A year ago, I made the jump from pastoring a local church to running a center at a small denominationally-affiliated college. While I was well-versed in the conversations around church vitality, the world of higher education has been relatively new to me. What I’ve learned over the last year is that cultivating thriving congregations and thriving small private colleges are not dissimilar.

Both have obvious goals, adapted to for their specific contexts. Colleges exist to educate students to succeed in life; churches exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Both institutions are caught in a changing culture. Small colleges are confronting growing questions around the value of the college degree, along growing concern around student-debt. Churches are dealing with a society that is shifting away from church as a cultural norm, and institutional distrust brought on by politics and scandals of abuse. Both are complex institutions, balancing multiple constituencies, tight budgets, and few easily solved problems.

Having spent time in both worlds, I think that churches could learn two important lessons from small colleges who are navigating the same waters.

Students Are Not the Problem

Our school has a high number of first-generation college students, a fact that is central to our identity and mission. Navigating the college landscape can often be difficult for first-generation students. Signing up for housing, completing FAFSAs, and registering for courses all require some degree of insider information.

In our first director’s meeting, our president hammered to us that our job was to make those obstacles as easy to navigate as possible. “We do not bring students here to get a degree in how to navigate a college,” he told us, “We do not blame students when they do not know a procedure. We help them. Students are not the problem.”

Data shows that if a student is too embarrassed to approach a professor after a failed midterm, or is chastised when they do not understand which forms are due to which office, they are less likely to ask for help, more likely to fall behind, and they become at-risk of not completing their education. Once a student leaves college, they are unlikely to come back.

Colleges across the nation work to ensure that we can identify students who might be at risk of dropping out before problems arise, so that they can be successful. Our job is to form and educate students, not blame them when they are not who we want them to be on the first day of class.

The mission of the church is to help people become better disciples. I often hear pastors fall into a trap of blaming our parishioners for not being the type of disciples we want them to be. I’ve made this mistake as well. We expect that parishioners will work a full day in their day-job, attend bible studies, sing in the choir, give their money, serve on committees, volunteer at each missional event, and show up on Sunday morning.

Essentially, we clergy often expect our parishioners to be full-time church goers. We do this without looking at the number of ways people already live out their faith: volunteering with other non-profits, small-groups outside of the church, creating sabbath, and paying attention to their family.

Practicing our faith, like the rest of our culture, has become increasingly divergent. We should not blame our parishioners when they strive to live out their discipleship in ways other than supporting every program and event at our local congregation. Discipleship is about living a transformed life, not building a church-volunteer resume.

Measuring our Mission

For most churches, the two single most important statistics are average worship attendance and offerings. At first glance, this seems to make sense: if people are coming, they are hearing the gospel. If people are giving, the church can stay open.

Unfortunately, neither of these metrics really tell us if people are being formed as disciples.

For colleges, enrollment and tuition – not unlike worship and offerings – are held up as important statistics. Importantly, they are not the only measurements we look at. It’s easy to increase enrollment – just offer free tuition to every applicant. A college that does that will close though, and quickly.

So, leaders in higher education look at a plethora of statistics to ensure that students are being formed and educated. Are they coming back after their freshman year? Are they graduating in four years? Are they passing state and national licensure exams needed for their vocations?

Even if a college is educating students it will likely lose its accreditation if it is not healthy. So, colleges use a wide variety of other metrics to gauge institutional health: How does our income from tuition support our budget? Are we stewarding funding from people who believe in our mission? Do our faculty and staff enjoy where they work? Do they support the college and value its purpose? Do we have a positive impact on the community around us? Are our resources being directed to missional objectives?

Using this myriad of datapoints means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a healthy, effective college. A healthy and effective school can be rural or urban, small or large, have a faculty dedicated to research, or a faculty dedicated to teaching. A healthy and effective school simply means that they are educating students and are functioning well.

Congregations and denominations would do well to take a similar tack. Rather than focusing solely on worship attendance, churches should be looking at the questions of how: How do I create disciples? How do we become more missional? How do we help people live out their faith?

Just increasing average worship attendance won’t help a church achieve the goal of being more missional, nor will it help figure out if people are being transformed each week. Churches need to choose measurements that speak to their goals and that gauge institutional health: how many people are joining bible studies after worship? Are families practicing sabbath together? Are people connecting their worship life to their community service? Are we forming missional partnerships? Does our budget reflect our priorities?

Leading in a college or a church is not a one-dimensional job. It requires an ability to think creatively, to adapt, and solve complicated problems. Not every church is successful at that, just as not every college is able to make the appropriate pivots. In order to succeed, we in the church need to be focused on our mission of making disciples in a rapidly changing world. In order to do that, we can learn a lot from our small colleges.

We can learn to stop blaming our congregations when they are not the disciples we hope they will be, or when they practice their discipleship in unexpected ways, and instead help them apply their faith to their lives in new and meaningful ways. We can learn how to better measure our effectiveness and health and stop adopting metrics that don’t address the real mission. There is no silver bullet to leading and cultivating a thriving congregation. By learning these lessons though, we can begin to see healthy churches flourish in whatever their setting as they transform lives and communities in new and fresh ways.

More on this topic

R. Alan Rice: The Demise of Haystacks and the Future of the Rural Church