Where the Bulk of Wisdom Lies

The majority of ministry wisdom lies outside your circle (whatever that circle may be). I am perhaps the Poster Boy for large-scale collaboration. Visiting a few hundred campuses and several hundred college ministers in the last few years has helped me encounter wisdom throughout our field. So I’m happy to extol all forms of ministry collaboration – from books to blogs to buddies – but there might be one aspect of this area we need to “RE-Think” more than any other.

In North America, there is no college ministry organization, denomination, region, or other “circle” that contains anywhere near a majority of the college ministry work. And however we might measure wisdom (or at least locate it) – rich history, number of ministry sages, number of students involved, years of experience, years of prayer, years of thought, years of training… the wisdom of everybody else added together will always equal more than my own circle’s.

This means – by definition – that unless I’m collaborating with those outside my circle, I’m behind the times. And I don’t simply mean that my ministry is in danger of being something less than “contemporary.” I’m actually in danger of not “knowing the times and knowing what Israel ought to do,” because my circle of counselors isn’t complete.

I have long been rather intrigued (because I’m a nerd) by Newton’s Law of Cooling. Basically, it observes that the greater the temperature difference between an object and its surroundings, the faster its temperature changes. So if I put my hot oatmeal in the fridge (instead of leaving it out on the counter), it won’t only eventually cool more, but it will also immediately cool faster.

So maybe this is Benson’s Theory of Learning:

The greater the differences between a learner and his collaborators,
the faster he’ll find himself challenged, stretched, and exposed to truly new ideas.

I’d far rather collaborate with 5 experienced college ministers from various circles than 20 from the same circle! (Remember, learning via collaboration doesn’t require agreement.)

I do understand the immense value in collaborating within our present networks and with like-minded or like-situated college ministers; particularly, it makes sense for very new college ministers to learn first from the “best of the best” within their circles.

But before long, the minister who learns only within his own circle will possess (without knowing it) the same issues faced by untraveled political ideologues who never change the cable news channel. There’s no way to realize what they don’t know, to understand practically why their own ideas are truly best, or even to grasp the actual stances of those in other camps.

Without a healthy dose of cross-circle collaboration, I’m in danger of becoming a college ministry ideologue – because the bulk of ministry wisdom will always reside outside my circle, no matter what circle I happen to call home.

I would love to hear any and all questions about this principle (or how to apply it), concerns about what I’ve said, illustrations of your efforts here, or challenges in practicing this! But beyond that, I also want to facilitate us “practicing what I preach.” So if you have any questions about what I’ve learned “out there” from numerous college ministry circles, fire away. Consider this an open Q&A for today.

  • Richard Lim

    Hey Benson, I’d say Amen! to collaboration!
    And I agree with you. If we only connect with people from within our circle, then we are in danger of being inward-looking and also missing out on our blind spot.

    I think in order for collaboration to happen, the way we lead our ministry would have to change too. Collaboration would requires us to not just think of the needs of our own ministry but also the needs of those we’re collaborating with.

    What suggestion do you have on balancing the needs of our own ministry and the needs of the other ministries we’re collaborating with?

    • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

      In this post, I mostly mean “collaboration” of the thinking kind, not “cooperation” of the active kind. There’s a lot you can learn from sitting down for an hour with a fellow college minister, picking his or her brain about philosophy, methodology, future hopes, past successes & failure, and more.

      Certainly, I also believe that cooperation / collaboration in projects or otherwise to reach our campuses can be a neat thing. But I think you at Tim Ehrhardt (who comments just after you) are hitting on similar things. As I’ve journeyed, I’ve seen the wreckage of many “unity attempts” on campuses.

      If people could hear all the stories I have, they wouldn’t be so quick to demand a “one college ministry per campus” mindset. It simply DOESN’T seem to work in practice – and if anybody would love for “master planned” college ministry to work on a campus, I would. Often those attempts leave everybody more disunified than they originally were.

      (I’ll go more into this under Tim’s Question; now to your direct question.)

      For cooperation, you’re right – you do have to find a sort of balance. I start with assuming that you keep your actual commitments – obeying your leaders and keeping your promises. But beyond that, I don’t think there’s a Magic Rule to be applied every time (though we would all like a Rule). Instead, we take each opportunity on a case-by-case basis, evaluating what is gained and lost and comparing that with the predetermined outcomes we’re aiming for.

