Jul 03, 2017


5 Higher Ed Practices College Ministers Must Steal

Erica Young Reitz draws our attention to some higher education practices that could create higher impact for our college ministries.

Start with the end in mind. We just came home from family vacation with my side, and my husband and I agree it was one of our best. Why? We began with the end in the mind. Before we left town we started an email asking everyone about their hopes for the vacation. We let these outcomes pull us towards our plan for the week rather than aimlessly letting it unfold. Starting with the end in mind is good advice for any time we’re planning something: a family vacation, our personal budget or our ministry.

Unfortunately, we wing it far too often. Or, we make a ministry plan around particular events rather than our deepest mission. It can be hard to evaluate whether our practices are producing the kind of life-long disciples we hope for, so sometimes we settle for measuring lower-hanging outcomes (like large group attendance or the number of student leaders). These metrics matter, but our ministry plans must also include the kind of high impact practices that develop students into the people we hope they become beyond college. For example, our mission at the CCO is “Transforming college students to transform the world.” Therefore, we must ask, “Is what we’re doing now preparing our students to become the world-changers we hope they will be after college?”

George Kuh, a leading voice in the college student success conversation, has identified a number of “high impact practices” that promote deep learning, engagement and thriving among students. We – as college ministers – need to figure out how to incorporate the key concepts of these practices into our work with students. As we plan for the upcoming academic year, here are just a handful of Kuh’s practices to consider:

Collaborative Assignments and Projects
This should not come as a surprise, but when students get to work together on long term projects, it builds their interpersonal skills and their ability to really listen to others: essential practices for life-long success. As students get involved in our ministry, let’s make sure we offer opportunities for them to work on teams where they have high autonomy and that require strong collaboration. At one point, we made a shift in our ministry from staff-led to student-led, staff supported. This pivot allowed for more student ownership and required more teamwork. While it may seem it demanded less work from the staff, that wasn’t the case. Our work shifted as well. It forced us to sharpen our coaching skills and to provide helpful and timely feedback to our students – something we could have done better. Students who have the chance to collaborate with peers, receive feedback, and interact with a mentor, report that it leads to deep learning as well as significant personal and practical gains.

Learning Communities
While we may not be able to create an academic learning community around shared courses, we can help our students make connections across disciplines, and we can help them integrate what they’re learning in the classroom with their faith and life. The best college ministry does exactly what Kuh describes; it “encourage[s] integration of learning….and…involve[s] students with ‘big questions’ that matter beyond the classroom.” About a decade ago, we noticed that students in our ministry were desperate for a place to wrestle with some of the “big questions” connected to course lectures (globalization, the environment, technology, and so on). Their concerns led to the creation of “Faith for Thought” (now called “Faith, Life and Our Work Conference”) – a place for students to relate faith to academics and to learn that God cares about their field of study and future career. We must help students deal with their dualisms, especially for those who see church activities as more sacred than classes or studies. It all matters. We have a crucial role in helping them fully integrate their lives.

Diversity/Global Learning
Knowing how to welcome and interact with others whose backgrounds or ideas differ from ours is crucial for post-college success in a diverse world. While it may be tempting for students to cloister themselves in circles that feel safe and familiar, we must push them beyond their comfort zone and into places where they’re confronted with divergent worldviews and diverse values. It’s normal for us to love our thing, our brand and our ministry best. As excited as we are about our ministry, let’s be careful we don’t over-program our students to the point that they don’t have time to foster relationships outside of our “tribe.”

One year, we had a student leader who asked to step down because he was running from one ministry event to the next with little time to spend with non-Christian roommates and friends. Ironically, expecting him to be at all of our campus outreach events kept him from actually reaching out to the very people God had put in his path. While we want students to go deep and not wide with their involvement, let’s be mindful to release them to outside opportunities (including study abroad semesters). These experiences may be more strategic in accomplishing our deepest mission than we realize.

Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
Every ministry should provide pathways for students to serve in the greater community, but we take it to the next level when we help students reflect upon that service experience. As Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Students Do, writes “You don’t learn from experience; you learn from reflecting on experience.” We must make time for reflection. I used to run hard to the next event, work even harder during it and then felt too exhausted to debrief it with students when it was done. But this debrief is crucial; it’s where real learning happens. Well-executed experiences are like a good flight. Strong launch, good ride, and great landing. Let’s not forget to land the plane for students.

Another form of experiential learning, internships are so important for students who are trying to discern if what they’re learning in the classroom is something that they will enjoy in a real-world setting. We should do all we can to encourage students to take advantage of internship opportunities, to release them from our summer mission projects if need-be (or to create summer projects that involve a real-world work experience), and to help them apply their learning when they’re done.

Who do you want your students to be when you launch them into the world? Start with that end in mind, steal some of these best practices from higher education, and – if you’re not already – use this summer to get planning!

about the author

Erica Young Reitz

After 14 years of college ministry experience working for the CCO, Erica is now teaching and consulting. Her passion for equipping graduating seniors to prepare for life after college continues. Erica is available to speak and consult – she loves connecting with students and 20-somethings as well as with practitioners who work with them. Currently, she serves as an adjunct faculty for Geneva College’s Master’s in Higher Education Program. She is the author of After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationship and Faith (InterVarsity Press). www.aftercollegetransition.com