Posted by: tlhawkins | December 16, 2009

Defining Success in Campus Ministry – A Parable of Accountability

by Tim Hawkins

Almost a year ago Johann Hari wrote an article for the Huffington Post called Bananas:  A Parable for Our Times.  Hari uses the history of the banana industry as a parable for what happens when corporations are left unregulated and without accountability.

After telling some of the stories that gave rise to “Banana Republics” Hari writes:

“…corporations are structured to do one thing only: maximize their shareholders’ profits. As part of a highly regulated mixed economy, that’s a good thing, because it helps to generate wealth or churn out ideas. But if the corporations aren’t subject to tight regulations, they will do anything to maximize short-term profit. This will lead them to seemingly unhinged behavior — like destroying the environment on which they depend.”

I wonder if it is not a great parable for campus ministry as well.

We have things like accountability partners to focus on our personal failings as we see them relating to our failure to follow Christ.  But since most campus ministries operate outside typical corporate accountability (like the eldership of the Acts churches) where does our corporate accountability come from?  Where should it?

I’m not suggesting that we treat ministry like corporations.  But, I am suggesting that campus ministry and corporations are directed by flawed people that can fall danger to temptation, power and justifying short-term profit without regard for long-term sustainability.

This may be one reason for us to think carefully about our ecclesiology in campus ministry, and for sure we need to give some reflection to not only “how we define success”, but also “the means by which we get there”.

The following are a few places that might help us to move toward accountability before the need of regulation.

Consequential Accountability – This kind of accountability is the natural result of our methodology.  If our methodology brought people to our events and activities, but not into a life-transforming relationship with Christ, it is unlikely they will have an ongoing connection to the ministry in five years.  Taking a look at giving from alumni and maybe more importantly, the parents of alumni, might provide some measure of health in both the short and long-term.

Intentional Outside Accountability – In the ACM ministries there is a board of directors that is generally made up of people from area churches and/or alumni from the ministry.  The difficulty is most of their information is directly from us as staff, and as long as we’re able to show some numeric dividends, a remote board may not be able to assess whether or not the dividends were worth the payoff.  For real accountability we need our board/advisory committee to have access to conversations with students.  I’ve seen this done a couple of different ways, first by hosting board/advisory meetings the night of events, and second by inviting different students to provide a “state of the students” address to the board/advisory committee meetings.

Intentional Internal Accountability – My guess is that most of us doing campus ministry have various forms of internal accountability with our student leaders and/or staff.  This can work well if our leadership and staff understand the desired outcomes of the ministry and we foster a culture of loving conflict.  One way this happens is that we model grace and change.  If all direction or input is met with a nod of understanding and yet changes never happen, we’ve communicated a closed door to effective feedback.

Environmental Accountability – The University faculty, staff and administration may not be the best source for whether or not you are meeting your spiritual definition of success, but they can certainly provide a reasonable gauge for the perception of our ministry and practices, and whether or not we are destroying our ministry environment in the pursuit of short-term gain.

There is danger in unregulated/unaccountable human power, in corporations or ministry.  I don’t think the scriptures teach us, or the history of the church, that we are only accountable to God.  We, collectively, as the bride of Christ, submit ourselves to one another to become conformed to the image of the Son.

We, as ministers of the gospel of Christ and pastors of students who are still developing their moral and spiritual voice, must do all we can to be connected to the source of wisdom and strength through our personal relationship with Christ; and to be informed about the environment in which we shepherd students.

Psalm 78:72 says this about David’s leadership, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

A ministry that is not showing signs of growing, or even long-term healthy discipleship might not be an issue of lack of prayer or moral failing, but could also be simply misdirected skills.  Having an accountability structure in mind can help set a campus ministry and that staff member on the right track sooner rather than later.

Eugene Peterson summarizes all of this well in his book, The Jesus Way:

“The prevailing ways and means curricula in which we are all immersed in North America are designed to help us get ahead in whatever work we find ourselves…” He continues, “Warnings are frequently and prominently posted by our sages and prophets to let us know that these purely pragmatic ways and means of the world weaken and enervate the community of the baptized.”

We need that ongoing exposure to the warning signs posted along our way.



  1. Really, really good thoughts, Tim. Thank you for this (and for this whole series).

    I think we college ministers are far too slow to accept feedback from others (secular and spiritual) on our campus as valuable input. We directly measure the results that can be measured far too little, too. And most ministries don’t seem to have a board of advisors in the way ACM ministries regularly do – I definitely consider that one of y’all’s distinctive strengths.

    The only one of these that seems fairly prominent is receiving feedback from our students, student leaders, and staff. But you’re right – this works best if they understand the OUTCOMES and base their opinions on those. If all they do is reflect on the experience and “what they liked about it,” that’s not going to produce particularly helpful data… but my guess is that college ministers have an over-reliance on just that form of “feedback session.”

    As I’ve noted a few times, we need to get on the ball about guarding ourselves from becoming unhealthy, imbalanced, or ineffective. It’s so, so easy to go those directions in college ministry – and for the short-term fruit to make it look like our changes are for-the-better.

    Thanks, Tim.

  2. […] up the great multi-week discussion of models for measuring college ministry success, Tim Hawkins discusses multiple forms of accountability that can help measure whether we’re really achieving success – and whether we’re […]

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