One of the greatest obstacles to the growth and sustainability of college ministry is our over-reliance on support raising (SR). It’s not for everybody, and it may need to be dethroned as the primary engine for funding our ministries in the future.
This is partly because of its hidden costs. For many college ministers, it’s the elephant in the room and the monkey on their back. It’s eating their lunch and sucking the life and energy from their ministry. Through the frequent ups-and-downs of support raising, it remains a huge part of what campus ministers do.
Veteran support raisers, who have a solid base of supporters who have been with them for 10, 20, even 30 years, can sometimes forget what it’s like for the newbies to build their base and to really struggle. They tell people that “it’s just about putting the time in” and “you need to walk by faith.” Which is true. But I believe it deflects the costs of those struggles and how it impacts ministry.
I hardly ever hear people in our field do a cost/benefit analysis of support raising. Perhaps we’re afraid of what we would discover if we did. For many college ministers, the costs are both prohibitively high and somewhat hidden. Here are some of the ways we feel the cost of support raising:
- Many organizations require their staff to be at 100% before they hit the field. As a result, it’s not uncommon for new staff to languish on the sidelines for an entire year as they raise support, not doing any actual college ministry.
- For others who hit the campus at less than 100%, it can still consume much of our mental energy and time during the week. When your SR is weak, it will impact your ministry. It often brings up huge heart-issues of faith, fear, and trust. The young campus minister with support raising issues does not just need a coach–he or she needs a counselor.
- Uncertain & low pay is often the primary reason many young campus ministers leave the field. They get tired of the grind and want the steady paycheck.
When SR is having that kind of impact, what is the net effect on ministry? What is the cost? How many less students are reached? If we have to spend upwards of 10 hours/week on support, that’s a lot of evangelism & discipleship that isn’t happening.
What about the impact on the reputation of our ministries? I might offend some people here, but there are lots of less-than-effective campus ministers out there. Nearly every potential supporter knows (and has likely supported) the campus minister who never made it, or never seemed to accomplish anything to speak of. These stories can have a depressing effect on our entire field. They make it that much harder for us to raise support and to get people excited about our work.
On the flip-side, how many gifted staff are lost because of SR challenges every year? We know that SR privileges the upper-middle-class (because they have money), the churched (because they are networked), and white people (because minorities don’t tend to come from a culture and history where SR is practiced or encouraged). If you’re lower middle-class, a minority, and a new convert? Good luck. Not impossible, but it gets a heck of a lot harder.
I’m sure many organizations like Cru, IVCF, Navs, and others track staff statistics on support raising. But I would love to see them published. How many staff are under-funded? How many departing staff cite SR challenges as their #1 reason for making a change? My suspicion is that we’re perpetuating a system with some huge flaws. I just see too many of my college ministry colleagues languishing and struggling with this issue to think “that’s how it’s always been” and “we just need to try a little harder.”
I also have deep concerns about this model of funding ministry in a post-Christendom world. I think the next 10 years–when many established churches will disappear, when the WWII generation is gone, and Boomers move to reduced incomes–will fundamentally reshape the landscape for support raising.
So where does that leave us? The overall donor base will shrink, and competition for funding–already pretty tight–will increase. Not to get all Darwinian on you, but only the strongest and most adaptable will survive. I’m seeing this now: those who are good communicators, good vision-casters, who are self-disciplined and can put in the work, who can demonstrate why their ministries are good investments, who are clearly entrepreneurial in nature–these people will not only survive but thrive.
But those who lack the ability to communicate why they do what they do beyond platitudes, who don’t have much to show for their time on campus, who are not disciplined and lack the energy and fire to take initiative–these people are already falling by the wayside. I’ve written previously about sustainability issues in our field–this is probably the biggest area of concern that I have. Of course, maybe we need to be pruned a bit.
One solution is to tap into other potential sources of income. The entire field of campus ministry will likely need to become more bivocational in nature. The obstacle is that most campus ministries explicitly forbid holding another job while you’re on staff. There are some good reasons for this: time management, conflicts of interest, PT job income being a crutch when you should be support raising. I get it–not everyone can handle that. But I do think this will have to change. Because the ones who stick around doing campus ministry will need to be more entrepreneurial in nature, and will seek out these opportunities. We’ll need to find those other sources of income.
Going forward, I don’t want to see SR go away entirely. But I’d like to see us put our eggs in baskets other than SR. Let’s diversify our funding sources. And while we’re looking to fund people to get on campus, let’s not forget those who are already there: faculty and staff whom God has already burdened for lost students, and who are uniquely positioned to reach them.