If I were honest, I’d tell you I don’t really like graduation Sunday. It’s not that I’m against the idea of graduating or of celebrating students who’ve been part of our ministry. It just seems that no matter what we do to make the event feel like a good thing, there always seems to be a hint, a shadow of sadness that goes along with it.

I remember the first time I felt it. My sweet twelfth grade small group was graduating and one of them turned to me with wide eyes and welling tears and said, “What do you mean we’re not having small group next year?” It was like she was putting it all together for the first time. No longer a student = no longer in student ministry. And she was crushed.

The shock makes sense. For at least four years of their lives, we pour all of our time, energy, and budget into caring for them and developing relationships with them that go beyond the surface. Then, on a single Sunday, we tell some good stories, give them a cheap parting gift, and it can feel as if it all comes to a screeching halt. Even with the best of intentions, it’s enough to give anyone ministry whiplash.

What else can we do? Even if we wanted to keep them forever, many of our student rooms are bursting at the seams as we brace for incoming freshmen. We need our seniors to leave as much as they need to go. But does that have to mean total separation? Is there a way to help our seniors move on without feeling like we’re kicking them out?

We could all quote depressing statistics about students who leave their faith after high school. And while there are a number of factors that may be at the root, it’s fair to say that feeling abandoned after student ministry doesn’t help the situation. As ministry leaders, if we’re ever going to help reverse these statistics, we have to get really good at leveraging the high-school to college transition, not just surviving it. And maybe the key is making sure the time after graduation feel less like an eviction from our ministry and more like an extension of our ministry.

Okay, maybe the idea of a fifth year senior isn’t ideal for schools, but it can be a great idea in high school ministry. That doesn’t mean students stay behind to be in your ministry environment every week, but it does mean that someone from your ministry (preferably their small group leader) will go with them into the next season of life.

It’s a win for everyone. Most small group leaders are completely worn out by the end of their students’ senior year. So what if, instead of asking them to take on a brand new group of freshmen, you asked them to stick around for one more year with their current students? The relationships are already in place. They have a year off from the regular ministry environment. And they can use the additional time to…

  • Check in with graduates during key times. Move-in day. Sorority/Fraternity rush week. Midterm season. Final exams. In the times of most uncertainty, the kindest thing a leader can do is simply call or text and check-on them.
  • Connect them to a local church. Let’s face it. Even as adults, most of us don’t like attending a new church by ourselves. Simply knowing a new church is approved by someone they trust can give a scared freshman the courage to go. If they’re within driving distance, leaders may even offer to attend with the student on their first Sunday.
  • Answer the phone- all the time. College freshmen have a lot of questions and they aren’t always ready to call mom. Having a trusted adult that they can reach when they’re not sure whether to skip class or skip a party can make all the difference.
  • Sit with them when they return. For a college freshman, coming home can be almost as scary as leaving. They’ve grown. They’ve changed. Then, they return on a school break and aren’t sure where they fit. A great leader, who calls and invites them to return to church and offers to sit with them can mean the world.
  • Help them with the next step—even if that isn’t college. Sometimes not going away to college can leave a student feeling more alone than if they had moved away. Non-college graduates will need just as much help (if not more) finding their place in your church after student ministry. Offer to connect them to their adult small-group leader or go with them to gatherings of same-aged members of your church.

No matter how you do it, the idea is to move the finish line for student ministry past the last day of high school. In doing so, we communicate that our relationship with them was never conditional upon them being a part of our ministry and the Church is a safe place for them in any life stage.

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