Service learning meeting at a Christian College

Best practices for service learning begins with effective onboarding and continues with much-needed ongoing support.

An important outcome of Christian higher education is developing students for servanthood. Many Christian colleges have a service-learning component as part of the student experience. Each semester thousands of Christian college students head out into their communities to volunteer in a variety of ways. College leaders view this as a valuable learning experience and students see it as an opportunity to realize their passions of making a difference in the world.

Sometimes effective learning does occur and sometimes students do make a difference.  However, just as often neither of these outcomes occur. Poor service-learning experiences can discourage students from serving and give them partial information that creates unhealthy biases.

For service experiences to consistently translate into effective learning with positive results students need more structure, guidance, and support than what they often find. This can be done if the leaders of service-organizations make some minor adjustments in the student experience. By adding an initial orientation and some ongoing experiential-learning element students will be more likely to make a difference and learn important lifelong lessons.

Initial Student Onboarding

Most traditional age college students arrive at their service-learning opportunities as blank slates. They have limited service experience, knowledge, or skills. They may have seen ministry modeled in their church but not with the objective of learning from it. Due to this lack of knowledge and experience they may make poor decisions or lack the confidence to make any decision at all when it is desperately needed.

A period of initial orientation can inspire student confidence and keep them from making avoidable mistakes.

Within the first few weeks, service-organization leaders need to clearly communicate standard protocols and best practices, lead the students in a self-discovery workshop, and place each student in a specific role within the organization.

1. Communicate Standard Protocols and Best Practices

Service-organization leaders need to clearly communicate standard protocols and best practices. Christian college students will not arrive with “ministry common-sense.” Although, students will likely receive ministry training at their college, it will not replace an organization-specific orientation.

Most colleges teach at universal level while ministry occurs at a contextual level. Students will eventually learn to apply their knowledge to a context but often it takes time. Establishing clear ministry protocols, appropriate responses in emergency situations, and ministry best practices helps avoid misunderstandings and gives students a framework to operate within confidently.

2. Conduct a Self-Discovery Workshop

Service-organization leaders should guide students through a self-discovery workshop. College students often lack self-knowledge and possess little awareness of their own gifts, passions, and personality. Developing self-awareness in these areas is crucial in properly placing them and helping them to work on a team.

Leaders should facilitate an interactive workshop format that encourages students to share observations about each other. Students may be hesitant to acknowledge their own giftings or abilities. However, they are comfortable sharing and affirming what they see in their peers. This kind of peer feedback gives students confidence in their unique abilities and helps build a supportive team culture.

College student reading to special ed student as part of his service learning experience.

Effective service-learning development requires matching students with the best opportunity to utilize their spiritual gifts, natural talents, sills, and passions for service.

3. Assign Responsibilities and Positions

Service-organization leaders should meet with each student to decide their position within the organization. If they do not have a clear responsibility, they will likely remain unengaged. The placement ideally will be in an area the student enjoys and will likely achieve success. Haphazardly assigning students into roles in which they have no interest or are likely to fail can discourage them from future ministry. Leaders can determine appropriate placements by discussing the results of the self-discovery workshop with the student.


A Framework of Ongoing Support

The initial training and placement only begin the learning process. Placing them in the right experience alone will not guarantee effectiveness or learning. Students need continued support and mentoring so they can appropriately process and interpret their experiences. Ongoing methods that help accomplish this goal include regular group sessions, reverse mentorships, and spiritual retreats.

1. Facilitate Service-Learning Training Sessions

Service-learning leaders should facilitate regular group sessions during the academic year. These sessions provide volunteers with ongoing skills training and an opportunity to reflect together on ministry experiences. Formal presentations by service-organization leaders and outside experts can provide valuable training on specific ministry skills. Students should also present periodically on best practices they have learned as this promotes reflection and helps the students process their experiences into learning.

Each session should have time allotted for informal discussions about the perceptions and emotions of the students related to their service experiences. A powerful exercise in this effort is to periodically have students reflect as a group on the gifts and abilities they see emerging in themselves and others. This helps students in developing an understanding of their spiritual identity and gives them a chance to affirm the unique giftings of others. The affirmation and information developing from the exercise promotes deeper cohesion and teamwork among the students.

2. Pair Students with Reverse Mentors

Service-learning leaders need to pair students with reverse mentors. Reverse mentors are people from the community whom the service-organization serves. They act as mentors and resources for the students as they learn the ministry context. This is especially important if any kind of cross-cultural component exists.

Establishing reverse mentors appropriately places students in a position of learning rather than a position of power. It teaches them the importance of humility when entering and serving in a new context. Also, reverse mentorship emphasizes the need for relationship in serving. Reverse mentorship can create deep relationships and increase students’ effectiveness.

3. Facilitate Annual Spiritual Retreats

Service-learning leaders should facilitate an annual spiritual retreat for students. Retreats create space for God to speak into students’ current lives and prepare them for their future ministries. A retreat gives time to reflect, make course corrections, and listen for God’s direction in their lives. Spiritual retreats will increase students’ likelihood of remaining in ministry and reconnect them with God who is the source of transformation in the world.


Developing students for servanthood will not just happen. It takes intentionality and effort. Service-learning organization leaders can benefit both students and their organizations by appropriately onboarding college students and creating a framework of support throughout their service-learning experience.



  • Matthew J. Hallam

    For the past two decades, Matt Hallam has been involved in mentoring college students in practical ministry. He earned his Ph.D. from Evangel University with his dissertation focusing on missional identity development. He also is a Vice President at God's Bible School and College.

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