3 moves youth leaders should make during graduation season

Steve Argue, PhD Image Steve Argue, PhD | May 5, 2022

Graduation season is when youth ministry leaders instinctively know (or quickly learn!) some important universal truths:

Graduation is about the graduates. We celebrate their past, acknowledge their journeys, mark their rite of passage, and speak of their hopeful futures.

Graduation is also about the graduates’ parents. We witness their emotional journey and get glimpses of their own rite of passage as they begin to be new kinds of parents to young adults.

Graduation season can make or break your ministry. Do it right, and families will talk about it for years to come. Forget the fringe kid who shows up for graduation Sunday, and face eternal damnation.

As a youth leader, I’ve experienced all these realities. But here’s my question for you, youth leader:

What do YOU do during graduation season?

Beyond the logistics of graduation Sunday ….

Beyond the Senior slide show …

Beyond attending the grad parties ….

Beyond comforting parents ….

What do YOU do?

Having experienced this season as a youth pastor and reflected on it as a youth ministry professor and young adult researcher, I’ve realized that while youth leaders get distracted by the logistics, become exhausted by a school year of ministry, and say goodbye to students they’ve poured into for years, they run the risk of missing what they need to do most this season.

So while your graduates live in the present moment and their parents reflect on the past, you must do one thing most of all: anticipate the future.

Anticipating ministry after youth ministry

To anticipate means to look ahead to the upcoming weeks, months, and years your students are heading into and plan to set your graduates up for their unfolding spiritual journeys.

You might be lulled into thinking you’re “done” with your graduates and may already be preparing for the new class of students coming in, but the reality is that your graduates will still need you.

In our FYI survey of 100 young adult ministry leaders, a third were youth ministry leaders who were also responsible for young adults in their congregations. And just because your students “age out” doesn’t mean your connection with them, whether formally or informally, dissipates. They still need you, and whether they realize it or not, they need you to anticipate their future spiritual journeys.

Since youth group is “over” for graduates, the way they relate to their local church will change dramatically. The drop in church attendance that many high school graduates experience and parents fear is more likely than not. This doesn’t have to mean that your graduates are leaving church, faith, or God, but it does mean that they’re going to have new experiences.

They’ll be surprised. You have to make sure you’re not.

So kick off your ministry of anticipation with three sure-fire moves you can start making right now.

1. Anticipate that your graduates have never had to choose a church for themselves before.

Likely, most of your graduates have never had to choose a church before, nor have they decided to go to church before. Their families’ rhythms, expectations, and connection with your church have made this activity automatic. Sure, there may be times when students don’t want to go, but that differs from choosing a church or investing in a new church community.

Stepping out on their own, whether they stay close to home or go away, brings a critical moment where their choice to go to church is theirs. Most have no criteria for making this decision. Some find a church and then realize they don’t like it. Some join a parachurch organization and call that their church. Some take a break either because they’re overwhelmed with their new stage in life, or they don’t really know how to look for a church beyond liking the people, the music, or the location.

How will you prepare your graduates to consider their church-going next steps carefully? And how will you affirm that their search may take time? Remember, there’s nothing “magical” about attending church. If a graduate goes, it doesn’t solve their problems or make them spiritual. But there is something very formative in how a graduate considers their future faith community and their relationship with it. Your job is to provide the mentoring to help them discover and own the process.

So try this:

  • Think about what resources and criteria you’ll give your graduates for seeking and finding a church community. Consider giving them a shortlist of churches you know where they can start—but be sure to provide them with a large enough list that you’re teaching them to search for themselves.
  • When you check in with young adults, avoid asking them if they “found a church.” Instead, ask them how their search for a faith community is going. Follow up with a question that goes beyond whether they are attending or not.
    • What have you noticed about different churches you’ve attended?
    • What resonates with you? Why do you think that is?
    • What’s something new you’ve learned or appreciated about these churches?
    • What do you think your next step is with one of these communities?
  • Make room for them to be honest that finding a church is new, even hard. Ask: Has anything been hard about finding a faith community? Why do you think that is?

