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Why college ministry is treated as junior varsity

September 11, 2016

    I loved Dave Hess’ article, “Campus ministry is not a junior varsity calling” and I fully believe it.

    I’ve been offered some “higher profile” opportunities and up to this point my first and last answer has been no.

    I love what I do, see immense value in what I do, and it would take something close to the audible voice of God to change what I do. But my “no” has puzzled a lot of people.

    In their minds, I turned down the chance to level up in the ministry world.

    When your weekly meeting looks more Nickelodeon than Nicaea, you’re begging to be seen as a “junior varsity” level ministry.

    I meet a lot of people who “did college ministry” before starting their “real” careers in church life or academics.

    They often talk about college ministry the same way I talk about my summer lifeguarding job in high school. It was fun for a few years, but it’s not meant to be a career.

    So where’s the disconnect? Why is the career I love and have chosen a second-rate calling in the eyes of so many people?

    Here are two factors for this perception a college minister can’t control and three factors a college minister can control.

    Factors largely out of our control

    Smaller ministries

    Large college ministries are rare. We could probably count the ministries over 1,000 people on two hands.

    The reality is, even if multiplication happens in our ministries, we will rarely see it because we hemorrhage our growth every year.

    Imagine a church that was required to expel every member who had been there longer than four years. That would make sustained growth hard, huh?

    In our numerically driven culture we often subconsciously value growth and “multiplication” over faithfulness.

    That’s why many believe pastoring a church of 200 people is a higher calling than leading a ministry of 75.

    Never mind that many of the church’s 200 came to Christ through the college ministry of 75 (which also has 500 alumni serving thousands of people in churches all over the world from a college minister’s 15 years of faithful laboring).

    So some people will always devalue college ministry simply because it seems to engage fewer people than other ministries.

    Younger leaders

    It’s hard to consider a career worth giving your life to if so few actually give their life to it.

    Regardless of the “why,” so many people in college ministry are beginning their careers rather than ending. This adds to the perception that college ministry is an entry-level position.

    But just like the vast majority of careers, the longer you’ve worked in it, the more experience you develop. And with the right experience comes greater effectiveness.

    Tim Casteel does a great job of fleshing out the need for older college ministers and how they benefit the ministry in this article, but this won’t change overnight.

    As long as college ministry is treated like a stepping-stone to bigger and better positions, some people will continue to see it as a junior varsity calling.

    Factors we can control

    As a college minister, you can’t change the perception of size and the average age of collegiate ministers.

    What you can change is the perception of how you faithfully handle your position.

    You represent an entire career track to the people you know and work with.

    Here are some factors that cause some people to see college ministry as a junior varsity calling that we can control.

    These are all weaknesses I’ve seen in my life and consistently in the lives of many other collegiate ministers.

    Depth of knowledge and study

    College ministers often shun academia. It’s ironic, don’t you think?

    Their very job happens in the context of education, yet they often remain willfully ignorant of the latest theological discussions happening among theologians and Biblicists.

    In the summer of 2016, a heated debate on the Trinity began as the very definition of the eternal nature of Christ was being debated by some of the greatest thinkers in western Christianity.

    I wonder how many college ministers saw posts about this and scrolled past it to retweet the latest John Maxwell quote (for the record, I love John Maxwell quotes).

    If you want to be treated as serious ministers of the gospel, study to show yourself approved as serious ministers of the gospel.

    Sure, read Malcolm Gladwell to be a student of the culture, but don’t neglect being a student of our historic and deep faith.

    Read a range of Christian scholars and thinkers throughout history like Augustine, Bunyan, Lewis, and Grudem.

    Day-to-day professionalism

    I’ve also seen a tendency for college ministers to be lax on administration.

    I get why. We primarily work with young adults “growing” in their professionalism (as long as it’s on the syllabus), but still operating very informally.

    Only a fraction of our job is given to connecting with people who are full time in the “professional” world.

    We can begin to act and respond like the people we minister to and spend most of our time with.

    It’s not uncommon for me to send an email or text to someone in college ministry and wonder if the person on the other end has shut down their account or stopped paying their phone bill.

    If you are more faithful to respond to social media posts than e-mails, you’re doing a poor job of adulting.

    If you want to be treated as a professional, act like a professional in how you respond to correspondence and how you schedule your day, week, month, and year.

    Ministry practices

    College ministers can also succumb to gimmicky or immature ministry practices. Watch me endanger the life of my first staff member one month into my current position.

    If I were doing ministry towards immature people, there would be a degree of immaturity expected.

    I don’t call college students “kids” and I often correct people who do. We work with adults who vote and could serve in any branch of the military. I sing silly songs with my children, and we do silly crafts together, but we don’t do “children’s” or “youth” ministry with college students.

    When your weekly meeting looks more Nickelodeon than Nicaea, you’re begging to be seen as a “junior varsity” level ministry.

    It doesn’t mean that there’s no room for fun. But make sure your discipleship methods and practices treat the worship of God as serious (though not stale).

    Just as there are multiple factors for the perception that college ministry is a “junior varsity calling,” there are multiple factors for why people commit to this ministry for just a season of their lives.

    I’m grateful for the people who invested in me while I was in college. Some were “lifers” and some were doing it for a time.

    Regardless of where you’re at, please take this job seriously for the sake of the people you will lead, for others who will engage in ministry, for the crucial profession of reaching college students, and for our Lord who deserves hard working laborers in the crucial harvest field of college campuses.

    For Discussion

    What are other common reasons people see campus ministry as a “junior varsity calling?”

    What controllable factors would you add?

    Which factor do you struggle with most and how can you grow in that area?