Its hard to say goodbye. We want to remember the old times, while celebrating the new adventure that lays ahead, so today we explore…….
“How do you send your youth off to college?”
Rev. Alice Cates serves as the Minister to Youth at Chester Baptist Church in Chester, VA (just south of Richmond). She earned her Master of Divinity degree from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, her Master’s in Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University, her undergraduate degree in Theatre Arts from Campbell University, and was ordained to Christian Ministry at Biltmore Baptist Church in Glen Allen, VA. Alice greatly enjoys laughing out loud, preaching, spending time with her super rad niece and nephew, sunny days in the park, wrangling her bloodthirsty housecat Henrietta, and Netflixing.
Saying goodbye to our seniors is never easy… In many cases they have been a part of the youth group for 7 years! In some cases they’ve been a part of the church family for their entire lives! And now… it’s time to send them off… into the great unknown…
That time between the end of high school and the end of a newly graduated teen’s last summer as a “kid” is often filled with a whirlwind of emotional ups and downs for the teens themselves but also for their families and loved ones.
Creating rituals for saying these goodbyes can be a great way to alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with such a big transition and can provide space to properly honor, celebrate and send off recent grads.
Early preparation can be really helpful on many levels. I begin this time of transition at the very beginning of our students’ senior year. Not formally, but in personal conversations with new seniors I let them know how important they are to the group. I let them know how much I appreciate their leadership and encourage them to take on even more of a “leading role” in the youth group. My goal here is to empower these students to explore their gifts and discover that they can play a very meaningful role as mentors in the youth group and as budding leaders in the greater congregation. From time to time I may need to pull different students aside and remind them of their role as a leader; remind them of the power they hold as a role model (for better or for worse!) to our younger teens.
As the school year wraps up the church gets very excited about our graduate recognition Sunday. In the weeks leading up to the event invitations are sent out to the families of all of our graduates inviting them to attend both the service and a luncheon at an area restaurant afterwards. Those who are able to attend are asked to submit photos from the graduate’s childhood as well as their “official” graduation photo. When “Graduate Recognition Sunday” rolls around, graduating youth don their regalia and process into the sanctuary. As each name is called, a slideshow of their submitted photos scrolls through with great “ooohs” and “awwwwes” from the congregation as the graduate makes her way onto the stage. I share briefly about the next steps for each student, whether it’s college, career or a time of soul-searching and give each a gift to help or inspire them in their continued journey. After the worship service the graduates and their families along with the entire ministerial staff and the youth team all go out for a nice lunch together.
Although these students remain a part of the youth program until the end of the summer, at some point around late July, I work closely with the Minister to Young Adults to start introducing our recent grads to the young adult ministries of the church. They are invited and encouraged to attend Bible Studies and outings along with the youth as well as the young adults. This helps to create a smooth transition. For some, this will mean reuniting with former youth who have graduated in years past. For others this might mean entering into a room full of older strangers. Help them with the transition as best you can!
As the summer comes to a close and it’s time for some to begin moving to dorm rooms and apartments away from home, I take our soon-departing graduates out, just us. We may do a dinner at my home, an outing for ice cream and a walk around downtown, or some other event that is somewhat intimate and special for a given group. During our time together we talk about our hopes and fears, what they’re excited about and what they’re worried about. It’s rare that I have to be the one to initiate such conversations; they just happen! And because it’s just the graduates and me it seems that they are more able to let their hair down and take off the brave/cool faces that they tend to wear for the younger youth. Sometimes there are tears; always there are lots of laughs and memory sharing. I talk about how this night is transitional for us all: I have been their youth minister for so long, but now, we are moving into a new stage. They are becoming adults and our relationship can reflect that. I am intentional about expressing my excitement for getting to know each of them on a whole new level as they continue to grow and mature into the awesome people that they are. I call out specific gifts I see in them and encourage discussion about how they can continue to nurture those gifts beyond the youth group. We end the night by sharing how we might best pray for each other in the coming months and then I pray for each of them by name. This is a sacred and special night.
Finally, at the last official youth group meeting before our graduates move away to college or just move up to the college Sunday School class down the hall, we have a time of celebration for our grads. I generally let it be a night of less-structured games and hang time where the students can relax and spend quality time together. In the last 30 minutes or so of our time together I’ll do a brief lesson (pertaining to saying goodbye or transitions, or some other appropriate topic) and then we will encourage our graduates and pray for each of them together as a group. Of course, there are often lots of tears and hugs with this hard goodbye. But mostly, the night is a celebration, a thank-you and a big “we’ll see you soon” party.
Gregory Harrell has served as minister to youth at Blacksburg Baptist in Blacksburg, VA, since 2009. Despite being directly across the street from Virginia Tech he still believes Maroon and Orange should never be worn together.
The senior year is a huge transitional year for students. From the moment they start filling out the college applications, they are mainly focused on what is next. Since this is where their focus is we use the entire senior year as a way to send youth off to college. We have three main ways that we walk alongside them during the year.
- Senior Dinners: Once a month, my family host our seniors over for a dinner and we use this time to prepare them for the transition that is coming the next year both by looking at their faith and discussing practical skills they will need. We help them focus on their faith through a series of questions that we discuss as a group that move from light hearted personal questions and eventually end up with discussing what they actually believe. We use the book The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 Conversation Starters for Any Occasion by Gary Poole as our guide. This is an excellent resource for questions that spark conversations. When we get to the end of the year and the seniors have discussed what they really believe, we help them identify what they want in a faith community and how to find it.
Throughout the year we also discuss practical skills they need in college. These have included things such as time management, budgeting, priorities, and etiquette. The topics do tend to vary year to year based on what that particular group of seniors needs and their interest.
- Graduation Recognition: This is probably the thing that we most need to do a better job on. Currently our graduation recognition consists of recognizing them at the end of our youth sunday service, praying for them, and giving them a gift. This year I would like to host a dinner for the youth and their families where we celebrate the youth and their families.
- Senior Trip: The last thing that we formally do with our seniors is a senior trip. This is always a fun trip. The most popular activity is going to an amusement park, but I let each years seniors pick the trip. We do an overnight trip with them. On this trip we celebrate their upcoming journeys, discuss their hopes, fears, and concerns, and have a time for the seniors to pray for one another. This is often the last time that our seniors will all be together at one time before they go off to school.
It is always hard to send of students that you have spent several years walking beside and encountering Jesus together. I have found these three things to make the transition from a youth to a college student to be meaningful for both our students and myself. I would love to hear the meaningful ways you send off your students to college.