Ask Rooted: How Are You Celebrating Students’ Milestones This Spring?

Each spring we as youth ministers are faced with various transitions in the lives of our students as new sixth or seventh graders enter our middle school ministries, eighth graders promote to high school, and another class of seniors graduates and leaves us. Taking time to honor all these milestones can add up to a lot of work—but it’s so important as we encourage teenagers in their growing walks with Jesus! We asked Rooted writers to share how they are approaching these transition points after a year when many of us have been distanced from students during the pandemic.

As an additional resource for planning these transitions in future years, join us for a webinar entitled “Establishing Meaningful Rites of Passage for Teenagers in the Church” on Monday, June 7 at 1:00 p.m. CST. Cam Potts and Chelsea Erickson will discuss why rites of passage are significant to youth, children, and their families, offering suggested steps to implement milestones in your ministry. Time will be allotted for Q&A at the end of the call. Register here.

Cam Potts, Senior Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY

The main transition we celebrate for our students at the end of the year is for the seniors graduating high school. This celebration is the last of our seven Family Milestones that we walk through with the families of our church each year. It begins with a four-week class for the graduates and their parents where we teach and discuss topics like walking with God after high school and defining and discerning Gods will. We also hear from current college students and older adults on what they would do the same and what they would do different in the post-high school season of life. This class ends with a recognition of our graduates in a Sunday morning worship service where we give them resources to help them pursue the Lord in this next chapter, as well as a list of local churches near their new school or job (for those who are moving away). The goal in all of this is not to try to dump a lot of new information on our seniors, but to remind them of who Jesus is and of the truths that will anchor and guide them as they move forward in life.

Meredith Dixon, Assistant Director of Student Ministries at East Cobb Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA

Change is hard. Whether a high school senior is going to a college across the country, a fifth grader is transitioning to middle school, or an eighth grader is transitioning to high school, it is inevitable that he or she will face unforeseen challenges moving into a new phase of life. That is why it is vital for youth workers to not only be present with students as they experience these changes, but to also point them to their unchanging Shepherd who is with them through every hill and valley they will experience as they transition to middle school, high school, or college.

The key in transitions is intentionality. Students need to know they have a place to go to that feels like home while they are trying to find their place at their new schools and in new social settings. One way our ministry practices this intentionality is by sending out letters and postcards personally to invite our upcoming middle schoolers to youth group for the first time. The purpose is to show them that they are personally wanted and welcomed to our ministry by name. Another one of my favorite things that our ministry does to celebrate our high school graduates is giving them a little booklet along with whatever gift we purchase them (usually a devotional). This booklet includes advice about going off to college, and it is written by the studentsdiscipleship groups leaders and youth staff. We also include suggestions on books to read and music and podcasts to listen to that will help feed and nourish their souls during their transition period. This year we gave these booklets to the parents as well in hopes that it provides a talking point for students and their parents before they leave for college! Whether or not you are having a senior celebration in person this year, these booklets are a great way to give your students a tangible gift to carry with them that points them to truth.

Arek O’Connell, High School and Young Adult Youth Pastor at Hillside Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI

In my first year of youth ministry I read Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids. To say it fundamentally shifted my philosophy about youth ministry is an understatement. Sticky Faith lays out a compelling case that parents are far and away the most impactful spiritual influence in the lives of their students. This got me thinking… “why don’t I let the parents have the last say when my students leave youth group?” Sure, I’d love to give them my version of Moses’ farewell sermon in Deuteronomy, but if the parents are more spiritually influential than me (and they are), then it only seemed right to let them have the last word.

Driven by this conviction, our “Senior Blessing” was born. Weeks before our last youth gathering of the ministry year I coordinate a filming session for my senior parents and ask them to answer three questions about their students:

    1      How have you seen your student grow in the last 4 years?

    2      When you think of your student, what are you most proud of?

    3      What advice/encouragement do you have for their next stage in life?

After I film the parents, I edit their responses into three separate 10-12-minute videos and show them to the entire youth group on our last night together. There is never a dry eye in the place and I often hear “that is the first time my mom/dad has ever said they’re proud of me.” This celebratory transition is a huge win-win. I get to connect with each of my students’ parents and hear about their love for their children, and the focus gets solely placed on the family in regards to spiritual formation. I couldn’t recommend this more!

Here are the links from this year’s senior blessing:

Chelsea Kingston Erickson, Pastor of Youth and Families at First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA

Several years into serving in full-time youth ministry, I began to notice an unsettling trend: Students often dropped out of ministry programming—and therefore distanced themselves from discipleship relationships—at the natural transition points from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school and high school to college. We’d see it in our ministry every year, and I’m guessing you have, too. The once active, enthusiastic middle schooler who brought all her friends to middle school youth group would simply never show up for high school youth group. There seemed to be some invisible barrier that caused some students to drop out well before they left home. Realizing that students were vulnerable to weakening their relationships in the church at these points of transition, I started investing a lot of time in helping them make the leap.

Each spring, we host a series of events linked to our Milestone initiative with this in mind. For fifth graders preparing to enter middle school, we host the Fifth and Sixth Grade Bash, the genius of one of my colleagues, which includes a preview of some of our fan-favorite youth group games, along with an activity that helps them to consider a time and place to spend time with God in His Word each day. Our high school student leaders plan an event called the Eighth Grade Ambush to surprise and welcome our incoming freshmen. And we have a series of events to celebrate seniors—one publicly in worship, one at youth group, and that provides an opportunity for their parents and youth leaders to share encouragement and prayers. Through each of these rites of passage, we hope to build a sense of anticipation that helps students to look forward to transitions and to continue in the participation in the life of our church.

Steve Yates, Assistant Pastor to Students at Intown Community Church in Atlanta, GA

Traditionally, our school year has ended with two celebrations – one to honor our graduating seniors, and another to thank our volunteers. Due to our building still being closed and the extra effort it takes this year to do anything, we combined these two events together into a single potluck outside. Rather than shortchanging either group, this combination actually provided one of the best transitional pictures we’ve ever witnessed.

We believe one of the best markers of a ministry’s growth is if students get the vision of the ministry, and want to pass on that which they have learned so much that if they ever return to Atlanta after college, they would consider being small group leaders. Right now, 5 of our leaders were brought up in our ministry. So, on this special night, as the seniors were saying goodbye, they got to see ‘themselves’ in 5-10 years – that it IS possible to go to college and get a job and not have one’s faith eaten by the world,.

In Scripture, God was praised for his faithfulness through his connection to the stories of the past – ‘the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob…’. Sometimes, when we celebrate transitions like those of graduating seniors, we can do a great job of showing them we are proud of them, and excited for them for the immediate future. But this confluence of events has reminded me this year that they also need assurance of God’s past faithfulness, visions to hold onto that their church family (and ultimately God) is not something they ‘graduate’ from, and pictures of what could be because of Gods incredible love for them. Our seniors this year got a loving reminder that their God is also the God of Sara (21), the God of Sam (26), the God of Ruth and Rachel (28)… they aren’t leaving, but joining a much larger story of the faithfulness of God.

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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