I currently serve as the Director of High School and Young Adult Ministries at my church. This was a new position when I came as a DCE intern. Before that, middle school and high school were led by the same staff member. Out of these staff changes we found a great connection point for high school students transitioning into college and the work force, but we soon realized a negative impact on the transition for eighth grade students to high school. Some of the elements that came naturally in that transition by having the same staff person leading both groups were suddenly gone. Over the years since, my teammate Jason and I have worked together to explore ways to help make this transition from grade eight to nine easier for our students and their families. While we still have much to learn, here are a few things that we have found helpful in our ministry setting.
No, we don’t get all of our students iPhones or iPods to Facetime with each other. We have, however, found the importance of having high school leaders and students face-to-face with middle school students. For some students the uncertainties about high school ministry and the people involved was enough to keep them away. Our middle school confirmation and high school youth group meet on the same night of the week. Many weeks throughout the year we have a combined game for the first five to ten minutes. Typically students are still straggling in for a while, so we chose to use that buffer time for intentional relationship building between all the grades. It also provides chances for our high school leaders to be present among the middle schoolers and begin to know their names and a little bit about them. A few years ago we started doing three larger events each year together with grades six through twelve instead of keeping everything separate. This year that included a Fall Bonfire at a member’s house, our Christmas party, and our end of the year celebration. We also made the decision a few years ago that I would go as an adult leader on the middle school retreat each spring. It gives me as the high school leader a chance to connect with middle school students and begin building relationships with them.
GET THE HIGH SCHOOLERS INVESTED
A big key in this transition process is helping the new freshmen feel welcome in the high school group. This can’t happen if the upperclassmen communicate that they don’t really want them there. We’ve found that getting the high schoolers invested in these students while they’re still in middle school helps this process. For a couple years, we had a high school student help lead a devotion at the beginning of confirmation class each week based on that week’s theme. Each year on one of the last nights of confirmation, the high schoolers plan a “kidnapping” where we run into class, blindfold the eighth graders and do something special with them, like taking them for ice cream. While I have ultimate veto power if things get too extreme, I basically give the current high schoolers the opportunity to plan that whole event. Also, some years a simple conversation with them about how hard that transition was for them is enough to get them on board. One time we got talking about who was in their eighth grade class who isn’t really around now and why they thought that might be the case. That led into a great conversation about what they thought might be helpful for incoming freshmen to feel welcome and want to be a part of the group. While we haven’t actually tried this out, another idea we tossed around was trying to match up incoming freshmen with a high schooler who goes to the same school and encourage them in the summer to walk them through the school, helping them find all their classes before the school year starts. However we do it, having high schoolers invested has been crucial in welcoming new students, especially incoming freshmen.
SUMMER TRIPS ARE KEY
While I don’t have scientific evidence to back up my theory, it seems that students who participate in our high school summer trip between eighth and ninth grade adjust in that transition much better than those who don’t. I see this true not only in their life at church but also their overall transition to high school in general. They have more confidence, a better sense of belonging, and obviously feel a greater connection to the group. Taking students out of their everyday world and having them spend 24 hours a day together for a week creates bonds that are almost impossible to form any other way. We believe so much in this that we’ve started offering a small discount to students who will be going into their freshman year as a way to communicate to them and their parents how important we believe these trips are.
START THE PROCESS EARLY
As you can probably tell, much of our transition strategies start long before students begin ninth grade. We also don’t wait until fall to get students involved in high school ministry. From confirmation day on, eighth grade students are allowed to participate in all high school activities for the rest of spring and summer. This includes Sunday mornings, Thursday nights, special events, and as I mentioned above, our summer trips. Having them start coming in the spring helps them experience a little more about what high school ministry is like and seems to have helped our carryover to the fall.
The reality is that we still have students who finish confirmation in eighth grade and drop off the face of the earth. However, as we intentionally do some of the things above, we see more and more students remain connected and come out on the other side of that transition much more connected and confident. What are some things you’ve seen help this transition in your church? Comment below to share your thoughts and ideas as well!