Feb 20, 2017
Student-led or Staff led?
Mike Puckett writes about moving his college ministry from student-led to staff-led and what to consider when deciding the structure of your ministry.
Recently I led BCM of the High Country away from being a student-led ministry to being a staff-led ministry. Our history is rooted in traditional, student-led BCM structure. In making this shift we’re not suggesting that a student-led ministry is wrong or broken. We are realizing that campus ministry isn’t one-size fits all. Every campus is different and every leader is different. We know that instinctively, yet we may likely assume that “campus ministry” means one thing done one way. I’ll share some of the reasons and thought-processes behind why we made this shift in our ministry.
Strengths of Student-led Ministry
Lots of campus ministries reflect this structure, especially in the Baptist world. Student-led structure allows for a growing, and in some cases, a rather large ministry to develop under the leadership of a single staff person. This is possible because most of the on-the-ground work is done by student leaders rather than the staff person. One of its greatest strengths is that it sets a high bar for students and it requires buy-in from student leadership. A strong student leadership team can inspire loyalty and excitement among the rest of the students. This can cultivate an ongoing expectation in underclassmen that they want to lead and that they’ll have the chance. It’s peer pressure of the best kind.
Weaknesses of Student-led Ministry
One of the clear weaknesses of Student-led ministry is student turn-over. It takes a LOT of work to build a strong student leadership team. It’s worth the work. Ideally, strong leadership begets more strong leadership, but this isn’t always true. Hard work can keep a streak of great leadership going only to have a class of students who are unable to measure up to the preceding teams.
Here’s the thing, college students are 18-22 years old. They are idealistic. They are naive. They lack perspective. They are adaptable. These attributes are like coins; they have two sides. They are inexperienced and require extra oversight. This, most of all, sets the stage for the weaknesses of student-led ministry. We shouldn’t assume that college students aren’t able to lead or that they can’t be responsible. I’ve known and worked with some incredible students. But I’ve also burned students out. I’ve put unfair expectations on them in the hopes of building a strong ministry. In a student-led structure, it can be more natural to develop leaders of teams rather than train disciple-makers. Further, because they are full-time students, there is a much lower ceiling on their availability and vision, not to mention that a single staff person can only lead so many students, creating a leadership ceiling. We may not recognize the awkward position we put students in when we place them as authority figures over their peers.
Students are capable of a lot, but there is a fine line between cultivating them as leaders and putting too much on them. This is especially true in a time of redefinition. In a time of great momentum within a well-oiled ministry, student leaders can be a great asset. They can also be a liability when there’s not as much momentum or in a time of redefinition.
One more thing we may not take into account enough is their developmental stage, “emerging adulthood.” Students today are different than the college students of previous generations. Today, the developmental stage we see in most students might make us revisit our prior commitment to student-only leadership.
Strengths of Staff-led Ministry
A staff-led ministry is able to sustain a long-term vision while building a better pipeline for developing students into who God wants them to be. We are able to spend more time engaging students with the gospel and calling them to discipleship when we aren’t spending so much time turning them into team-leaders. Because a staff can be expanded, the potential reach of a staff-led ministry is far greater than a student-led ministry. BCM has moved away from being a program-oriented ministry, and in this setting, staff-led structure takes full advantage of its potential.
Weaknesses of Staff-led Ministry
The greatest weakness of staff-led ministry is that if it is done poorly, it can deflate entirely a healthy set of expectations for students. It can also diffuse the focus of the key staff leader who is trying to work with and develop other staff, inadvertently losing sight of the campus and the students. We don’t want to become “specialists” who set the bar for entry unnecessarily high. Students have a lot to give, and we must steward that. If we set the bar low, they will reach it. If we set the bar high, they are likely to reach it. The issue is what we are expecting them to accomplish.
The Big Picture
There is strategy involved in the decision to cultivate a student-led or a staff-led ministry. It isn’t just structure, as if it was simply a personal choice. The end vision of the ministry combined with a contextual view of the culture must shape our decision-making process. A student-led ministry can be excellent at developing leadership. A staff-led ministry is more likely to see multiplication. There is no moral value to either structure, unless we allow it to become an unquestionable idol or prerequisite for ministry. For many years, student-led ministry was the way to go for us at ASU. Now, I am more and more convinced that our context is best served by a staff-led structure.