Jan 09, 2017


RSO: A double-edged sword?

Tom Knight again asks important questions. This time, he focuses on the idea that an RSO may not be the best way for your college ministry to impact the campus.

Campus ministries have been invested in registered student organizations (RSOs) for so long, they may believe there is no other way of doing campus ministry.  And for good reason too.  Having a RSO brings many perks to the ministry: official recognition by the university, access to space, official email addresses for staff, possible funds for events, and the ability to network with other clubs for service projects etc.  These are all great benefits.  But they could also come at a cost in some situations.

At the battle of Agincourt, the English under Henry V defeated a much larger French force by being smarter and nimbler.  Knights in full, heavy, armor were the tanks of the ancient battlefield.  Everyone was wowed by their prowess, power, and destruction on the battlefield.  And France had a lot of knights.  But under the right conditions, knights were not the best option for fighting a battle if you knew how to adapt to the context.  Due to the heavy rains before the battle, the French fields were quagmires.  Many knights were killed on their backs unable to get out of the mud.  It is reported that some even drowned face down.  Nimble English, by contrast, who were not weighed down by the armor were able to maneuver more effectively.  Their longbow men were able to rain down volley after volley of arrows, as the French slogged through the mud.  By the end of the day, France was defeated and thousands of knights killed or captured.  No wonder Shakespeare wrote a play commemorating the battle and Henry V.

Just like those knights stuck in the mud, sometimes a RSO can be the wrong mechanism for ministry.  There are instances where an RSO can cause gridlock, paralysis, or diminishing returns.  Let’s look at some of those instances and possible models to replace the RSO.

Instances where erroneous beliefs about RSOs or an RSO itself may cause confusion or be counter productive:

  • Where a group is so small that it spends more energy working on keeping the group going than on its mission.
  • Where a church erroneously believes that since an RSO has failed in a certain context, there is no other choice.
  • Where a group is denied RSO status for some reason.
  • Where an RSO will be hamstrung due to a staff advisor who is fearful of “crossing” lines, etc., while working as an employee of the college.
  • Where a church believes that the only way to do ministry on campus is through an RSO.

Models that might work in place of RSOs:

  • A campus ministry based off campus but very near the campus.  This space be a house, church, or other third space for a church or non-church ministry to use near campus.  In fact, if an RSO was “derecognized” due to legal issues or failing to meet minimal standards, this would be a logical next step for many groups.  This is the model currently being used by BCM at Vanderbilt Place, after Vanderbilt BCM did not register as an RSO due to Vanderbilt’s “all comers” policy.
  • A church-based ministry which mobilizes its student members as missionaries to the campus.  Churches with students enrolled at a campus already have a presence on the campus through these students.  They do not need “permission” to “get on campus.”  Through their students, they are already on campus.  The issue is not permission but vision.  Students are free to share their beliefs with other students regardless of being members or not members in an RSO.  Students as missionaries can then point students back to the sending church.
  • A church-based ministry that instructs and guides students to create “missional communities” to do ministry in their dorms, apartments, or third space areas on campus.  Many students are already geared to do “life together” with other students.  With churches equipping students to live with a spiritual focus in community, they can achieve many of the same results that an RSO strives to do. Students would be able to contextual to their own setting without trying to gather everyone together for a “big group” meeting and weekly worship on campus.

I am not trying to convince anyone to drop an RSO that is working well.  However, I am suggesting that if your RSO is not working well, or not achieving what you thought it would, then perhaps you are battling in the wrong way.  Spend some time looking at your context and experimenting with other ways of doing ministry.

And if you don’t have an RSO, or have tried an RSO and failed, don’t think you can’t do collegiate ministry!  You can.  But you will have to be willing to try totally new tactics.

You can also read more from Tom at Campus Parade where he writes on college ministry, campus culture, and ministry leadership.

about the author

Tom Knight

Tom is a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, specializing in international student work. He holds a law degree from Wake Forest and an Mdiv from Princeton. He is the author of No Passport Required: Collegiate Ministry as Global Missions.