Monday, May 05, 2014

Nine ways to not lose your graduating seniors

We are into the thick of senior graduations--2014! Classes finish up this week. Invites are arriving daily in the mail. I'm spending part of the week crafting the baccalaureate sermon.

This Saturday night our youth director and I are taking all our seniors out for Saturday pizza and conversation. I've been getting regular updates about college and military acceptances. I've had the seniors in prayer every week. I've had their parents in prayer even more regularly. It's a big step. These next steps chart a course for much of where life will go.

As a pastor, I am always contemplating how to ensure that seniors in this transition don't get lost. I don't want to lose track of them. I don't want them to get lost. Of course, some seniors want to get lost. These are some wander years, after all. But inasmuch as they are in my flock, I have the desire to connect them in appropriate ways.

Here's my top nine list for walking with seniors through this launch into "adult" life:

ELCA YAGMs at sending worship
Stay connected: Follow them on Facebook, keep their cell in your phone, send them care packages or paper letters. All college students like mail, and are floored if they get "real" mail. Never before have we had so many opportunities to stay connected to people when they move away from us geographically. Make use of the chance in positive ways.

Start a campus ministry at the university or college closest to you: At least in our denomination, funding for campus ministry has been greatly reduced in recent years. If there is going to be an ELCA presence on a campus, it needs to be supported and staffed by a church of our denomination near the school. When I learn that my graduating seniors are headed to the University of Central Arkansas, or Arkansas State University, or other places away from here, my first thought is: Who do I know there that leads an ELCA church or campus ministry? How can I get them connected to people there?

Tell them amazing stories about Gap Year programs: The ELCA, for example, has a program they call Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGMs), with locations in places like Rwanda, the U.K., South Africa, Hungary, Mexico, and more. This year, the ELCA had twice as many quality applicants for positions in this program as they had space. Young people increasingly are looking for meaning-making opportunities like this, and the church is poised, more than any other organization, to provide such life-changing and world-changing experiences. Many denominations offer similar programs, like Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Episcopal Service Corps, and more.

Donate money to fund Gap Year programs: Want young people to do things that will transform them in such deep ways that they will give their whole lives to the gospel, to being the hands and feet of Christ in the world? Make sure they have the chance to serve in these formative transition years.

Make your church feel right for a visiting 18-year-old: This will be harder than you think. Imagine, a young adult may have spent their whole life worshipping in just one church, their home church. No other church is going to ever feel like that "home." This might be good, it might be bad, but as churches we have to think through what it feels like for a young adult to visit a church where almost everyone is at least two decades older than them, perhaps even four or five. Start by trying to remember. When you were 18, what scared you? What made you feel welcome? What did you want to do? Who did you want to see?

Be super high contact in making connections to church or campus ministry: It's not enough to just send the mailing address of your seniors to the campus ministries in the places they are going (although that's a great first step). Call up the campus minister, and let them know about the student coming their way. Suggest friends on Facebook between them. You never know how this will pay off, but it often does. In one instance, I helped a senior connect with a church about three hours away at university. He ended up coming back to our church, but his experience at that church singing in the praise band was something he wanted to do at home also, so he is now a regular voice in our worship band.

Help their parents let go: Increasingly colleges and universities are reporting that students have a hard time the first weeks of college because they get homesick and don't connect. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the helicopter parent generation is now sending their children to college. They are on the phone with their kids daily even when they go away. For young adults to flourish away, they need a supportive network that also releases them. Parents are struggling emotionally with this. You're the one who stays behind and helps the parents, too.

Create spaces for students to return to: Imagine if every church had internship opportunities for college students during the summer between years of school. Many if not most students need to gain experience in those summer months. How can your faith community be intentional about having the kinds of ministries that matter to young people?

Be intellectually inquisitive and honest: Students go off to school each year and are caught by surprise that universities are places of inquiry, places that ask really hard questions. In part, this is what energized the popularity of the movie God's Not Dead. If churches were more open and honest about the questions, and made doubt and questions central to the Christian experience rather than a shunted off and ancillary issue, less students would be caught off guard by the approach the university takes to asking difficult questions. You can be a Christian AND an intellectual. The university and its culture were formed out of a Christian milieu (specifically, Thomas Aquinas). That more of us don't know this is as much a failure of the church as the academy. 

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