Systems create better shepherds. There, I said it.
It is a bold statement, I know. Most people who hear me say this assume I have the gift of administration—I don’t. What I do have though is a trained eye to see value in administration and seek out helpful systems. This has come from many years of learning, a lot of varying experiences and asking the question, “How can we more effectively reach, develop and send students?” Most often, college leaders will answer that question with one word: relationships. They aren’t wrong. But, when partnering that answer with a choice to “just take care of it themselves” or to “remember that information,” or to neglect admin for the “sake of relationship,” we don’t tend to find a healthy, growing ministry. We usually see another student slipping through the cracks, another leader’s trust lost and another staffer burnt out.
What if students weren’t confused about their next step of involvement? What if staff had a practical plan for caring for students in crisis? What if the college ministry knew who was part of their ministry and had stored information so they could actually know each student?
If I have learned anything, it is that taking the time to do administration and use the system creates better relationships and a more effective ministry. Systems are organized and communicated structures that contain details, pipelines or care options. They don’t take away from your shepherding; they make you a better shepherd.
GOD IS ABOUT SYSTEMS + ORDER
Systems are details noted, order seen and rationale communicated. Systems are designated structures created to help with clarity, communication and connection. God is not only about these things but the first to use them because God is a God of order and of the details.
We see that he is a God of order in creation. Look at the system of the week, the way he made each part of creation link together, the way he specifically designed the human body. He created right relationship and perfect arrangement for the betterment of humanity. We see he is a God of order in the Law: the liturgies of sacrifice, of celebration, of the order the Levites packed up the ark to move, of the preparation of food.
We see he is a God of details when we look at the Torah—genealogy, dimensions, positioning around the ark, the duties of the priests, the specificity of sacrifices. We see the details in the prophecies made—things such as the sour wine Jesus would consume, the specific allotments of land, the 70-year reign of Babylon. God is a God of details.
And if the Lord pays close attention to these things, to creating order and systems, to prioritizing the small details, then we know that as image-bearers and as sheep we should too.
When we think of systems, a lot of knee jerk reactions happen, especially in the context of ministry.
“Systems turn people into projects.”
The reality is that systems, when done well, can actually help you see the whole picture of a person instead of just the problems of the single conversation you are having. Systems can help you have better access to the people in your ministry, allowing more presence and more holistic care. When you have a system in place, you can track a person’s development, growth and involvement, which can help you better see your members as individual souls pursuing sanctification instead of merely a clump of people.
“Systems lack flexibility in relationships.”
The reality is that systems, when done well, can provide a structure for your team and ministry to help create more clear paths and thus more flexibility. Within boundaries, there is more freedom. So many scientific studies back this up. When we have a well-thought through system in place, we see the whole picture of our ministry and thus better send our students, our leaders and our staff with confidence.
“Systems can’t work for a small ministry.”
The reality is that no matter the size of the ministry, everyone needs order for their chaos. Whether you are managing 12, 120, or 1200 people, each person is a soul and deserves to be cared for well. Managing and remembering information about 12 people might be easier than 1,200, but if you want to reach new students, better guide your ministry or develop new leaders, you need to have a plan for moving forward. A small system is still a system.
HOW DO I START?
Systems can be really big and detailed, such as a large CRM (HubSpot, GroupVitals, CCB, and etc.), but they can also be really simple: a shared Google Sheet with basic student info, a wall of small group leader pictures organized by group, a written leadership pipeline. You need to decide what is best for your size and your needs.
Here are a couple ways to start:
Basic Student System
Start with a Google Form that links to a Google Sheet (easy to do + free). Send the form to all the students in your ministry and have them fill out their basic information: name, birthday, estimated graduation date, phone, email, a way to be praying for them.
You can update the sheet as students become leaders, are discipled, attend trainings, form discipleship relationships, etc. You can record notes about meetings you have with them, what their post-grad plans are, what gifts you are seeing them develop, and more. By creating this one sheet, you can have so much information about your ministry and can see your people’s needs even better.
Forward Thinking Ministry System
Start by asking yourself the question: Where do we want our students to end up, not necessarily in the leadership pipeline, but overall, for the lay student and student leader?
If you want them to end up plugged into a small group, map out on paper what things you will do to help them get plugged in, barriers that stand in the way and who knows how this process works. Then evaluate the process, find a way to make it clearer and eliminate as many barriers as possible. Write down your new process and then choose the next objective. Sometimes making a system is as simple as writing down a streamlined version of what you already do.
If you are called to shepherd the flock, you are called to lead them, to teach them, to care for them. How are you going to do that if you don’t know your flock? How are you going to do that when your flock becomes large? How are you going to do that when you have many people caring for the same flock? Systems provide a space for more details and intimacy, for more breadth and depth in care and for more clarity and flexibility.
Are you shepherding your people in the way that is best for them? Or are you shepherding them in the way that is most comfortable for you? Think about it.