Graduating Leaders, Not Just Seniors



By Chris Luper

In Youth Ministry, just as in life, there are certain inevitable truths that we must come face to face with. One of the most joyful, yet painful, of these truths is having to saying goodbye to the senior class every year. I always find myself asking, “Did I do enough? Did our Youth Ministry Team pour enough of their own souls into the souls of the students so that they’re prepared to live into their faith?” Granted, it’s not like you have to say goodbye forever when a student graduates; but at the same time it is undeniable that there will be a change in your relationship.

Having served in youth ministry for several years now, I have found that it is crucial to your ministry to celebrate your students as they prepare to move into the next phase of life and young adulthood. I remember early on in my ministry looking for just the perfect gift to give a student (typically a Bible) so that they would remember the love of both the church and myself for them. After a few years, our team moved into a phase of “practical” gifts (let me clarify, I fully believe the Bible to be PRACTICAL). The rationale here was that our students had already received at least two Bibles from the church: one from the Children’s Ministry and one during our confirmation program in our United Methodist tradition. Because of this, the team landed on the idea of a college survival kit (school supplies, iTunes gift card, fast food gift cards, etc.).

All of these gifts were great, but I quickly realized gifts weren’t what mattered most. After just a few years of youth ministry, my attention shifted to the stories that many of our students were sharing as they returned home from college over fall break, stories of struggles to find a faith community where they felt belonging. It was during this season of my own life that I realized it didn’t matter much what we’re gifting our seniors; and I turned my attention to raising up young leaders who have been gifted discernment to boldly live out their faith no matter where they are.

In my current ministry setting, as with any other, this is a process that takes several years. We introduce our students to the Christian faith through the historical lenses of the church in sixth grade as they participate in confirmation, which specifically focuses on the history and theology of our denomination’s tradition. This becomes the foundation for our entire youth ministry as it teaches youth why we believe what we believe. Throughout middle and high school, we continue to build on this foundation as we teach practical ways to experience, but more importantly, live out one’s faith through our weekly gatherings and special events such as retreats and mission trips.

But the question still remains, how do we prepare to say goodbye to the senior class? In our local church we have found three things to be crucial:

  1. During the second semester of any student’s senior year, they are invited to participate in a multi-week spiritual discernment class. The main focus of this study is to help students identify their spiritual gifts and begin to look for ways to live into these gifts.
  2. We celebrate our seniors (and, yes, we give them a gift). In early June, we will have our traditional Graduation Sunday. This is a very special day in the life of the church as each senior and his or her family is recognized by the entire congregation. It is an astounding occasion as the church celebrates the importance of each young person and their vital role in our community. And just in case you’re wondering, it is during this time that we present the seniors with a gift – our congregation has chosen a blanket, woven with symbols special to our church family, which can symbolically wrap the love of our church around each senior wherever they may go in life.
  3. Finally, we celebrate our seniors at our annual summer beach retreat.  At the end of this week in July our seniors officially become a part of our college ministry. It is in this moment that the culmination of everything we have worked for over the past seven years of youth ministry takes shape. With years of lead time, each member of the senior class is asked to share during a very special closing worship service what it has meant to them to be a part of our youth ministry and church. How have their lives been transformed and shaped by their faith? It’s in this moment that we tend to witness each student have that pivotal “Eureka!” moment where their faith becomes their own…they transition from a senior to a leader.

The final piece of this puzzle for us has been to offer students opportunities to return home and lead within the youth ministry they grew up in. We allow college sophomores to return as Counselors-in-Training (CIT’s). So as you prepare to send off your next batch of seniors to the world that awaits, how are you raising up a generation of Leaders, not just saying goodbye to seniors?