Fish. Thirteenth –graders. Newbies. Freshmen have many names. Our campus sometimes calls them baby ducks (don’t ask, you don’t want to know). Freshmen ministry is one of the most time consuming and rewarding things in college ministry. For many, it’s the first time they begin to own their faith. For some, it’s the first time they are exposed to discipleship and evangelism. For those of us in collegiate ministry we see the pros of freshmen getting plugged into a ministry and growing in their faith, but we also see the dark side of freshman year as vast numbers of church attending freshmen disappear from the faith after they hit campus. Within the first 4-8 weeks incoming freshmen have set their pattern and their peer group, and many times Jesus and discipleship aren’t in the picture. We have a saying here, “Catch them in four or chase them for four.” It’s the rally cry the first month of school. We have four weeks to help them discover a relationship with Jesus and plug into a ministry, or we spend the next four years chasing them as they run from Christ. Believe me, it’s easier to catch them now than chase them later.
We’ve all been there: the mad dash to meet as many freshmen as possible, connect with as many as possible, throw as many events as possible, and attend as many university preview events as possible, all the while trying to grab a nap from 2am-6am each night. I’m with you. We do it too. And it’s worth it. The cost of not giving it our all during the first of school is too high and the impact too eternal to not go all out. We are not called to what’s easy, but to what’s worthy, and reaching freshmen is worthy! But it’s not just about meeting freshman at events it is about having students that are in places of influence with freshmen already. The foundation for a freshmen harvest in August starts the October the year before.
There are students who are naturally in positions of influence and leadership among the incoming freshmen. They are forced into it. It’s in their job description. It is the RAs or RLs in the dorms and Freshmen Orientation Staff. These students are usually the first students incoming freshmen meet and are the ones that help them navigate the system and show them the ropes. Most freshmen will at least try out whatever their Orientation Leader or RA suggests. For example, we threw a welcome back event for freshmen this year that was rained out and had to switch venues twice the day of. It’s was destined to be a disaster. Everything was going against us. Bad venue, not ample time to get the word out, other events planned alongside it—I thought we were done for. We had half the freshmen class show up! Looking back it was because many of our upperclassmen were RAs in the dorms and Freshman Orientation Staff. They brought their students. They made sure their baby ducks knew about it and personally invited them and walked them over to the event. Our event would have died without our RAs and Orientation Staff. It made a believer out of me about having students serve our campus as RAs and Freshmen Orientation Staff.
October is when many campuses begin interviewing for Freshmen Orientation staff for the summer and Resident Leadership for the next school year. They are the greatest influence in their lives the first couple weeks of school. Do we want incoming freshmen to be shown the local bar or the campus ministry first? Influence the leaders and you influence the followers! A healthy freshmen ministry should have a vision for having students who eat, sleep, and breath alongside freshmen as they go to orientation and move into their dorms. A few things to consider:
Keep the Vision and Deadline in Front of Them – Announce from the stage when the RA and Orientation Staff applications come out from campus. Help students see the opportunity to invest in campus. What job has a better built-in discipleship and evangelism process than working and living among freshmen?
Make Room in Your Ministry Schedule for your RAs – Once your students have committed and been hired, remember that being an RA means they will have hall meetings, required staff trainings, and orientations to attend. This can make it hard to plan your ministry meetings and leadership team retreats. Try to find a schedule and a rhythm that makes it possible for your students to lead in your ministry and serve on campus at the same time. The calendaring will give you a headache in the short term, but the payoff will make ministry better in the long run.
Know the Heads of Key Departments – Do you know the long-term staff in charge of Resident Life and First Year Experience? Take some time to know them. Drop in to their office and see what their needs are. Know their shirt sizes and as you make shirts for the year send them a swag bag full of stuff. They are constantly giving away stuff and rarely do they get anything. Drop them a note saying you’re praying for them. Serve them and they will bend over backwards to help you. They may even swing by your events just to see what their students are up to!
Find Out Their Needs – As you meet key leaders in those departments (or as your students become key leaders in those departments) ask the question: “How can we help y’all?” We asked that question last year and found out that the Freshmen Orientation staff needed to eat after a long day of orientation. Go figure! We volunteered to help and were able to cook them dinner after every orientation. We got to feed and pray with the Orientation staff all summer! By the second orientation the staffers were bringing freshmen by our table saying how awesome we were. We didn’t feed them so they would give us a shout out, but it was a pretty cool by product! Later, we found out that the RAs were running crazy the morning before freshmen moved in and needed some down time and a peaceful lunch before chaos broke out. We were able to feed them, share God’s word with them, and pray for them in the midst of the most stressful moments of their semester. We still have students see us on campus and tell us how grateful they are for us helping them. It all started with asking the question, “How can we help? What do y’all need?”
Let’s face it, we need all the help we can get. We can’t throw enough events, get enough contacts, or have enough giveaways to draw in all the freshmen, but we can empower and influence students to live among and have influence where the freshmen already are. The key workers in the harvest for next August are being decided today. Let’s put ourselves on the front lines to see God move in a mighty way next fall by the steps we are taking now.