The summer can mean saying goodbye to seniors who we have grown close to over the years. There are many ways to send them off in style and with love. This is the last week of Transition Month so we saved our seniors for last here are some good responses to……
“How do you say goodbye to seniors?”
Chris Cottingham has been Associate Pastor for Students (and a bunch of other stuff that’s not as fun) at Westfield Baptist Church in Dunn, NC since 2008. He’s single but likes being an uncle and a youth minister since he gets to teach children and youth noisy games and then send them home to their parents. In seminary the one thing he was sure of was that God wasn’t calling him to youth ministry. He enjoys superheroes, epic fantasy (along the lines of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Jordan), and irony.
I’m hardly an expert in this after just six years of youth ministry in a small church, but I have three thoughts to share.
First and most obviously, ritual is an important way to mark major transitions, so the rituals surrounding graduation will be your friend. Nothing original here – have a graduate recognition service. Present a senior gift. I’ve taken to getting journals with Scripture passages spread throughout. Aside from the obvious “writing the next chapter of your life” metaphor, it gives you space to write a personal message at the front. Recruit the pastor, younger youth, and other youth leaders to add their own messages and you’ve got a nice keepsake. Take the graduates to dinner, and go all out to make it a special occasion. Whatever rituals and events you come up with, the point is to pause and give attention to your seniors.
Some of that recognition should be public, but some should be just between you and them. In larger groups where one-on-one time may be hard to come by, consider starting a seniors-only small group/Bible study. The small group time can give seniors a chance to open up about their fears and questions around graduation in ways they might not around the younger kids.
Second, as you’re saying goodbye, remember that it’s probably more important to let them say goodbye. They need to process and express what they’re feeling, so facilitate that. During the graduate recognition service, let your graduates lead as much as possible. Have a Senior Night with your youth, and let the seniors plan the agenda. Have an end-of-year party and give the seniors a chance to address the youth. In one group I was part of, there were reverse-senior-superlatives, with graduates presenting awards (funny and serious) to younger youth. My sister’s group had a candle ceremony where seniors ‘passed their light’ to a younger kid with a word of blessing and encouragement. Give the seniors the floor.
Finally, the most important way to say goodbye to your seniors is simply this: don’t. Don’t tell them goodbye. Your relationship needs to begin to transition, but you’re not done yet.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to most youth ministers that the shifts from high school to college, and from college to the rest of life, are critical transition points. Statistically, most of those who are active in church youth groups fall out of church involvement during college. And most who are active in campus ministries fail to find a local church after college. That’s always been true to a degree, but the trends are all going in the wrong direction. More and more, kids who were active in church in their teenage years are gone afterwards. The percentage of those who return as young parents is shrinking.
As student ministers, we’re building relationships, trying to make a difference, hoping to help in the spiritual formation of disciples of Jesus Christ. And we’re losing kids during those critical transition points. The church as a whole, across denominations, doesn’t seem to know what to do with young adults. We’re not going to solve that problem in a paragraph on this blog. But if ministry is about relationship, then we youth ministers are uniquely positioned to help graduates make those transitions to and from college. So stay involved with your graduates. Do the research. Find them good campus ministries, and churches you trust for them to check out. Maybe even travel with them to campus and make introductions to that campus minister. Check in at least monthly – with social media and with in-person visits when possible. Plan time for them during holidays – have college get-togethers, Christmas parties, etc. Stay involved in their lives, make sure you’re still an influence, and help them transition from youth into adults who are still on the journey of discipleship.
Josh Powers is Minister of Youth at Inman First Baptist Church in Inman, SC. He attended Georgetown College for his undergrad degree and M. Christopher White School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University for his M. Div. Josh loves his minister wife Brandi, their young son Joel, comics, and the UK Wildcats!
Many churches have long standing traditions of what they do for those graduated seniors. Some spend time dealing with everyday issues those seniors will encounter, whether in college or the work force. Others focus on the past and the youth group years of that student. Often times camp or mission trips during the summer months can provide a great place for other students to encourage the outgoing seniors or for the seniors to challenge those still in the youth group. Whatever the church or youth group tradition is for those graduated seniors, a few things are necessary to provide those seniors.
