Helping Seniors Transition
Let’s be real… Sometimes graduation can be a youth pastor’s best friend. On occasion there are certain students who need to graduate and move on and they just need other people to love them for a while! Most of the time however, the graduation of our students is a bittersweet time of nostalgia and thanksgiving. More and more I find graduation to be less of a time of reflection upon our students and more of a time of reflection on the ministry itself. We might start asking ourselves questions like:
- Did our ministry with them empower them to own and live their faith?
- Did we provide ample opportunities for them to lead?
- Did our students become more in touch with their spiritual gifts?
- Did we surround them with winsome, fun, God-loving volunteers?
- Did they know we cared about them beyond an occasional “like” on a social media photo?
- Did we teach them to value Jesus enough to make life-long, God-honoring decisions?
- Did we have a faith worth “catching”?
For our ministry, stretching our contact time with our upperclassmen is key to helping answer “yes” to all the questions above. A great question to ask is, “How are our ministries inviting our upperclassmen to want to remain with us into their junior and senior year?” Here are a few things we discovered.
Serve. Seniors need to serve. Our ministries cannot continually equip students with knowledge and no outlet to serve. I suspect one reason youth ministries struggle to sustain our juniors and seniors is that we have not provided opportunities for our students to express outwardly all that has been poured in. Our seniors are invited to take part in our middle school and children’s ministries. They serve in leadership on retreats and events by planning games, leading worship, giving talks, leading Sunday school, and leading small groups. This culture of service among our upperclassmen benefits all ministry areas of our church and it prepares them to seek out opportunities to lead once they arrive on campus.
Travel. Seniors love road trips. We have pursued opportunities as complicated as week-long mystery trips and as simple as trips to The Passion Conference. These opportunities have given our seniors something to look forward to and have provided opportunities to be “older” and set apart in a setting where that was ok.
Senior Share Night
Share. Seniors want to share. The last official night of youth group is senior share night. The typical “talk” time is given over to our seniors to pass on their collective wisdom to our younger students. The format is like a forum with guided discussion. We set up a chair for each senior up front and pass a microphone around from student to student. Senior share night includes a slideshow of each senior participating in ministries throughout the years. The setting is pretty intimate. We don’t necessarily invite parents to attend. This is just for the youth ministry.
End of Year Celebration
Celebrate. Seniors want to celebrate. Our end of (ministry) year celebration is an awards show that is presented by our juniors and seniors (think the Oscars led by 17 and 18 year olds). Our students create a theme and help decide awards for our underclassmen that celebrate funny and meaningful things that happened throughout our ministry year. Our guys and girls wear their formal wear left over from their multiple formal dances. They do skits, give speeches, and hand out awards with a flourish. This event is entirely of their own making and continues to be a highlight of our senior experience and our ministry as well.
Senior Recognition and Brunch
Bless. Seniors want our blessing. Most student ministries do some form of recognition. On senior recognition Sunday, our seniors wear their graduation cap and gown to worship and even process in with our choir during our traditional service. We collect baby pictures and senior pictures of each graduate and a slideshow is presented during worship. After worship, our families are invited to brunch prepared by our “junior” families. At the brunch our seniors have an open mic time to express their thanks to their families and also to our youth ministry volunteers who are invited to attend as special guests. We end with families gathering together for communion and a blessing.
Connect. Beyond graduation our students will likely no longer need our programming but they still need us. Make sure your students have your phone number and a free lunch whenever they want to “just talk.” It is also helpful to familiarize yourself with campus ministries and leaders on key campuses your students attend. If possible, help make people connections for your seniors with campus ministries their first two weeks on campus.
A Place to Call Home
Re-engage. During winter breaks and in the summer we have found that our returning students need opportunities to gather and not necessarily a “college” or “young adult” Sunday school. Task a few key students to plan the agenda and frequency of the meetings. You show up, lead a devotion, bless the food if asked, and be thankful that they like having you around! Your presence means more than you could possibly know. This quote from Henri Nouwen echoes my conviction along these less than traditional ministry lines:
“It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”
These are ideas, not formulas.
Though the approaches above seem programmatically driven they are nurtured in the context of community. Your ministry context will likely provide similar, natural on-ramps to shape opportunities for your seniors as they head toward graduation and beyond.
Tony Akers has been in ministry to youth and families in large and small churches for 25 years. He is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and just entered his 12th year serving as the Minister to Youth and Families at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Tony also serves as a youth ministry coach and writes fairly frequently at www.studentministrysolutions.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.