I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve been in denial about what COVID-19 means as this year’s seniors transition out of our youth ministries.
I have been grieving with them over canceled proms and graduations, the loneliness they feel at home, and the loss of all their plans for spring semester, to be sure. But as for what all of this means for those of us who walk with these high school seniors—well, it’s been hard to go there more personally, to really feel the emotion and the loss of this moment. As I’ve sought to help hold their hearts, I’ve missed the grief that their strange departure presses upon my own heart.
For as many as seven years, you and I have counseled, played, laughed, and prayed with this class. We’ve studied the Bible with them, hoping to point them again and again to God’s great love for them in sending Jesus to live, die, and rise again in their place. We’ve processed first loves lost and teams not made. We have walked with them through struggles with body image, friendship, identity, and doubt. We have taken them on retreats and served with them on summer mission trips, growing in our love for Jesus and having our worldview expanded together. We have lovingly corrected, and at other times we have totally blown it. We have prayed for wisdom to know their strengths and weaknesses and to shepherd them accordingly.
Now, instead of celebrating an important transition in their lives together, we are apart. We are missing out on the spring of their senior year, when under normal circumstances, we would have had regular, in-person contact with many of these seniors. We would have prayed with them and then celebrated their college decisions—in person. We would have watched as they leaned into their mantle of leadership in our groups with new maturity—in person. These would have been the months of “lasts,” in which they participated in our annual traditions, like broom hockey championships and summer mission trips one last time, at least as students.
Under the dark cloud of the coronavirus, I wonder if I’ve given this class enough of myself. I wonder if I’ve given them enough of Jesus. I am second-guessing whether I’ve done my part to prepare them with a theology of suffering and the grit to endure it in real life. I know this is God’s work, and that I’m just joining their parents in stewarding these young souls who are entrusted to our ministry for a brief time. Still, self-doubt creeps in. And here in this moment, I feel distant; I don’t quite know how to lean in to the relationships from afar.
It is a comfort to know that you and I are not the first to be physically distanced from those we have shepherded. In Romans 1, Paul describes his deep longing to travel to Rome to see the believers there face to face:
God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:9-12).
Although Paul had not personally contributed to the founding of the Roman church, nor had he met the believers there face to face, his tenderness and desire to be near them is clear. In their physical distance, Paul reached out in writing and he persevered for them in prayer. In a similar way, you and I are not paralyzed from ministering to the Class of 2020, as much as we may feel that way. While we need to be honest with ourselves about our limits and the loss we feel, there are many things we can do to shepherd this year’s seniors.
We can labor in prayer.
Probably the single most significant thing we can do for our seniors is to continue in prayer for them. At a physical distance, we may find it difficult to know how each one is doing, but we do know they are all experiencing loss. Like Paul, we can “remember [them] in our prayers at all times” (Rom. 1:9-10), mentioning graduates in our pastoral prayers on Sunday mornings as well as privately in our own times with the Lord.
We can help them grieve.
From Jesus’ response to Mary and Martha in John 11, we learn that loss demands to be felt, even by the One who would eventually defeat death and sadness. We need to communicate that the grief of this season is real—and there’s nothing spiritual about minimizing it or stuffing it down. Our students may not be ready to talk about their losses right away. Rather than pressuring them to have this conversation before they’re ready, we can let them know that we see the disappointment they are facing, that we take it seriously, and that we are here whenever they’re ready to talk and pray about it.
We can connect with their parents.
I confess that I put off writing to the parents of our senior class for some time, hoping we wouldn’t have to rethink all of our senior celebrations and church-wide senior commissioning. But when I finally reached out to them as a group, I wanted to acknowledge the double grief they are facing: Not only are their students making a big life transition, these parents don’t get to celebrate their students in the way they’ve always imagined. I wanted our parents to know that I see their grief, too. Parents are more involved in the lives of their seniors than ever due to the isolation of families at home. So it’s more important than ever that we partner together well, encouraging them as the frontline disciplers of their children.
We can celebrate big.
Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. There is so much to celebrate when it comes to the Class of 2020, and we have the privilege of leading the charge. True, our graduation and commissioning celebrations with this class will likely look a lot different than in years past. Rather than a cozy in-person event, we may need to record video footage of youth leaders and peers sharing encouraging messages or organize a car parade where people can stop and chat with each graduate at a safe distance. But whatever we choose to do to honor this class, let’s do with tremendous joy, expressing our love for them and our delight at seeing God’s work in their lives.
We can tell them the Story again.
More than anything right now, perhaps our students and we ourselves need to be reminded of the grand Story of a God who comes to rescue a people for Himself and to dwell with them forever. As I repeat this Story to students in our current circumstances, I have been using the language of “the first stay-at-home order” that occurred in the Garden of Eden. God made human beings for intimate relationship with Himself and one another—but in the Fall, we became separated from God, estranged from one another and ourselves. But the Good News of the gospel is that God intends to dwell with His people once again! He sent Jesus to live the perfect life we all have failed to live, to die the death we all deserved to die, and to rise again to conquer sin and death forever. And we know that Jesus will return to make all things right. Then there will be no more separation because we will be with God and one another for all eternity.
The day we are reunited with this year’s seniors face to face will be a foretaste of heaven. We will know without a shadow of a doubt that we were not made for isolation, but for the richness of community with God and each other. Until that day, may we love and lead the class of 2020, faithfully pointing them to the goodness of our God.
On the parent side of the blog today, we address how parents of these seniors may be feeling.