Apr 23, 2018
The Sophomore Slump
Cole Penick identifies three causes for the “Sophomore Slump” and gives three treatments to help your students persevere and thrive in their second year.
Roger just came by my office. He’s frustrated, and has been for months. Sometimes he shows it by grumbling and complaining to me or his peers. Sometimes it just simmers under the surface causing him to give less than 100% to his responsibilities. “Less than 100%” is generous. By my count, he’s hovering just above the “we need to part ways” threshold. He’s been ineffective as a leader for a while now. As we talk I realize that he knows it too. And it’s driving him crazy. He’s grasping at straws to find a solution but nothing that seems to have worked last year is working this year. Some days he thinks that’s all my fault. Other days he pins it on his peers. Today, he is blaming himself.
Every year, students who had an incredible Freshman year just like Roger, find themselves floundering the next Fall. That first year he made all the friends he’d ever hoped to have. He grew in his walk with the Lord and become a leader in our ministry. He didn’t ace all of their classes but he isn’t too worse for wear. With high hopes, he entered his sophomore year, expecting it to be as good or even better than last year. Maybe we have those same expectations for them. But before too long, we both realize this year is not going as planned. He’s hit the Sophomore Slump.
Roger was a super star for us his freshman year. He jumped in with both feet. He seemed to be in the middle of everything we did and everyone loved him. He was a no-brainer to invite onto leadership this year. But college life changes dramatically from year to year. Classes, roommates, jobs, friends, responsibilities, and life back home are never the same from year to year. Heraclitus, a 6th Century B.C. Greek philosopher said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Juniors and Seniors experience this drastic fluctuation from year to year as well, but the biggest difference is they have grown to expect it. The Sophomore is expecting only improvement. No other kind of change is on his radar. So when his classes get harder or his friends aren’t as available, life starts to crumble.
Roger is also prone to compare this year to last year. It’s only natural. What else would he compare it to? The problem often lies that he’s not comparing October to October but instead October to April. By the end of the Spring of his Freshman year, everything was clicking. He had a tight-knit group of friends and we had just honored him by tapping him to be a leader next year. But October is different. October is awkward. People know each other well enough to remember faces but not always names. Your ministry is still seeing a steady stream through the front and back door. No one knows where everyone is going to land. It was like that last October too. But Roger can’t remember that. Even when you point out that he didn’t meet his best friend until November, it still doesn’t seem possible that October was “this bad” last year.
Roger is also adjusting to the new normal of maturing. Lots of college ministries are geared for freshmen. The upperclassmen come to them in the dorms. The studies are cultivated to speak to their felt needs. A freshman with a Christian consumerist mindset is loving it. But as a Sophomore the landscape has changed. Of course, there is still tons to gain but the ministry isn’t primarily focused on them. Now, to get the most out of your ministry they have to give as well as receive. While they rarely want to admit how selfish it sounds, many sophomores aren’t ready to pass their treasures on to the next class yet.
I’d love to give you an instant cure, but sadly there’s no magic bullet. However, there are some things we can do now and next fall to stave off the effects of the Sophomore Slump. I’ve boiled it down to three areas.
First, help your freshman know what’s coming. Now is the the time to say, “I have no idea how next year will be different, I can only promise that it will be different and you need to be ready.” The reason the Slump is often so debilitating is that it sneaks up on you. With a little heads up, some students can avoid it all together. Others still won’t see it coming until it’s too late. But a conversation in April might help them (and you) diagnose the problem when the symptoms show up in November.
Second, while you’re casting vision for next year, teach them to win the freshmen to win the world. Get them to see how many benefits they received this year and how they can be a part of reaching the next class. We even talk through what happens each year when a freshman class is missed. We also help them see that they’re entering in the sweet spot of our ministry, not leaving it. No, they can’t just be consumers any longer but being an upperclassman leader means they get all of the pour-in of our content, better access to our staff, and the opportunity to grow by leading.
Third, when the Fall rolls around give them your patience and presence. Now that I know what the symptoms are I’m not taken aback when a Sophomore crashes into my office to explain how I’m driving our ministry into the ground. And even when he doesn’t lash out at me or his peers, he needs me to be patient as he figures stuff out. Like a bad dress rehearsal that leads to a great performance, hard sophomore years often create stellar Juniors and Seniors. But they’ve got to survive the storm and so they need you nearby. It will be tempting to leave Sophomores out of your schedule. The new freshmen need lots of attention and your relationships are stronger with the Juniors and Seniors.
But often, all a Sophomore needs to break the Slump, is a campus minister who doesn’t quit on them. They need to know you’re in their corner. So listen well, even when their gripes and fears are short-sighted. Encourage them often, in the big and little things. And make sure they have plenty of access to you, not just for lectures or coaching sessions, but for all those moments in-between that reinforce your commitment to seeing them through the Slump.