2. Anticipate that graduates will push back on what you and your church have taught them.

It’s quite common for graduates to start to reevaluate their religious upbringings. This is the process they go through to make their faith their own, and it is felt most intensely during their early young adult years as they’re exposed to new ideas and new relationships. Their new ideas are rarely the result of liberal higher education or secularized society. Instead, we know that young adults' worlds are expanding and getting more complex, and they are now searching for ways for their faith to keep up.

As a result, they may turn to you—with questions, critiques, and possibly even accusations. They may wonder why you never taught on a particular subject, why your church avoided certain social issues, or why certain tenets seem unfair or closed-minded.

Recognize that at this moment, two things are happening. First, your graduates trust you enough to tell you what they really think. Take their critique as a compliment! Second, remember that their pushback is part of their spiritual growth, so they need you to lean in rather than step away because you’re offended or scared.

The challenge for youth ministry leaders is to prepare for these conversations rather than be surprised by them. Anticipate and even encourage them, because you may be one of the few people your graduates initially trust to have these conversations. Their critique often sounds combative, and many graduates feel guilt and shame for critiquing those they love—but they need to voice these critiques if faith is to remain real in their lives.

So how do you anticipate your graduates' inevitable pushback? 

Try this:

  • Recognize that when graduates question, critique, or challenge you, your ministry, or your church, it’s a sacred moment that needs your attention. Your goal is to understand and create room for the conversation, not shut it down with defensiveness or an argument where you win and they lose. So respond with:
    • Thanks for sharing that insight. I’d love to hear more about what you think I (or we) could have done better.
    • Why do you think our community didn’t address that topic at all or not very well?
    • How would you have handled it differently?
  • Be open to their critique being right. Allow them to speak to your ministry so that you can learn and serve your students better. Even if you disagree, there’s likely some truth that deserves your consideration.

3. Anticipate that graduates will pretend like everything's going fine—even when it’s not.

Most graduates want to “make it” in this world, and often their drive for success is initially driven by wanting to please and impress those who have invested in them—their parents, teachers, and you, their youth leader. Your questions of “How’s it going?” are usually going to be answered with “fine,” “great,” “awesome,” and “I’m so happy.” Their answers may be accurate, but few graduates feel great all the time or feel like they have it all together. Their new worlds bring new challenges which surface their fears and insecurities. But they’re not going to tell you that in response to your first question.

  • Be ready to ask second and third questions that provide them with the option to open up a bit more. This won’t always happen in the first conversation, but over time, they’ll sense that you’re open to how they’re really doing:
    • Most graduates have new highs and lows when they venture out beyond high school. What has been the best and the hardest part about life after high school?
    • What’s been your biggest surprise about life after high school?
    • Where have you seen God show up in your life? Where do you wish God would show up more?

This graduation season, don’t forget your role—to anticipate.

You can do this by:

Preparing them for a new relationship with their faith community.

Stepping toward them, especially when they critique you and your ministry.

Waiting long enough to hear how they’re really doing.

Your relationship with your graduates will change, and your charge is to reimagine the kind of role you can play in their lives moving forward. Do more than envision this change. Anticipate it.

And know that we’re committed to helping you. I’ve written our latest book Young Adult Ministry Now that can help you anticipate how you’ll support graduates this season and beyond!

Tweet this: Youth leaders may already be preparing for the new class of students coming in, but your graduates will still need you. Here are three sure-fire moves you can make that will set up your grads to continue growing in faith.

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Steve Argue, PhD Image
Steve Argue, PhD

Steven Argue, PhD (Michigan State University) is the Applied Research Strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Steve researches, speaks, and writes on adolescent and emerging adult spirituality. He has served as a pastor on the Lead Team at Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids, MI), coaches and trains church leaders and volunteers, and has been invested in youth ministry conversation for over 20 years. Steve is the coauthor and contributor of a number of books, including Growing With, 18 Plus: Parenting Your Emerging Adult, and Joy: A Guide for Youth Ministry.

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