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“Good to Great” in College Ministry

December 2, 2020

I believe leading a college ministry is one of the most challenging and strategic callings you can have. To thrive in college ministry you must develop the grit of a missionary, the heart of a pastor, the drive of an entrepreneur and the strategic mind of a CEO. Most people don’t understand the complex leadership challenges that those of us in college ministry encounter. We must be ready to lead multiple levels of staff, train volunteers, mobilize resources, speak in a way that inspires large and small groups, plan calendars, balance budgets and cast vision to a wide range of stockholders (aka supporters). A college ministry director that is faithfully fulfilling his calling is doing what would be the role of 3-4 high level staff members in a similar organization. Time is your most important resource in college ministry. That is why I recently wrote the ebook ‘Do More With Less Time’ to help apply key leadership principles specifically to our field.

On top of all the nuts and bolts challenges of leading a complex organization we have an enemy who has us on the top of his hit list who is constantly feeding us lies. You are about to try and take one of the enemy’s most strategic strongholds. The college campus is like the mission critical bridge in the movie Saving Private Ryan. The college campus is the bottleneck where almost every leader of this generation will pass through. College ministry has many similarities to a start up business but it is much more complex due to the spiritual battle every step of the way.

As followers of Christ we stand before God to lead our organizations in ways that are not only effective towards our goals but honoring to God and just towards people. There is much we can learn from the secular leadership community but we must filter everything through the scriptures to make sure it lines up with how Christ wishes to operate His global enterprise.

Good to Great by Jim Collins is by far the most popular secular leadership book most leaders that I know recommend. It is also the first one I would recommend for those starting new ministries. It has time tested principles and many of its findings mirror truths we see in scripture. There are so many ways the principles in this book apply to college ministry but I am only going to pick out a few and explain why they are so crucial for us to understand and apply.

Good is the Enemy of Great

I want to take a moment to ask a couple questions of those of us who lead “successful” college ministries. The more college ministry leaders I get to know around the world the more excited I am by the good ministry that is happening on so many campuses! My burden for the field of college ministry as a whole is that we don’t settle for whatever the “industry standard” is in our particular college ministry model but to pursue nothing less than disciple-making movements on every single campus. The stakes are too high to settle for anything less!

If God could have his total way with your college ministry what would he do?

I believe that if you prayerfully seek The Lord for an answer to this question that He will give you a vision for how you can take your ministry to the next level on your campus and beyond! The last thing that I personally want to do is to slip into a “business as usual” mindset as I am leading our college ministry. My heart breaks when I think of the thousands of students on my campus that if nothing changes are headed to a Christless eternity. I am driven to raise up other leaders when I consider the thousands of campuses around the world that have little to no one seeking the share Jesus and make disciples among them. The college campus is the “bottle neck” for the future leaders of the world and God is calling us to reach, train and send them. The most strategic mission field on earth should be served by the most strategic ministry efforts. We should never apologize for mobilizing our best resources towards this effort.

We should constantly be seeking to evaluate, learn, grow and change our strategies and programs as needed. As Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

As college ministry leaders we must learn to celebrate the fruit that The Lord is currently giving us while remaining a holy discontent about the current state of our campus and ministry! One example is that as I get to know more and more college ministry leaders around the world I see a need for most ministries to reevaluate their Fall Outreach strategies. If I can make a bold statement… I would say that most college ministries might reach more lost students if they doubled the amount of days they spend tabling and doing 30-Second Surveys and doubled the amount of fun events they do the first month on campus. Don’t settle for what will be enough for connecting already interested Christian freshman. Go for creating a contagious environment that a lost students is compelled to join because of the fun atmosphere and loving people. Instead of talking with 2,000 students why not try talking with 4,000. Remember it’s all about the contacts!  Instead of 7 fun events why not do 14. You can learn more about what we are doing for Fall Outreach in this free webinar. There are also great ideas in this video featuring leaders from Resonate Church and Gracepoint.

What areas of your ministry do you evaluate so that you can move from good to great?

Level 5 Leadership

The “Level 5 leader” that Collins describes looks shockingly like what the Bible prescribes for leaders, humble, self sacrificing leaders and committed to the mission. Here it is in his own words:

“Level 5 leaders, displayed an unusual mix of intense determination and profound humility. These leaders often have a long-term personal sense of investment in the company and its success, often cultivated through a career-spanning climb up the company’s ranks. The personal ego and individual financial gain are not as important as the long-term benefit of the team and the company to true Level 5 leaders.”

As I read this description I can’t help but think of Arliss Dickerson’s list of key traits of large college ministries. One of the most common traits that larger college ministries have is a long term director. Tim Casteel found similar results during his research with the largest Cru movements that the ministries that grew the largest had a long term that fit the description of a  “Level 5 Leader.” Often, these leaders built these movements quietly behind the scenes with an inspiring focus and determination.  My mentor Max Barnett is a humble Level 5 leader who was the director at OU BCM for 37 years and God has used the graduates from his ministry to plant over 100 college ministries and churches as well as have the highest number of alumni serving with the International Mission Board than any other college ministry in the nation. If you can dig in and build a disciple-making movement over time then your impact can exponentially increase. It takes years of building a culture of evangelism and disciple-making before you start to see a movement start. “More happens in five years than you and I would ever dream. Less happens in one year than we would ever hope. In building a movement, time is our friend.” Jim Sylvester, Longtime Cru Director and author of the excellent free ebook Principles God Honors.

