I have often said that my least favorite part of youth ministry is when a group of youth age out and move on to a different stage of ministry. I don’t like saying goodbye to teens I’ve gotten to know over the past few years. There can be a mixed emotion in those transitional moments. We could be sad to lose a group of kids that we really love. We could be nervous that once they move on to whatever is next, they will disconnect from the church.
Whatever feelings we may be feeling as youth move to what’s next should include feelings of excitement as we get to watch the kids we’ve been called to serve grow as disciples of Jesus. One of the great joys we have in congregations is the chance to worship with young people who will someday be in your youth ministry and adults who have transitioned out of youth ministry into adult ministry. Our time together in God’s Word and Sacrament bind us together across age-specific programs.
Congregations should be thinking about how we help young people transition from their first Sunday school class through into adult ministry. In youth ministry, we specifically think about how we transition junior high youth and confirmation into high school. In doing that, we can find ways to champion our coworkers and volunteers who get to care for them next. We can help our young people stay engaged in God’s Word, excited for the adventures that await them in their next stage.
At my congregation, Woodbury Lutheran, we try to be intentional about handing-off people to different stages of ministry. Below are five ways that we hand-off well between the junior high and high school youth ministry teams. These aren’t the only five ways to do it and we don’t do it perfectly. But we know that our jobs are to make sure that, no matter what age they’re at, they know the gift of faith in Jesus and the joy of the life He calls us to have together.
- Consistency in small groups.
When it comes to youth ministry, we know that teenagers aren’t going to open up in a group where they don’t feel comfortable. If you use small groups, try to form them when your students are in 6th or 7th grade (depending on when they start in youth ministry at your church.) Be intentional about keeping that group together throughout all of Jr. High and High School. This allows for times of study of God’s Word and conversation to build over time. When groups are consistent, especially during these formative years, incredible growth and trust gets to happen as they navigate life together.
- “I see in you” conversations.
When you walk with students, you get to know them pretty well. You learn the things they’re good at, the things they struggle with, the things that bring them joy. Once you get to know them, it is important to have the “I see in you” conversations where you talk about giftedness. They may not see or know they have these gifts. The younger you can have these conversations, the easier it is to help them find ways they are excited to contribute to the church. You can work with parents and other youth leaders to carry what you know and see forward with them as they age in ministry. When you do, it is more likely it is that they’ll stick around.
- Create memories and tag in young leaders.
A great way to help bridge the gap between junior high and high school is how you structure events. I am a firm believer in making sure that youth feel comfortable in the church building. When they have the freedom to run around and play games, it’s creating memories that they won’t soon forget (like the youth who will never forget the time I turned the entire building into an indoor mini-golf course). We do Middle School Mania’s for our 6th-8th graders. During this time, they spend a few hours playing absolutely ridiculous games and diving into God’s Word together. These kinds of memories and time together in Scripture helps bind a group of youth together.
Once those 8th graders move on to high school, we invite them back as leaders. Not only do they get to experience the younger grades creating the same memories that they did, but they get to create connections with the younger grades which helps bridge the gap between middle school and high school. You can do this with any of your programming. By bringing in high school leaders, you are able to help form relationships and give leadership opportunities that make transitions easier.
- Intentional programming at all levels.
Something that Woodbury’s leadership team takes pride in is the fact that, no matter what grade you’re in, you’re going to receive the same quality of lessons and programming…it’s just personalized to each group’s needs. We are intentional about the curriculum that is chosen at all levels, about how it’s taught, and how it’s applied in small groups. When the quality of programming is consistent across the age ranges, it’s showing the kids that we care about them and it’s showing the parents that we love and care for their children. Through our lessons, we’re communicating weekly that our kids are loved, saved, and changed by God.
- Always look forward.
I can probably write a separate article about all of the reasons I respect the leadership team at my congregation in how they’ve led the staff in the midst of a pandemic, and how they encourage us. One of the things I respect most about the leadership team is how they challenge us to always be looking forward. We shouldn’t only focus on the here and now of our ministry responsibilities but instead, be looking at how what we’re doing right now, will impact what happens in the future.
In all of youth ministry, but specifically with middle schoolers, how can we minister to them and encourage and develop their unique vocations as they go out into their friend groups and into their circles of influence? How can we teach God’s Word and engage in worship across every age? How can what we do set them up for success when they move on to high school ministry? How can we make sure that they don’t see spiritual practices as boxes to be checked but instead, see church as a place where they’re welcomed, encouraged, and pointed to Jesus in faith together? When we are looking forward, we see how God uses what we do in each aspect of ministry to build a deeper understanding of their Baptismal faith for the future. And in seeing the bigger picture, the Holy Spirit works to help youth grow now and in what’s next.
The ways I just listed above only scratch the surface of what we, as youth leaders, can do to help set our high school ministry up for success. You can use service projects in Jr. High to prepare and excited them for mission trips in high school. You can circle back to topics in God’s Word in strategic ways. With kids as young as preschool, you can carry language, educational models and more that help ease transitions and build the importance of intergenerational community.
It’s important to look at our church setting and see how we can work together with other staff and lay leaders to make sure that the transition from middle school to high school can be as smooth as possible. We can lean into places like worship that span across generations and develop bridges as young people grow into adults. When we do, our students know that, no matter what age they are, they are loved by us and loved by God. Because after all, because of our gift of faith in Jesus, we are all in this together.