Success: What is it in Higher Education Ministry?

26 Jul

Working on a public University campus comes with many perks: the best coffee shops, the new and hip food types like fro-yo and the cupcake boom of the past few years.  But there’s also this ultra competition from departments and agencies related to Universities all looking to evaluate how students are achieving and how they are better than other schools in this and that.  The University of Minnesota identifies itself as the 9th strongest research school in the world and everywhere we go, we see schools touting their statistics.  All the while I wonder: does any of this matter.

And the answer is yes…sort of.  It’s the same thing in the church.  We are looking for ways to measure our ministries, and especially our local churches for “success.”  But we all know the way local congregations are asked to measure success reminds us of the slippery slope of financial stability and overall numbers of people who show up between 9 AM and Noon on Sundays.  And the truth is that for higher education ministry, that won’t ever work and neither would an evaluation of our worship, at least as a complete picture.

So the question for me becomes how to come up with a way to measure “success” in higher education ministry.  What is the trick?  Is it a both/and where students’ hours per week in the ministry are counted along with numbers of attendance?  Is it a more case study method where stories are told?  Is it a comprehensive set of measurements where time, emotion, spiritual depth, and other things are used as “currencies” and measured long term.  Or perhaps it’s a lifetime measurement where people who graduate are asked 5, 10, 25 years down the road how higher education ministry affected them.

No matter what way we go, the likelihood of a complete picture of “success” is highly unlikely.  In the end, we might have to remember that God is in control of these things, and we might have to as an institution step back and realize that although our best efforts to measure “have” to happen,  they don’t have to be the only methods we keep.

Success for me?  It’s built around whether I’ve made an impact in students’ lives, in the life of the University itself, and whether at the end of the day I feel as though I gave my best and while I couldn’t change the world, I did take time to witness to the relationships and the needs right in front of me.  Perhaps you are a campus minister or chaplain and are wondering how you measure success.  Well, sometimes it’s measured on overcoming failure as well.  So tell me, how do you measure success of your work, both personally and collectively?  I would really like to know.


Cody Nielsen is the United Methodist Campus Minister at the University of Minnesota. In addition to his role in the twin cities, Cody serves as the NCMA President and works to rebuild the field of higher education ministry one campus at a time.  His wife Erin is a teacher and Buttercup, a 15 month old Golden Retriever makes sure students are greeting with enthusiasm and joy every time they enter the campus ministry.  He is available at almost any time and would love to hear from you @

3 Responses to “Success: What is it in Higher Education Ministry?”

  1. Steven Tramel Gaines July 26, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Good thoughts, Cody. When forced to “measure success” in campus ministry, I came up with a plan that seemed to work both for me and for the more business-minded authorities who oversaw my work. I compared our beginning-of-year set of goals and strategies with our end-of-year report of what we had actually done. It’s a way that measures success but leaves results up to God.

  2. Maggie Gillespie July 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    I use the same measures you do, Cody, and one more. I measure our impact on the community, too. We are in a small town, in which we depend on the local churches to support us in a variety of ways. So our relationships with the people off campus is important to the ministry. But I also have noticed that the students experience spiritual growth and satisfaction from being involved in the community in meaningful ways.

  3. Laura Patterson July 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    We’re instituting a new, 2-fold system this year in our ministry. First, we had to set some goals in the spring when we applied for our funding to show growth and vitality. We did it through the objectives-goals-strategies-measures process that our conference requires. So we started with big, philosophical goals and then ended up breaking them down into growth in numbers in a couple of different areas (mostly leadership, adult involvement, and small group offerings). The second way is to set a series of “benchmarks” for spiritual development in students. We have a few key things that we look for, like the ability to express what the student believes, an understanding of the functions of missions, if the student feels compelled to share their faith, etc to witness to spiritual growth. The benchmarks are related to our church’s discipleship path so there’s a general direction that everyone is moving. Obviously we’re not really “measuring” these and they’re expressed differently in each student, but when we see a student go from shrugging and saying “I don’t know” when asked what they believe to being able to make a clear statement we know that a change has occurred! They will help us know that our ministry is vital and allow us report it to The Powers That Be, which is a yearly process for us.

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