas for investing here and now.

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?

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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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