One of the best parts of youth ministry is watching the teen in our congregation grow up. For a lot of them, we’ve had the privilege of meeting them in 6th grade and spending seven years walking alongside them, teaching them, leading them, serving with them. We can blink and suddenly they’re seniors. We pray that God has used us in our vocation as youth leaders to prepare them for adult life and faith. In the day to day focus of youth ministry, it can be easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal: young people who are disciples of Jesus for life.
Seniors in high school can and will feel all of the emotions that final year of high school: excited to be “the oldest”, nervous for their next chapter, mourning all that’s coming to an end. In the midst of these big emotions, how do we walk alongside them, encourage them, and love them in their final months in youth ministry?
I talked with a few of my students who are in their first few years of college and asked them the best way for the adults in their world to support them in the last few months of senior’s high school career. From my conversations with them, I compiled a list of the things I heard repeated across the board. Here are six ways you can love your senior well in the final months of their high school career:
Check in on them
This one seems like a no-brainer, right? But seniors are processing so many things…from what they’ll wear to their senior prom to what they’re going to study in college. They may be internalizing a lot of what they’re experiencing too because they don’t know exactly who to turn to. Be the person that asks them questions and be more apt to listen than to try and fix. Be ready to point them to Christ in the chaos.
Spend time with them
One of my favorite things about youth ministry is spending time with them outside of a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night. I think this relational piece becomes more important the closer they get to graduation. They want to know that their youth leader, small group leader, mentor, etc. cares about them just as Jesus loves us. Our instinct might be to shift more support to younger students, but as seniors approach this big transition seniors need our eyes and ears.
They want to know that they’re seen in the midst of this huge transition they’re going through. Sometimes all they want to talk through life with a trusted adult that isn’t one of the adults in their home. Create memories, buy them coffee, remind them that, even though their time as a “kid” in youth ministry is coming to an end, you still love them (or, if you’re like me, remind them that they will always be your “kid”).
See them as a teenager…not only as a leader
This one is a hard one. It is important and part of healthy youth ministry to give our high schoolers the option to serve, step into leadership roles, mentor younger grades, give them meaningful responsibilities in programing, etc. (See the Seven Practices of Healthy Youth Ministry) It’s vital for our young people to have a voice in the church. However, it’s just as important to let our seniors be just teenagers. They aren’t adults yet and we shouldn’t expect them to lead all the time. Let your seniors know that they also have space to follow, to have fun and to be young. Make sure you meet their needs and see them still as learners, not simply as a potential leader.
Celebrate with them and mourn* with them
I had the pleasure of guiding a visually impaired high school student through his high school career. He would listen to his friends talk about going off to college and all the excitement that came along with that. There was sadness for this student who realized that the “normal” college experience wasn’t going to be a reality for him. Instead of trying to cheer him up, I gave this student the space and the freedom to mourn one more thing that had been taken away from him. On the opposite side of that, I celebrated with students who got into their dream college or received a substantial scholarship. We get to experience a wide range of emotions with our students. But in these last few months, be the youth leader that celebrates with them, mourns with them, or just sits with them. Be the one they know they’ve got in their corner.
*mourning probably looks completely different to this year’s batch of seniors. They’re mourning the things they missed out on because of COVID…from sporting events to just sitting in a classroom with their friends. It’s especially important in this season to hear their hurt and disappointment and sit with them in it.
Don’t move on after they graduate. Help them connect to the next congregation.
Sometimes, we do this subconsciously. Especially during that summer after they graduate…that summer where they’re still a part of your ministry but on their way out. Make sure that they know they are valued just as much as the underclassmen. Ask supportive adults to commit to checking in with them on a regular basis even after they’ve graduated to make sure that they know they’re both not forgotten and valued by their church. Even if they move away for school, work, or military service, they are still members of the congregation in your care.
Spend time helping them navigate how to find an LCMS campus ministry or church wherever they are heading next. You can go to lcms.org to locate both churches and campus ministries nearby. If you can, help them to email contacts there to ease the transition. Check-in with them along the way to see if they’re plugged in at a campus ministry or local church and how that is going. Send them scripture and prayers to encourage them in faith practices. To have that connection point continue beyond their high school careers is huge.
What these five points boil down to is this: love your seniors, continue to show up for them. We have the joy and privilege to be there and walk with our students through some of the most formative years of their lives. As they wrap up their time with us in youth ministry and get ready to begin this new chapter (whatever it looks like for them), be there with them. Listen to them, celebrate with them, and mourn with them.
Since we’re called to make disciples of Jesus for life, it’s our hope and prayer that our students stay connected to God’s Word, to the Church, and to a faith community beyond their high school years. It’s our hope and prayer that they will have a desire and a passion to see God working in their lives and it’s our hope and prayer that they will forever know that they are loved, saved, and changed by their Creator.