      (Which means if you haven’t cataloged each semester what your Aims are for that semester, all is lost already!)

      In one case, giving up one Large Group a semester (which might decrease your discipleship and your evangelism that week) may be worth it because of what you gain in increasing the Shalom of your Campus (a distinctive value in RUF), an outward show of Unity (which helps with Win / evangelism), Building students in unity with other believers, and mobilizing people in a special way (Send!).

      But that’s the big suggestion: Take each opportunity at face value. But also, consider Aims for your ministry that involve the bigger campus tribe. It’s hard for me to imagine that any ministry should be okay with a reputation as the “uncooperative ones,” whether rightly or wrongly deserved. If it’s possible – as far as it depends on you – live at peace with everyone, right?

      That’s a first stab at this, but I’d love other thoughts / Qs.

    • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

      I thought of one other thing on this topic tonight: One of the best parallel areas for investigating any Best Practices or solid principles in this area is the field of Foreign Missions. Clearly, there are mission fields where multiple denominations seek to reach people. It would be very helpful to have a resource or well-sourced paper or something detailing the major principles for unity / cooperation in foreign fields.

      There’s a lot of college ministry learnin’ that could be gained by studying very specific missions principles. Of course, that would be learning outside of our circles, too! :)

  • http://bridgewaycollegestudents.blogspot.com Tim Ehrhardt

    Thanks, Benson. I’m totally down with what you are saying. However, I have continued to face obstacles in actually accomplishing this on my campus. One of the biggest reasons is that there are various ideas of what collaboration really is. Whereas I look at it as an actual working and praying together to reach our shared campus, most others seem to view collaboration as simply acknowledging the others’ organization and appreciating it from afar with maybe an occasional shared group experience every few years. And then there are a few groups who have theological convictions (i.e. doctrine of separation) that don’t allow them to collaborate. Many are reticent to even sit down and share ideas. It seems that the more “liberal” church based groups are willing to work together, but the more conservative groups want to do their own thing. Any thoughts or suggestions on fostering a collaborative spirit across a broad range of college ministries?

    • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

      Be sure to look at my humongo reply to Richard, ’cause I think y’all are asking about similar things. I won’t re-tread here.

      But here are my quick thoughts on this, based on what I’ve seen:

      1. Go slowly. Far better to stay in this place than be more disunified in 3 years. There’s no biblical mandate for HOW unity has to look in this situation.

      2. Understand. Many longtime college ministers have seen (or at least heard of) many cooperative attempts produce wasted time (at best) and disaster (at worst).

      3. Occasional and short-term seems to work best. Approaching unity as a confederation rather than a republic or a democracy seems to have accomplished the most success.

      4. You need a leader. For each project, each monthly prayer gathering (generally, monthly is a good aim for this, not weekly, but do what fits). It’s far easier to unify for a common project/mission under a designated point person – that’s why Veritas Forum and similar outsider groups can help produce unity so well.

      5. Relationship trumps. In places where there is distinct unity (even between a couple of groups), it doesn’t seem to be ’cause it was planned. It great from people being buddies.

      Because I don’t believe a certain methodology here is mandated by Scripture, this is a question of wisdom, not obedience. And it is HIGHLY contextual. I don’t know if I’ve run into ANY campus where working together / praying together in a permanent way has worked long-term.

      • http://bridgewaycollegestudents.blogspot.com Tim Ehrhardt

        Thanks, Benson. You’ve given some stuff to chew on.

      • http://www.onleadingwell.com/ Ken Cochrum


        You are a poster child of learning and collaboration. I loved your Campus Tribes ebook – that is worth far more than the free cover price. You really nailed the heart of developing a learning culture when you said: “I’d far rather collaborate with 5 experienced college ministers from various circles than 20 from the same circle! (Remember, learning via collaboration doesn’t require agreement.)”

        We don’t need to be afraid of learning, interacting and engaging with people who view the world differently. Thanks for modeling the way.


      • http://brianvirtue.org/ Brian Virtue

        This list is golden Benson. I especially love the statement that “there is no Biblical mandate for HOW unity is to look.” Recently I’ve witnessed some tensions as it relates to how to collaborate with a spirit of unity, but a lot of tension from my observation comes from some presuppositions that equate unity with sameness. There still is a strong fear many have of what is different or other. The confederate model is a fascinating example to consider :) I agree with #5 so much because it amazes me how much “unity” is achieved over time just by seeking out people to learn from even if they seem like unlikely sources of wisdom.

        • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

          Thanks, Brian! The ones who pointed that out to me most explicitly were the guys over Cru-church combo taking place with Chapel on the Campus in Baton Rouge.

  • http://www.kirkandsarah.com Kirk Springer

    I think most ministries are guilty of exercising some muscles to the exclusion of others in some form or another (i.e. evangelism at the expense of discipleship or vice versa). I love the idea that collaboration can stretch us in these ways. I’ve never considered this aspect of partnering with others outside our organization, though it’s something I’ve been contemplating lately. Great post!

    • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

      Good word, Kirk. You’re right – everybody has strengths (and weaknesses). Inbred learning magnifies the latter and unbalances the former.

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  • http://www.brianbarela.typepad.com/ Brian Barela

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  • http://bridgewaycollegestudents.blogspot.com Tim Ehrhardt

    This year we had a Veritas Forum event on campus. One of the greatest assets in this was the university’s Committee on Lectures. They happen to be one of the best around at developing a broad collaboration around a lecturer across departmental and student organizational lines. The Committee is a great source for bringing heads together in thinking and cooperation. The Christian Faculty Association really took the lead on it, as well. In collaborative efforts, sometimes we college ministers neglect the profs, who bring a rich dimension of ministry to the table.

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  • http://www.doublederivative.ca Russ Martin

    Very insightful. Your eBook and continued highlighting of what is going on around America in college ministry saves me tons of time because it filters lots of ideas and generates lots more.

    At what point do you suppose that collaboration becomes an idol and inefficient? Personally I think I can slip into ultra-collaboration (especially on ideas) and then not get anything done. Sometimes collaboration can lead to decision paralysis because of so many good options and opportunities that hesitant to really go hard with a few things.


    • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

      THAT is a great comment, Russ. Thank you for adding that in.

      One of the luxuries for what I do is that I get to keep on collaboratin’ without having to make those on-the-ground decisions.

      I would love to hear your thoughts as you’ve struggled with this – and anybody else’s. But here’s what comes to mind immediately:

      I think having a permanent tilt toward collaboration is more important than jumping to collaboration about specific issues that we’re presently facing. Certainly, I would highly encourage people to do the latter – but you’re right, only to a point. Then you’ve got to decide.

      But if you’re continually learning, you’re more likely to have already collaborated on the questions that have arisen. (In fact, collaboration of that kind might even change the questions!) Plus, you’ll have gained wisdom about the range of options, wisdom in choosing, etc. – so you’ll probably be better about making a decision (with confidence).

      The happiest possible end of wide collaboration (in my mind) would be that we would springboard from what we’ve seen to brand-new methods tailored to our very unique contexts. The copying of methodology may mean we’ve collaborated, but we probably haven’t collaborated widely.

      Lastly, a healthy dose of trust is helpful. If I’ve been faithful with seeking wisdom, then I have to believe that God has brought me everything I need for THIS decision by the time I truly need to make it. And even if I come up with a better method next week, I can trust that last week’s methodological manna was sufficient then.

      Anybody else? This is a KEY question. Thanks, Russ.

  • Vicky Chiew

    Thoughtful and challenging post/comments!

    In terms of how to collaborate well, I think we can also learn a lot from outside Christian ministry circles. For example, health, education, and social services fields have been doing a lot of collaboration within and without, and across different disciplines and sectors. Coalitions for social justice causes (ex. end of slavery, Apartheid, homelessness) can also offer us concrete examples of effective collaborative principles. There’s a lot of research done in collaborative practices, as well.

    Totally agree w/ Benson’s Theory of Learning :) On a personal level, I know most of my greatest growth/changes have happened in relationships/interactions with people very different from me, or my “natural” community – such as my very humanistic, pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage friends, and those who are different from me in socio-economic status, religion, ethnicity/culture, and sexual orientation.

    • http://exploringcollegeministry.com/ Benson Hines

      I couldn’t agree more, Vicky. Thanks for pointing us there. My dream is that College Ministry would come to function as a “field” / “profession” / “vocation” similarly to all those fields you mentioned. Awesome!

  • http://www.westcoastwitness.com Wes Woodell

    Love the temp illustration – great stuff, bro :)

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