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Are College Ministers “Linchpins”?

March 24, 2010

Seth Godin, in his new book Linchpin, argues that we need new types of workers, people who invent, innovate, take leadership (regardless of where they are on the org chart), make connections, and generally “make things happen.”

“They figure out what to do when there’s no rule book. They delight and challenge their customers and peers. They love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art. Linchpins are the essential building blocks of great organizations. Like the small piece of hardware that keeps a wheel from falling off its axle, they may not be famous but they’re indispensable. And in today’s world, they get the best jobs and the most freedom.”

Godin writes primarily for the business market, but I know PLENTY of people outside of business, and in ministry, who read him, uh, religiously. Books like Linchpin, The Dip, and Tribes all have application far beyond usual business circles. And I believe Linchpin has a lot to say to people in college ministry. (In fact, I should note that I got my copy of Linchpin from the generous and insightful Michael Hyatt, who liked the book so much he gave away 120 copies. All we had to do was say why we wanted the book. My pitch was based on the fact that I seek to serve as a linchpin among a pivotal generation and age group, college students).

But first let me start with an objection. The subtitle to Godin’s book is “Are You Indispensable?”  The standard Christian refrain is that “God doesn’t need you–no one is indispensable.”  That’s true, and I don’t think Godin is advocating something contrary to this. Rather, he’s forcing us to ask if our contribution is reflective of our humanity, our personhood, our uniqueness? In other words, if you were removed from your work and organization, would anyone notice? Or are you a “cog,” (opposite of a linchpin), a non-unique, completely interchangeable part?

Early in the book (p.6), I wrote a note to myself in the margins: “This is a common grace recovery of imago Dei and the cultural mandate.” Godin rails against the “factory system” & “industrial model” of work that commodified human beings and robbed us of our humanity, our creativity, our joy in work. As a Christian, I’m not troubled by this talk of “indispensable.” Godin’s helping us see that our work (our “art” he calls it) should flow from our humanity, not suck the life out of us. He’s helping us see that work was created to engage our whole person, our passions–and that it can be good. This is redemptive and helpful.

Let’s return to the topic of being a “cog” vs. being a “linchpin.” I have an ongoing argument with a colleague of mine from my organization. Way back during our training, we were asked to draw, on paper, what we thought the training process was designed to do. I drew a factory-type mechanism that culminated in a funnel–ie, everyone got narrowed down and squeezed into a mold, then popped out in the same shape. My friend disagreed–still does, in fact.

Regardless of who’s right, the question remains: in college ministry, are we even looking for linchpins? Do we allow them to do their thing? Do we foster & promote creativity? Do we realize that for some people, it’s best to throw out the instruction manual? Do we want people who just “crank it out,” who are “ministry machines,” or do we want people who make their work an art? Are we looking for linchpins, or just cogs–people we can plug in to lead a Bible study, raise some support, recruit students, etc.?

Godin says we’re in a new stage of work. The industrial model is failing, and it’s especially failing people who relied on it for security. With a hyper-competitive marketplace, outsourcing, and decentralization & openness, depending on an institution is no longer desirable or wise.

So what does this mean for those of us in college ministry?  For one, it means not depending on our institution, but, as Godin puts it, creating our own “means of production.”  Those of us who raise financial support already do this to a degree. The sending organization gives us some credibility and access (particularly when we’re starting out), but ultimately our supporters give to us, not an organization. The org provides some services (notably back-of-the-house accounting, benefits, and the like), but its really a voluntary association. The individual campus minister is more like an independent franchise (ACE Hardware), not another Big Box (Home Depot).

And as ministry dollars grow scarcer, and competition increases, things will go more and more this way.  It’s my belief that future college ministry will be more independent contractor, more associational, more bivocational, more decentralized, and more diverse, as opposed to the dominant paradigm of working for a Wal-Mart or Microsoft type ministry like one of the ubiquitous big guys.  And in that environment, the linchpins have a huge advantage.

More on this important book and college ministry in the next few days. I’m also hoping some other folks jump in on the conversation, here and on your own blogs (let’s start a “blogalogue”)! Read the book? Liked it? Hated it? Agree? Disagree? Jump in!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. logsatm04 permalink
    March 24, 2010 3:59 pm

    I haven’t read the book, but I agree with your assessment on the nature and future of college ministry.

    It seems to me that college ministries are seeing that students (as a majority) are not interested in college specific worship services and that those services do nothing for reaching a lost campus.

    The answer is creating an environment where leaders are expected to be the innovators, student leaders, lay leaders, etc. are the ones expected to dream of new ways of applying the content in their context.

    The church is used to sitting back and being told what to do by their leadership instead of being challenged to take the vision and apply it innovatively to their setting and culture. I think it takes ongoing training and not just a vision-casting, training that presents the problem, but asks for the leader to develop the solutions so they become the innovators.

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