It’s no secret that one of the hardest groups to reach and stay connected with is high school seniors. I actually lead our senior guys small group Bible study so this struggle has been all too real to me, but first thing first. This isn’t just an article about keeping seniors, nor should we as youth workers ever at the start of a student’s senior year think about “keeping him or her around.” Instead, this is about creating community.
I started leading our senior group when they were at the start of their seventh grade year. We started out with roughly eight guys in our group. By the time they hit ninth grade, we had gone up to about fifteen active guys in our group and everything was rocking along fine. However, when they hit spring of their tenth grade year, we would only see two to three guys a week. It got to the point where we almost cancelled the group entirely. However, we decided to press on and I couldn’t be happier that we did!
When their senior year came, we almost immediately jumped up to over 20 active guys in our small group, many of whom also started attending our large group youth worship on Sunday nights again. So how did this happen? Why did they come back? What did we do to “keep seniors?” I’ll give you a hint. It had nothing to do with programming and everything to do with time.
1) They need to be filled up.
Ever heard the phrase “senior leadership.” Me too, and my guess is so have your senior students. At this point, our students just have or are in the process of choosing what their future is going to look like. They are trying to make it to graduation. They are trying to be that leader that everyone expects them to be. I think it is here where we have to move against the current of the world.
I’m not suggesting that we do not empower seniors to be leaders, but I would suggest we need stop telling them who they ought to be and start reminding them of who they will always be. These students are about to graduate and last memories of youth group shouldn’t be that they were always having to be at church so that they didn’t let people down. Instead, it should be of a place where they were and always will be known and loved by this church but most importantly by God.
Let’s not look to them as students who need to give back now as they are about to leave, but as students who need to be poured into, perhaps more so than any other grade. Most likely, your senior is running dry, not overflowing. As one of my seniors put it, “youth group has become more sacred as we go through high school because as the pressure of graduating and going to college builds, it is imperative that you have a time of release and liberation from all the pressure.”
Create opportunities for seniors to escape from all the pressure. It can be as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee with a few seniors and talking about anything but school, or doing a full on “seniors-only” retreat. Overall though, remember that these students are at one of the most challenging crossroads in their life and we need to be a lamp stand pointing them to Christ, rather than a weight on their shoulders.
2) We need to play the long game.
We need to stop waiting until they are seniors to want to keep them involved. Here’s the reality. When students are in middle school and the early years of high school, most often their parents are having a larger say in what they do in their free time; especially as it has to do with church. That is awesome! However, we often take it for granted. When I asked my students why they came back to the group that we almost cancelled they said:
“Brotherhood…it’s a brotherhood because when we were younger, we took a covenant to always be here for one another. Now that we’re seniors, it’s time to fulfill this by continuing to be in community with each other every week.”
This small group covenant lives into what I believe is playing the long game. This is simple covenant that we re-read at the start of each month. In it, we promise to always respect each other’s thoughts in small group and that we will always support one another. Of course, I wish I had better developed the importance of this covenant when they were younger, but it reminded me of one simple truth. We are Shepherds, not managers.
We cannot dictate how and when students will grow in their faith, all we can do is provide to resources. Begin developing your small groups into intentional open communities that rely on one another.
3) We need to celebrate them.
Some of these seniors have been a part of the church and your ministry for years now. Maybe some just recently came around. Nevertheless, these students ought be celebrated. More than this, they need to be loved.
Write a letter to each of your seniors at the start of year. I would challenge you to really take time to personalize every one of them. Name to each student why you appreciate him or her; what you have learned from him or her; the ways in which you’ve seen God at work in his or her life.
Finally, write the same note at the end of their senior year sharing how thankful you are to have been a small part in their life and that this youth ministry will always be a home to them. These seniors, they want to know that they’ve made a significant impact somewhere in their life to this point. Let them see the ways in which God has used them for God’s goodness and celebrate this with them.