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Four Essentials for Thriving as a New College Ministry Staff

Welcome to college ministry, new staff! We are so glad that you’ve joined our happy band as we, together, reach the campus for God’s glory. Jesus says in Matthew 9:37-38, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” We praise God for sending you into the plentiful harvest fields of the college campus. You, as a new laborer, are the answer to many prayers!

I’ve served for over 10 years in college ministry, and in that time I’ve had both failures and successes. I’d like to share some insights with you so that you can thrive as a new college ministry staff. Here are four essentials: (1)Remember the gospel, (2) make disciples, (3) learn, and (4) rest. That’s certainly not all that you need to do, but it’s a good start!

  1. Remember the Gospel

One of the most subtle temptations is to forget the gospel. In the flurry of ministry activity, it’s easy to let other things become our motivation, but the gospel must be the core of why we serve our students. 2 Corinthians chapter 5 has instruction for us. Verses 14-15 say, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” So what brought you into ministry in the first place? It was because Jesus died for you. That motivates us to live for Him, because He died for our sake.

Paul goes on later in verse 18: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” First we’ve been reconciled to God. But then we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation! The order is very important. You do not reconcile yourself to God by doing the work of reconciliation with students; ministry effort does not justify us before God. Rather, we are justified by faith in Christ, and then ministry efforts flow out of that right standing. Isn’t that liberating? It’s easy to feel pressure in ministry to perform, to bear fruit, to meet your semester goals, to feel like God is disappointed with you if you chicken out of an evangelism opportunity. But listen, friend: Jesus chose you, by grace. You are forgiven because of Christ’s work, not your own. Listen to how Paul concludes this section in verse 21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” You stand righteous before God because of the gospel. That is good news! Here’s how Jesus said it in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” Nobody applied for Team Jesus, auditioned, and got the part because of their own talent. No, no, we’ve been drafted in because of grace! That gospel of grace is what will give you continual joy in Jesus as you labor on campus. Find your joy in Jesus and what He has done for you, instead of finding your joy in ministry and what you have done for Jesus.

Discussion question: What are practical ways you can remind yourself of the gospel every day? How does His gracious call onto Team Jesus motivate your ministry work? 

  1. Make Disciples

Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is Jesus’ authoritative command to the church, and it’s our key metric of success for college ministry. We should always ask this evaluation question: “Are we making disciples?” We do a bunch of other things: Bible study, expense reports, support raising, email, email, email, sending text invites, picking up pizzas, etc. But we must not lose sight of the goal in all of this: making disciples.

It’s so easy to experience mission drift, to get caught up in the side projects and forget about the main thing: make disciples. I’ve seen myself fail in this as I get excited about some nerdy theology topic, or becoming content with just meeting up for coffee each week with a Christian student (that’s safe!) rather than getting out there to meet new unsaved students (that’s scary!). Here are a few questions to help you assess if you’re making disciples: Are you meeting up regularly, one-on-one with your student leaders? Are they growing as disciples of Christ in knowledge, love, and obedience? Are they actively sharing the gospel with unsaved students on their campus? Have you trained them in evangelism? Ask yourself these things, and honestly assess if you’re hitting the mark of making disciples of college students.

Discussion question: How can you build your schedule around disciple-making and evangelism rather than good (but not best) “side projects”?

  1. Learn

Learning requires a humble, teachable heart, and this is hard to have! We all tend to think our ideas are the best. But repeatedly in Scripture we see the call to humbly learn and get wisdom. Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” Go get it! One way to get wisdom is from other wise people as it says in Proverbs 24:6, “for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.”

One of the best ways to learn and get wisdom is to read. You need to read. Obviously, read the Bible most of all. The Word of God is trustworthy truth, and it should shape all that you do and say with your students. After the Bible, there’s scores of books on topics that are a critical foundation for your work in college ministry. Read books on college ministry like The Fuel and the Flame. But also read broadly in topics like apologetics, Bible study, academics, cultural analysis, smartphones, missions, church history, dating, biographies, and reminding yourself of the gospel. If you don’t have humility for learning, you can fake it in ministry for a short while, but your ignorance will start to bleed through, and your shallow understanding will undermine your effectiveness.

And if books really aren’t your thing, remember that reading isn’t the only way to learn! Seek out mentors to help you. Listen to your boss, ask him or her questions about how you can grow. Be a hungry, humble learner! Join the Collegiate Collective Facebook Group and ask questions of the thousands of fellow laborers. Get some cohort training like with Campus Multiplication Network. Pay close attention during staff training conferences and take notes. Identify your weak spots and commit to growth.

Discussion questions: Who is one older leader you can meet up with next week to help you learn? Ask that leader to recommend three books for you to read in the next three months.

  1. Rest

As a brand new campus staff, there’s a temptation to hit the gas out of the gate, and work hard to prove yourself on campus. And it’s exciting! You’ve probably spent some time raising support, or in training, and you just can’t wait to be on campus. And I don’t want to throw water on that fire at all! I want that fire to grow hotter, and keep burning for years and years. And the way to endure in college ministry is to rest well. If you keep the same pace throughout the semester as you did for the first weeks of fall outreach, you will collapse. God doesn’t need sleep, but you do. God doesn’t need rest and leisure, but you do. God already has friendship in the Triune person of Himself, but you do need friends. Jesus says to the disciples in Mark 6:31, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Why did he say that? “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Ministry is busy! It’s good to work hard and give yourself to serving Jesus. But listen, friend, we need you in college ministry for the long term. Please don’t burn out in your first year.

Here’s a few simple practices that will help you create sustainable sacrifice:

  • Abide in Jesus every day through His Word and prayer.
  • Sleep eight hours every night.
  • Practice a weekly Sabbath day of rest. Do avocational things to recharge.
  • Enjoy periodic vacations, especially over winter and summer breaks. One practical idea for a brand new staff is to take a vacation before starting your ministry assignment. My friend Lincoln says, “Rest is not a reward for work done, but it is what is to fuel us for the work ahead.”
  • Learn better time management, so that as ministry tasks increase you can remain effective and increase in fruitfulness.

Above all, you must rest in Jesus spiritually. This is the foundation that allows you to rest physically and emotionally. The gospel provides the basis for our rest. And appropriate rest will help us to keep going in ministry without burnout. Some of you may rest too much, and you need to work harder to be faithful to your job. But in my experience, most college ministry staff struggle with overwork (sometimes it’s ministry idolatry), and repentance looks like more rest.

Discussion question: What are some restful activities that re-energize you? When will you schedule your next vacation? 

Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” We need you as a laborer on campus! America has about 20 million students, but only several thousand college ministry leaders. We have a big job ahead of us. Thank you for serving. Thank you for joining Jesus’ mission to make disciples. We believe today’s college students are one of the most strategic mission fields on the planet. Bill Bright is famous for saying, “If we win the campus today, we will win the world tomorrow.” Start off strong, run the race well, and the Lord will award you the crown (1 Peter 5:4). And by God’s grace, your ministry will extend far beyond you!