Which of the characteristics of a “Level 5 Leader” do you need to focus on developing most?

The Flywheel Effect

The most inspiring principle in the book for me is that “Flywheel Effect” here is Jim Collins description of the concept. I will quote his description in full so you can fully understand the concept.

“Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.

You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction…  

Then, at some point—breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn … whoosh! … its own heavy weight working for you... No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.” (source)

This concept was incredibly encouraging to me as I thought about our college ministry. The first few years I felt like I was pushing everything up hill in the snow but after 9 years of building disciples and raising up leaders I honestly feel like I can barely keep up with our leaders. What started out with just my wife and I.  During our first Fall Outreach we busted it to get 200 interested contacts with 20 people praying to receive Jesus. Fast forward 9 years The Lord has built the ministry that this year we had almost 2,000 contacts with 160 students indicate decisions to follow Jesus!

Spiritual multiplication really works! The problem most people have with spiritual multiplication is that it takes too much time. There are no shortcuts to true spiritual multiplication. You must take the time and effort to spend real time investing in the next generation of leaders and expecting enough of them that they truly break out of the Christian bubble to reach out to non-Christians. You can’t have true spiritual multiplication without raising up a growing team of “laborers” who are regularly praying for, sharing the gospel broadly and personally following up with those who come to Christ. Often what passes as spiritual reproduction is nothing more than passing around Christians to help them grow. Alan Hirsch once said “God can do more with 12 disciples than 12,000 religious consumers.” We need more college ministries that have the shameless focus on doing whatever it takes to reach lost students and immediately start training them to be the next generation of disciple makers.

How does the flywheel concept apply to how you are leading your ministry?

The Hedgehog Concept

Here’s a quick summary of the Hedgehog Concept:

“Collins uses the metaphor of the hedgehog to illustrate the seemingly contradictory principle that simplicity can sometimes lead to greatness. When confronted by predators, the hedgehog’s simple but surprisingly effective response is to roll up into a ball. While other predators, such as the fox, may be impressively clever, few can devise a strategy that is effective enough to overcome the hedgehog’s simple, repetitive response.

Similarly, Collins asserts, the way to make the transformation from Good to Great is often not doing many things well, but instead, doing one thing better than anyone else in the world. It may take time to identify the single function that will be a particular firm’s “hedgehog concept,” but those who do successfully identify it are often rewarded with singular success.

In order to help expedite this process, Collins suggests using the following three criteria: 1) Determine what you can be best in the world at and what you cannot be best in the world at; 2) Determine what drives your economic engine; and 3) Determine what you are deeply passionate about.” (source)

One perk of a ministry that is focused exclusively on making disciples of college students is the ability to be focused on what will most effectively reach, train, and send students. If it doesn’t fit in one of those three categories, then your response is simple—you don’t do it.

One thing that we discovered is that a process of intentionalrelational, and reproducible disciple making takes care of 90% of strategic ministry needs. If you asked any of our staff or key student leaders what our ministry strategy is they would simply say, “We make disciples.” One thing we’ve found to be effective is creating a “downline” of students who are discipling students who are discipling other students. Equipping and unleashing student leaders to make disciples is the secret weapon of every college ministry that is consistently seeing students come to Christ and multiply. I can sleep at night when I know more experienced believers are personally investing in younger believers because I know they are getting the encouragement and help that they need. Knowing that students are getting custom training in their walk with God helps me feel less of an urge to start a new program, class, or training meeting for every specific need that comes up.

Discipling others helps our leaders grow as they encounter questions and issues they have never helped anyone with before. According to the 70:20:10 Principle, the best kind of leadership development comes through “hands-on” ministry. Daniel Im puts it this way: “Discipling others while being discipled is actually one of the best ways to get discipled!”

One faith goal we have is that a freshman student who is committed and faithful to the training that we give them will be able to lead one person to Christ and start discipling them by the fall semester of their sophomore year. This is not a side project of our ministry, it is a driving force behind our entire ministry structure. From the way we structure our core team to our summer training projects our entire ministry calendar is organized around this goal. We discovered that if we can help a student begin leading others to Christ and discipling people, then the chances of them becoming a lifetime kingdom contributor exponentially increase. Once they catch the “discipleship bug,” they will be hooked and never want to settle for a life that is not leveraged for Christ’s mission.

Momentum comes when you do just a few things well over and over again, year after year.

What is the hedgehog concept for your college ministry? What can you do to focus more on that?

There are many other principles I could apply to college ministry from this excellent book but I am going to leave that up to you! I would encourage you to read this book and even take your staff team through the book discussing how you can take your ministry from good to great! For more principles on leveraging your leadership as a college ministry leader check out my free ebook Do More With Less Time and make sure to join the Collegiate Collective Facebook Group.