Seniors are probably very excited about new steps but can also have anxiety about what is to come. This is where relational ministry trumps any model I’ve come across. I simply try to be a non-anxious presence for those seniors through being what they need me to be. If I need to be pumped at a roommate they are excited about rooming with, I do it. If I need to be the one who brings the paper bag to hyperventilate into while they have a meltdown because their dorm sheet color, so be it. Being an active, non-anxious presence in their lives is the role a youth minister can play through whatever difficulty or elation a senior is going through on their journey.
‘Saying things that need said’ are often another way I like to say goodbye to seniors. This can happen in various settings, but I’ve found it encourages seniors and the whole youth group by making one of those settings Graduation Sunday. On Graduation Sunday, I ask all the seniors to speak in some capacity as they are comfortable. I provide a template of question each use to make into a narrative testimony. We center the testimonies on the theme of the worship service that day. Legacy, Thanks, Generations are just a few themes we have used to provide the seniors the opportunity to express themselves through music, scripture reading, prayer, or a testimony. One of the questions I always include is to encourage the seniors to express that this church has raised you, taught you, and loved you in Christ Jesus, make sure you say what you need to. Acknowledge that support because you never know when you will get another chance.
One of the last things I find necessary for graduated seniors is to plug them in somewhere their faith can grow. Searching for churches or faith-based organizations that can reach out to them is essential. If they are staying close to home or joining the work force, plugging them into a college/young adults/singles/etc. group is a great way to grow a young foundation for the church. If there is not a group or class like that, encourage them to start one with whatever resources you can offer. I allow my seniors to visit the college/young adult Sunday School class and participate in whatever events they offer. This provides them an opportunity to know the teacher and other young adults, but also gives a place to come when they venture home for holidays or breaks. Being connected and providing that avenue to continued spiritual growth can sustain a church from one generation to the next.
Those are just a few of the ways I’ve found help prepare, encourage, and say goodbye to those seniors that have contributed to the youth ministry. Each group of seniors is unique as each one of those seniors is unique, so being personal in nature with each unique group speaks volumes to the graduated senior.
Andrew Shaffer is finishing his year as student ministry resident at FBC in Huntsville, AL and will soon begin as youth minister in Dalton, GA. He graduated from Truett Seminary, has worked in Youth Ministry one way or another since 2000, and has been bitten by an otter.
The traditional path for most student ministries is to carry the year’s theme into a banquet the night before recognition Sunday. Like many institutions this means good food, good fun and nostalgia. Conceivably this could be a low-key affair, and on occasion it is, but that just wouldn’t be our style, would it? No friends, I have two words for you: Go Big.
Indicative of this senior class’ personality, everything was larger than life. The dinner was not simply a meal, it was a four course banquet served by a wait-staff of snazzily dressed juniors. We’re talking steak or chicken (or alternate options for the two vegetarians) and homemade desserts contributed by the finest cooks and bakers around for 175 of our closest friends and families.
Following through with this past year’s theme, the entire hall was decked out with superhero swag from wall to wall. Custom crafted functioning green lanterns adorned each table, stuffed with “BAM!”s and “POW!”s which also dangled from various doorways. Scattered about were superhero pops and glowing power rings, a functioning bat-signal (which a parent made a the beginning of the year) imported from our student center, and to top it off each senior had his or her very own cape, adorned with our year’s logo waiting at respective assigned seats. Down the hall each family crafted a “celebration table” that remained through the Sunday service, covering half a six foot table and composed of pictures and keepsakes representing the path and personality of each senior.
The presentation began with the senior Sunday school teachers and other mentors taking moments to thank the seniors and share moments, and then progressed into the gifting ceremony. The concept behind this portion was simply to recognize each senior individually and give them a small gift, such as a senior class picture, from the student ministry. As you may guess, it was much more. The entire class compiled a list of “superpowers” for each senior, which devolved into a laundry list of nicknames and ruthlessly-hilarious-but-all-in-good-fun superlatives such as “most likely to make a guest appearance in church”. The list for each senior was read aloud and the gifts were given. The culmination of the ceremony is traditionally a short, tear jerking slide show/highlight reel of the senior class. Thanks to one of our crazy talented tech genius seniors, this year’s was twenty seven minutes long.
All credit goes to the incredible parents who crafted, connived, cooperated and coordinated. We provided the framework and they gave it life. To me this emphasizes that each youth group and each class within it has a personality, and it’s to our benefit to foster that personality. When you’re celebrating seniors, make it big, make it fun make it their own, and brace yourself.