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”?

With Thanksgiving just two weeks from today, I thought I’d repost these notes on last-minute T-Day ministry…

College ministry rarely gets to jump into Christmas in the same way that churches do; even church-based college ministries don’t necessarily expect big crowds or much opportunity on (or near) December 25th.

But Thanksgiving is still a season college ministers have, even if most students won’t be around on the actual Thanksgiving Day (or the weekend that follows). What could you do for Thanksgiving, even if you haven’t planned something already?

  1. Last-minute service projects. Find out some ways to impact local ministries, and throw those ideas out to your students. Students often schedule last-minute anyway, so the fact that you haven’t brought it up may be no big deal… they may not even notice!
  2. Last-minute meals or other fun. Students who are in town during the Thanksgiving weekend would probably be especially blessed by being offered a chance to get together – they’re likely bummed they can’t be home with family (or want to get away from their family that’s in town). This includes international students! If you’re going to be around, consider inviting students into your home, or find a place (like a local church or somewhere on campus) where you could hold a meal/games/football-watching/etc. day.
  3. Point to other orgs’ planned opportunities. What are the local churches (including your own) doing? Does the campus have any official plans? Do any local organizations – even other college ministries – have plans for Thanksgiving week? (You might be surprised what you can find.) Service projects? Serving meals to others? Holding festive meals for church members (and possibly student visitors)?

One more tip: Talk to campus administration (including the office that looks after International Students). Not only might they have ideas, they’ll likely love the fact that you’re hoping to serve students during the weird week of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday’s post provides an example of what so many shepherds – of all kinds – can miss. There’s great value in caring about the flock’s everyday sort of needs, the small trials and small blessings that pop up throughout a life. If shepherds are only really interested in “making great strides” – fighting particularly onerous (or scandalous) sins, getting a grip on spiritual disciplines, witnessing to non-believers, etc. – then they’ve revealed a disproportionate interest in these things (versus loving the people).

When I say “shepherds of all kinds,” I do mean college ministers, but I also mean student leaders (and adult volunteers if you have them). It may even be these leaders who are slower to recognize the glories of “daily bread” care for people, the great beauty in providing sheep with the “everyday feed.”

If helping students in their “underwater weeks” (for instance) just doesn’t really seem… like it makes the priority list?, then maybe your student leaders (or you yourself) need to be reminded of the greatness of simple care and simple love and weeping/rejoicing with those who do the same. So help them see it!

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?

It’s a post from the past, but it’s a little bit of a zinger…

Here’s the question for today: Are you an expert on your own campus ministry?

It might seem easy, if you’ve been there more than a few years, to answer a quick Yes. Or it’s easy to think “expertise” equals “full understanding” and offer a humble No. But in both cases, the question I’m asking is meant to be more subtle. So let me ask it another way:

Have you spent SO much time thinking, praying about, and discussing your ministry that you can clearly express the what (activities), but also with the how and the why? In light of all the other college ministries, can you chat about your ministry in ways that differentiate it from other philosophies of college ministry and other methodologies that might exist? Can you catalog the “aha moments,” turning points, and specific strategy choices you’ve made along the way?

If there was a conference about “Campus Ministry at Your Particular Campus,” would you be qualified as a 2-hour seminar speaker on your particular model of ministry?

It’s funny to realize that plenty of college ministers would struggle to discuss their ministry among their peers for two full hours, or create a PowerPoint presentation that outlines its development. But our field needs lots of workers who become true “experts” in what they’re doing. We aren’t unlike church planters or missionaries, reaching “tribes” that have their own unique contexts and situations. And college ministers are always reaching newer generations that haven’t existed for all that long. The work should include lots of strategy development and time spent deep in prayer, with counsel-seeking and book-reading and conference-going and methodology-refining.

Your organizational or denominational leaders (if we have those) can’t do all this work for you. They may offer a backbone for your work, but they can’t put contextual flesh on those bones. You’ve got to be an expert.

Like most college ministries, yours probably has some vital, mostly unchanging “structures.” Maybe you’ve got more of these than your Large Group Meeting and your small group setup, but those two pillars of collegiate ministry will fit this example.

When’s the last time you evaluated your key structures’ FORMS in light of their hoped-for FUNCTIONS?

This doesn’t have to mean going “back to the drawing board,” but sometimes it should – if only to help everyone in the room be more open as you brainstorm. (Inertia will always tempt.) Fundamentally, this process means renewing the “whys” for a key structure, then (re)imagining whether that activity/event currently hews as tightly to those goals as it could.

“Mission drift” is one thing, but this method more directly combats “mission diffusion”; many of you will likely find that your main goals are getting hit (at least somewhat), but so are a lot of other “good” targets that you probably didn’t originally intend. So you have to decide if those “good” outcomes are truly “great”… or, on the other hand, if those good outcomes are actually enemies of your best, because they take energy/time/resources away from the more important goals.

A recap, in bullets:

  • What are your main goals for this key structure?
  • Is this activity/event hitting those goals as directly, efficiently, and deeply as it could?

The husbands in my church small group meet weekly at Panera Bread, connecting with each other to chat about spiritual life, marriage, etc. But I’ve noticed we’re not alone… near our “chosen table” sits another group of men, who also seem to be engaged in biblical discussion of some sort or another.

So this week, I finally met them. Turns out they indeed attend another local church and are there at Panera for the same purposes we are.

I think they were a little surprised I approached them, which bums me out a little bit. (Why wouldn’t Christians want to connect with other believers?) But more importantly, the whole thing got me thinking about college ministry small groups.

While you may already think about “mixers” between your own college ministry’s small groups, what if you also decided to facilitate connections between your small groups and those of another campus ministry?

So often ministries strive for unity at the large-group level, but I’m pretty sure that’s often the least effective mechanism for unity. Smaller works better! On the one hand, college ministry leaders hanging out together and getting to know each other can be a HUGE win in this regard. And on the other end, at the grassroots level, I bet connecting small groups of your students with small groups of “theirs” might accomplish the same sort of semi-organic unity growth.

Does your college ministry provide any short-term opportunities for students to lead?

If your ministry is like many college ministries, you’ve got student leaders over small groups, ministry teams, or both. But did those students – currently in ongoing leadership positions – have opportunities to practice leading before taking this commitment?

Secondly, do current leaders have any one-off opportunities to “lead their peers” or otherwise practice leading at an even higher level?

Maybe some examples will clarify what I mean. For current non-leaders, this could look like…

  • Being asked by their small group leader to lead the discussion for a week
  • “Owning” one specific event or project for the campus ministry, possibly with a few other students
  • Serving alongside current student leaders – perhaps “apprenticing,” or simply on a committee for a specific activity
  • Teaching (from the stage or, more likely, in a smaller “elective class” setting) about something they’ve recently been learning
  • Writing a blog or other resource, either about something they’ve been learning or something you ask them to research

For current leaders, additional leadership might include…

  • Leading the leaders’ meeting for a week
  • Directing a different project for the ministry than whatever they usually work on
  • Being pulled in individually or in small numbers to help with a large task, like helping prepare the weekly message or the spring retreat
  • Teaching from the stage
  • Writing (or helping write) curriculum for small groups

One of the most overlooked needs in ministry (and not just collegiate ministry) is creating stepping stones or midpoints between where people are NOW and where we want them to be. This is one great way to raise up leaders… or prepare/test/invigorate current leaders for even bigger opportunities down the road.

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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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