One of the most damning indictments of college ministry I’ve ever read

Every once in a while I get a comment on my blog that is so spot-on, I want to make sure everybody sees it. Just yesterday, I received a comment on this post on innovation that is over three years old. It’s about the need for greater innovation in college ministry. A willingness to try new things. Coincidentally, I’ve been revisiting this topic lately, and just spoke on it for a weekend retreat for Manna Christian Fellowship of Princeton University.

The commenter, CAiken (presumably not Clay Aiken), is a student, and one who has tried to bring new ideas into his ministry. I’ll let him describe his experience. It is one of the most damning indictments of college-ministry-as-usual I’ve ever read. Emphasis is mine.

I really appreciated this article. I am a current undergrad student, who has tried many times to innovate in a ministry setting. In my experience, it is much easier to get students on board with new ideas than it is to convince the staff. The larger the ministry (nationally or international), the more difficult it is to make grassroots change (with some definite exceptions).

Staff seem to be pressured by their higher ups to meet specific goals, which limits their flexibility to respond to the student’s needs and desires. And since they are focused on meeting these goals, student leadership is pushed aside. The fear of having students fail, resulting in a poor evaluation for the staff worker, stifles real innovation.

In my opinion, I think it is better to mentor students by giving them hands on experience (with varying levels of supervision based on their competency). Trust students to lead and innovate, because they are often both highly skilled and motivated. I have seen too many good students / leaders with solid ideas who end up leaving campus ministry because they become stifled by the ministry institution.

I was actually told, by a staff member, that students who innovate usually do so to avoid dealing with a deeper spiritual problem, basically a character flaw. Yes, I have a lot of growing to do, but the idea was solid and quite a few students were on board.

This isn’t true of all campus staff, but when discussing innovation, I felt it was important to share the frustrations of a student who has tried, succeeded and failed, at innovating on campus. Your questions and comments are welcome.

Thank you for your time.

Wow.

I don’t know this student. I don’t know what campus he’s on, and I don’t know what ministry he’s a part of. I don’t know the background to the circumstances that he’s describing. But I hear two themes running through that comment. 1) He’s someone with a deep heart and passion to reach his fellow students. He WANTS to do it. He has ideas to do it. And 2) He’s deeply frustrated, and has actually been inhibited from doing it by the staff leaders he was working with.

Consequently, he is at least contemplating joining others who have walked away from the ministry “institution” because there was so little willingness to change.

As a college pastor, that makes me shudder. It upsets me, and it angers me. The idea that we could have a student in our midst who is fired up to reach their campus, who we don’t have to persuade or cajole, but is ready to go and do it–and yet our own systems and structures prevent him from doing that–that’s messed up!

Isn’t it sad when a STUDENT points out that ministry staff are afraid to try new things, because then their numbers will look bad, and their higher-ups won’t be pleased?

Isn’t it sad when the spiritual leaders are characterized more by fear than faith?

Isn’t it sad when a staffer turns it into a lack of character and immaturity thing? Instead of working WITH that student, and helping him work THROUGH those issues, the staffer takes the lazy and easy way, and just shuts it down. Is that what happened here? Maybe not, but if it didn’t, it surely happens elsewhere.

This is more than sad, it’s tragic. When the very institutions and metrics and systems that we’ve set up to do ministry actually get in the way of doing ministry, something is wrong.

In the desire to not let students fail, we all experience an even greater FAIL.

I’d hope that our students aren’t even aware of our numbers and metrics–that’s not their job to worry about it.

I’d hope that it would be the staff leading the way in faith, not fear.

I’d hope that staff would work WITH students on their growth areas, not dismiss them for it. Isn’t that why we’re there?

 

Campus ministers, I plead with you, get out of the way. 

Don’t let your goals get in the way of what God might really be doing.

Don’t impede the growth of your students, and don’t impede the growth of the Kingdom on your campus through them.

People who should be all about grace should also be comfortable with failure. Not settling for it, but not unfamiliar with it. We should view them as experiments, that we can learn from. Anyone in the entrepreneurial world knows that new initiatives fail way more often than they succeed–but it’s out of those successes that we see the most growth. It’s also this way in the church/ministry world.

Don’t let fear of bad numbers or a bad evaluation keep you from trying new things. Remember, Jesus sent away the crowds in John 6. He probably would have been fired by a lot of our campus ministries for that.

Work with your students, not just in spite of their flaws, but in the midst of them. Don’t dismiss them. After all, you haven’t arrived, and God keeps working with you, doesn’t he?

College ministers, may it never be true that we got in the way of our students’ growth. To paraphrase Jesus, “Let the college students come to me, and do not hinder them…”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “One of the most damning indictments of college ministry I’ve ever read

  1. Thank you Mr. Lutz for passing on my comment. It is encouraging to know there are people out there who are actively addressing the challenges of campus ministry with in-depth discussion and a great deal of heart, for the glory of God.

    There are two quick comments I would like to make on this article, if I may. First of all, that I have a great deal of respect for my staff workers, who were gifted leaders in their own way. Some staff, like students, are not given the opportunity to step out from beyond the typical campus ministry experience. Also, since a great deal of recruitment (of both staff and students) happens relationally, through word of mouth, it is easy to fill an organization with like-minded people, resistant to change.

    There is usually a reason people choose to serve in one ministry over another.

    My main comment however is in response to your hope "that our students aren’t even aware of our numbers and metrics–that’s not their job to worry about it."

    I tend to disagree.

    I think students should be actively engaged in discussions about measurement, management, donor engagement, etc. When given the chance, and a little guidance, students might prove more insightful than previously believed. Chances are, they will even surprise themselves.

    In the end, engaging students more fully could result in more responsive organizations as it would become clearer to the leaders at the top what is happening in the hallways, from the perspective of the people we have been sent to serve.

    Crafting ministry around what is needed on each campus, and including students in the entire process will help train up leaders not only for their campus, but for life beyond their last exam.

    Just a thought. 🙂

    • Thanks CAiken. I hear what you're saying about engaging with the metrics, but I'd hate to see staff leading that way. To make a sports analogy, I'd rather see my favorite quarterback try to win the game, not pad his completion percentage. My concern is staff using students as pawns to pad their numbers.

  2. Just to play devil's advocate, I'm not sure if there's quite enough information here to make a judgment call on these campus leaders. Staff shouldn't aim to please every student, nor their institution's every demand. Although staff are certainly not perfect, they are experienced in ministry and have laid down their lives and careers to proclaim Christ on campus. I would caution students not to leave too hastily, even if they are frustrated about certain aspects of their ministry.

  3. I see this clearly on our college campus here at NWMSU. It seems like the first week of the semester every campus ministry is trying to do the craziest or coolest event to get the most people. Yet, when it comes to reaching those far from God on our campus, there no ministries have any ideas.

    We had a student leader in our ministry spend her summer working for GLOBALSCOPE. Which is an international campus ministry in Tubingen Germany. She worked in a campus ministry that was active in engaging the Post-Christian culture. It was truly life changing for her and gave her a bigger heart for those far from God. It's been great just stepping out of the way and letting her innovate new ways to engage that culture here on the campus.

    Students are the best at knowing how to reach other students. It's just my job to provide encouragement, offer wisdom, and set biblical guidelines.