Tim Casteel writes on campuses need older college ministers and what you can learn from them.
“Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” Job 12:12
In my experience, college ministry tends to be a young person’s game.
I’ve seen it many times – a strong leader emerges in college ministry and God really moves through them for a few years. And then they’re gone. And the college ministry they left behind shrinks back to nothing.
Why the lack of longevity among college ministers?
- Many people see college ministry like youth ministry. As a temporary stepping stone to “real ministry”.
- The need to move up the corporate ladder. It’s the American way. I hear the incredulous questions from my peers in the work world – “You’re still doing the same job, same title as you were 11 years ago?? Man, you’re in a rut. You’ve got to be more ambitious, man.”
- College campus gets increasingly difficult the older you get and the larger your family gets. Working nights and weekends is not as doable. All the travel takes a toll. It’s less “fun” hanging out with 18 year olds than it used to be.
- Inevitable discontent that comes with any job. The grass looks MUCH greener over there. This is especially predictable around the ages of 29-32 and then again at 39-42 (see these from David English to learn more). Every 29 year old wants to change jobs.
- Money – there are MANY jobs that pay much better than college ministry (even within the ministry world)! This is not simply materialistic selfishness. It’s often the demands of being a provider for a growing family (and the looming cost of your kids’ college).
- Weariness of raising support – an “easy”, sure paycheck looks pretty appealing if you have low support or short paychecks (I’ve been there a few times!).
So why am I – a 39 year old, bald, father of 5 – still trudging out on campus mixing it up with 18 year olds?
Because college students are the most strategic mission field in the world.
And because we need old college ministers. We need college ministers who will stay in it for the long haul. Here’s four reasons why:
1. Age is an Advantage
Dr. Sackner-Bernstein, in a fascinating TED talk, argues that with age comes the skills, experience, and wisdom that produce impactful ideas. The average age of Nobel Prize worthy achievements across multiple disciplines ranged from 37 to upper 40s.
Sackner-Bernstein tells the story of Dr. Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin at age 47.
Dr. Fleming had the:
- Experience, and
- Wisdomto see that the pesky mold growing on their experiment’s petri dishes was worth investigating further. A younger scientist would have simply discarded the petri dishes ruined by mold. Dr. Fleming discovered an antibiotic that changed the world.
Age was his advantage.
Imagine how many great achievements and impactful ideas we miss out on in college ministry because of the lack of skilled, experienced, wise college ministers.
I believe that I am FAR more effective as a 39 year old on the college campus than I was as a 21 year when I came on staff. Of course, now I get called sir a lot. Which stings a little. But learning to operate as a spiritual authority in a student’s life rather than a spiritual buddy/peer is incredibly powerful. When you speak, students listen AND remember.
3. Long term vision and strategy
“More happens in five years that I could ever imagine, but less happens in one year than I would hope”. Jim Sylvester
We need men and women who will execute a vision for THIS year but for the year 2050 (see Ohio State Cru). It takes a long time to build a college movement – 3-5 years to get going; 10-12 years to become established. We need leaders who will choose to invest in a college campus (plus surrounding campuses!) for a decade or two.
4. Fruitfulness is closely linked to longevity of staff
Over the last few years I have interviewed some of the largest Cru ministries in the country. What was the consistent theme across all those large movements? Longevity of staff. In the largest Cru movements, with only one exception, the director had been there for over a decade. Most had senior staff who had also been there close to a decade.
That is not to say that if you just serve somewhere for a long time, you’ll be fruitful. But the opposite is true: It’s very difficult to build a fruitful college ministry with a revolving door of ever-changing staff and directors.
A few tips on being old on campus:
- Be bold with the gospel. Students are expecting it. It’s weird to be over 30 years old on a college campus and NOT be sharing your faith! They don’t want to hang out with a middle age guy with 5 kids.
- Raise up staff and interns who can continue to bring the energy and fun of youth. You don’t have to be connected to every student in the ministry.
- Embrace the fact that students now see you as a parent-figure.
- Seek to influence other, younger college ministers by being a spokesperson for college ministry and through sharing resources and ideas. Get on Twitter or start a blog. Realize that young college ministers are longing for input and direction.
Who’s with me? Who will labor on college campuses for the next 10 to 20 to 30 years? I’ve been offered jobs and had lots of opportunities to move “upward” and onward. But I choose to remain on the same campus, in the same job, with the same goal (reach freshmen and send out laborers). The question I ask myself: “Is this the best stewardship of my life for maximum gospel impact? Is this the best return I can get on the investment of my life?” And the answer so far has always been “yes.” Because I believe that God has chosen college students as His primary vehicle in accelerating the evangelism of the world.