by Karin Sasser
As youth leaders, we have a front-row seat to watch our students transition from one phase of life to another. We see them move from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, carpooler to driver, and high schooler to graduate. The most exciting transition we are often privileged to see (and sometimes even participate in) is when they make a decision to follow Jesus. Back in the day, when we put Bible verses on the backs of our camp t-shirts, our go-to scripture was 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” Depending on your Christian tradition, some of your students may mark this moment through baptism – a visible sign to themselves and others that they have made a decision and are moving into a totally new direction in their life – away from self and toward God.
Students go through a lot of changes and transitions while they are under our care. They move from old to new in a few distinct ways. For some, these transitions may be exciting and welcomed, while for others, they may be a bit bumpy and scary. The same can be true for how parents experience their kids’ transitions. So, how can we, as youth leaders, help both parents and students as they move from one phase of life to the next?
It is not uncommon for churches to lose students in the process of them moving from one ministry environment to the next. We have to ask, “What can we do to lessen the attrition rate?” As students make their transitions, we need to make them feel valued, comfortable, and safe. Just like baptism is a celebration and a way to mark a moment in a student’s life, we can facilitate celebrations in the lives of our students as they move from one stage of life to another. We can make a big deal of finishing one ministry area before moving on to the next. We can honor 5th graders, 8th graders, and high school seniors at their last meeting in each of these ministry areas or throw a party just for them before they move on. But, in addition to celebrating them, we should also help prepare them for what comes next. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to just show up at the next stage of ministry. It may be helpful to create an event for students moving from one stage to another to help familiarize them with what is coming next so they know what to expect and they know there will be familiar faces when they first attend. For example, have a few high schoolers come talk to 8th graders and share what they love about the high school ministry. You could do the same for 5th graders, inviting a few middle schoolers to share about their experience in the youth ministry. To help high school seniors prepare for life after high school, have an event for them in which you invite college students or other high school graduates to talk to them about what their first year out of high school was like giving tips and advice. Do something special for 6th graders and 9th graders on the first event of the school year to make them feel comfortable and welcomed in a new ministry environment.
A key to helping ease these transitions for students is to make sure parents are well informed about what is coming next as well. Consider hosting an event for parents (maybe at the same time as you have an event for students who are transitioning into a new ministry environment) to share about what they and their kids can expect from this new phase of church life. It may also be helpful to share with parents some information about where students are developmentally and spiritually at their particular stage of life. Talk about how your ministry meets these students where they are and, if possible, find resources to share with parents about their child’s next phase of life.
Another way to help parents navigate transitions in their kids’ lives is to give them conversation starters to use to facilitate discussions with their teens about how they are feeling and what questions, expectations, fears, and exciting anticipations their child has. You may also be able to give parents ideas on how to celebrate milestones in their kids’ lives at home. If you are able to make an extra effort to reach out to students and parents in times of transition, helping to prepare them for what lies ahead, you will have a much better chance of keeping these families engaged as they move from one ministry environment to the next.