I have always thought of gardening as a relatively easy venture: till up the ground, plant some seeds, add water, remove weeds, and wait. Then my wife and I tried to create our own garden this past summer. Nothing went the way we expected. The ground was hard, so the tilling did not go smoothly. Weeding and watering in the harsh southern Illinois summer was exasperating. And then there were the animals. Even though we put up a small fence, the animals got most of our
watermelons, pumpkins and corn. All we ended up pulling out were some peppers. All that work for very little produce. Was it worth it? I’m still not sure. We learned a hard truth through the experience: gardening is deceptively difficult and highly unpredictable.
In a lot of ways, campus ministry is the same. It seems simple at first: pray, put up flyers, set up info tables, follow up with new contacts, have meetings. If we just do the right things, then the ministry should thrive, right? Why wouldn’t God want to grow our ministry?
The truth is that it is not that easy. Even using reliable and effective principles for building ministry, we can still get bad results. The danger is that we can lose our joy and vision, and joyless ministry leads to burn out over time.
We need a way to deal with seasons of drought in ministry and still keep our passion and joy. The following biblical principles are essential to learning how to endure the dry seasons:
Early on in my staff career, I approached New Student Outreach with an enormous amount of energy and anxiety. I knew how critical this time of year was to the future health of the chapter. I put all of the pressure on the student leaders and myself to make it happen. I took upon myself the burden of the results as well. It caused me great stress and it led me to be a harsh and perfectionistic leader for our students. I was missing the biggest truth of ministry. Ministry is not our work. Ultimately, God does not need us. He graciously invites us to work alongside him. This is a privilege that should fill us with joy. The results are none of our business. Thank God he has allowed you to play a part in his Kingdom.
Sometimes we can do all the right things and get bad results. But we can also do all the wrong things and get bad results. We need to know which category we are in. Take time to evaluate your ministry from top to bottom. Seek counsel as well. If you can change anything for the better, do it. Recently, my staff team created a “wall of shame” bulletin board in our office to help us (playfully) remember bad ideas so that we will not make the mistake of trying them again.
Just because things are dry and fruitless now does not mean that they will always be this way. Maybe your role is to pray and break up the soil for a time before greater results can come. I have been on staff for 15 years now, and have seen our chapter struggle in a number of ways. But I have also seen some tremendous growth and ministry success in recent years. Our ministry strategy did not change much in between. We prayed and stayed faithful. God saw fit to bring growth eventually. But it took persevering through several years of little growth.
The body of Christ is big and diverse. Through Christ, we are family. Nothing will turn our attitudes from competition towards partnership faster than good old-fashioned prayer. If you are feeling jealous towards other ministries, then pray for them. They are on your team. And the team has the same purpose and goal. Personally, this has been my biggest challenge as a staff member. My first response to hearing about other ministries starting on campus is frustration and criticism. But the truth is that we need help reaching all the students on campus. And God is working in and through them as much as he is us. We are family, not competitors.
Every soul is precious to the Lord. Every student is a son or a daughter that needs our ministry and community. Whether 2 or 20 people show up to Bible study, God’s desire to love and transform hearts remains the same, and so must we. If we cannot be faithful with a few, then why would God give us more? Having kids of my own really helps with this perspective. I imagine each student as my child and strive to give them what I would want a staff giving to my children some day. Every student has their own unique story, purpose, and needs. Jesus always put quality before quantity. That is the only way effective discipleship can work.
6. Remember that God’s love for you is the same. John 15:1-2
We have to detach our view of God’s love for us from the current state of our ministry. I remember having a long conversation with a staff member I supervised who could not shake the feeling that God was somehow disappointed or unconcerned about the chapter based on its lack of growth. It sounds silly but we all do it. We shape our understanding of God’s love for us from our circumstances rather than from Scripture. God’s love for us is fixed and unchanging. Yes, God often shows his love to us by pruning and disciplining us, but it does not mean we have done something wrong. Just the opposite is true. God often shapes our character most through times of trials.
Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” We move forward through ministry scarcity, decline, and frustration by pressing on in the love and power of God, trusting that God knows what he is doing. We faithfully serve whoever walks through the door. We lay down the burden of results and celebrate the fact that God has allowed us to serve in his Kingdom. We give the ministry our best efforts for God’s sake and let him do the rest.
Patrick Langan is an InterVarsity Campus Staff Member at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and blogs at No Rights.