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Post-High School Connections

As a youth worker in a church with a fairly large staff, including pastoral staff, I don’t have many responsibilities during the weeks surrounding Christmas. Once we wrap up our gatherings in mid-December I’m pretty much “off” from church duties until the new year. It is a two week stretch I look forward to for months: the promise of time with my family, time with my couch and time with copious amounts of butter, sugar and carbs consumes my hopes and dreams as the holidays draw closer.

However, as a youth worker, it did’t take long for me to realize my dreams of relaxation and time “off” are often just that– a dream. The seemingly endless stream of text and Facebook messages came flooding in from college-aged men and women back in town for break and wanting to grab some coffee and catch up.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that this is a wonderful thing! But I’m quite the introvert and the tension between ministry down time and filling my calendar with people I love and rarely get to see face-to-face can totally stress me out. One of the ways I, and our high school ministry community, have chosen to deal with this tension is to provide ample opportunities for those who’ve graduated from our ministry to remain connected throughout the year and not just at holiday breaks.

Obviously, groups like Orange and Sticky Faith have done incredible work to shine light on the importance of transitioning well after high school and these are our humble attempts to both steal from their work and add our own ideas into the mix.

  • It all begins when they are still seniors in high school. Our community holds a senior banquet each spring where the junior class (and their parents) makes dinner for the seniors and their families. Each student’s small group leader gets a chance to publicly bless and pray for the the seniors as we look at old pictures, laugh a lot, cry quite a bit and do our best to mark these years as an important and formative time in their lives. The past couple of years we have also had each senior fill out a card with a few simple prompts on it:
    • Where will you be next year?
    • Have you explored any faith communities there yet? Can we help?
    • Do you want us to send you cookies next year?

Having these cards has been hugely beneficial as we both able to partner with them as they search for an active faith community in their new area as well as letting them know we intend to remain connected after they head off. If even just through cookies!

  • Each and every week at our gathering times we have put a large board with a picture and address for every student who graduated from high school the past year. We stock the table with pre-paid postcards, pens, address stickers, etc. Any of our current students or leaders can just stop by, write a quick note and we’ll make sure it gets mailed the next day. It’s been a huge hit- both with our current and alumni kids.

College Post Card Board

  • Our final week of gathering before Christmas has become a tradition of throwing a “Party with a Purpose” to raise money for Blood:Water Mission. We charge a nominal fee and our community gets to pose for pictures with Santa, eat tons of food, participate in a “Christmas Fashion Show,” throw a dance party and play “Pin the Baby Jesus on the Manger.” Recently we’ve decided that instead of this simply being a high school event it should be an anyone from our community that is in town for Christmas event. It’s been a wonderful chance to catch up with those who have gone off to college, the military, or even just been holed up in their parent’s basement the past few months. And the best part… we all gather at one time, cutting down on those separate coffee meetings!

Santa Reunion Pic

  • Twice a year we have small group leaders or current students offer to host cookie baking parties where they, well…. bake cookies! The cookies are then divvied up, packaged along with candy, dollar store trinkets and hand-written notes, and mailed off to current college-aged people.

Cookie Baking

  • Lastly we are working with a longtime, and hugely talented, friend and ministry partner to host a weekend this spring designed specifically for young women who are trying to navigate their post-high school world. We will invite current high school juniors through current college-aged sophomores to come together and have honest discussions about what it’s like to try and carry their faith beyond our high school youth group community. They’ll have guest speakers, workshops, meals, and  lots of time to simply sit and hear from each other. We have high hopes for this weekend and its impact on the young women in our community.

I’d love to hear in the comments what sorts of brilliant ideas you and your ministries have come up with to make sure your communities extend to those who have graduated. Mostly because we totally want to steal them!

Brad Hauge is the Director of Senior High Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Spokane, Washington.  He is also the writer behind our curriculum series, Viva.


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Experimenting in Youth Retreating


Yesterday, I returned, along with a whole bunch of high school kids, on what, until last year was a pretty standard youth retreat. There was worship, a speaker, camp food, bunk beds and plenty of ridiculously messy and/or dangerous games.

Retreats and camps are a bedrock of youth ministry for a reason. Students get a chance to literally retreat from their crazy-busy lives, while leaders get a chance to dive into relationship and discipleship in ways that just aren’t possible back home. Our group has been very happy with both our partnerships with the local churches we attend with and the camp that hosts the retreat each year. So happy, in fact, that I wasn’t actively looking for ways to improve a model and experience that was clearly working for our students.That is until about halfway through the retreat a couple years ago.

Our speaker (who is a close friend of mine and an incredibly gifted communicator) was standing up on stage in front of ~250 high school students sharing compelling Truth through story and Scripture and it hit me:

She’s nailing it and most of the kids here just don’t care.

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about being challenged in their faith; it simply became evident that one speaker, no matter how gifted, couldn’t effectively produce content for such a large number of high school kids who were all entering into the weekend in completely different places.

Some were committed followers of Christ, some were hearing the name Christ for the first time. Some had incredible hurt in their lives and some were so carefree their only concern was getting enough tater tots at lunch. And some kids were so paralyzed by doubt and disillusion that they couldn’t hear a word she was saying.

At our debriefing meeting after that year’s retreat, I asked our leadership team if we could do it differently the coming year. What would the weekend look like if we kept much of the structure intact (games, meals, worship, free time & cabin times), but presented our content differently? Instead of hoping, and expecting, one person can stand on stage and engage 250 students in a personal and challenging way, what if we offered the students a few different options?

What if we used crowdsourcing amongst our students throughout the summer and early fall and asked them what they are currently dealing with in terms of their faith? Could we then use this pivotal weekend to target these student’s actual, specific contexts instead of hoping they’d find a glimpse of something to take home in a general way?

So we did it. We gave it a try and are thrilled with the outcome. Students were able to pre-select which content option they’d like to wrestle with throughout the weekend and were encouraged to truly select what mattered to them- and not simply to go where their friends went. And guess what? They engaged. They wrestled. And they spent an entire weekend thinking and discussing a faith forming topic that mattered to them. Not only do we, the leadership, feel good about this fundamental change to our youth retreat but the students seem to as well. These past two retreats were the highest attended in the camp’s history. I think we may be onto something.

Content options for the weekend included:

  • Our Neighbor’s Faith: Why Jesus in a world with so many religions?
  • Without a Doubt? Is it ok that we doubt? If so, how can we doubt well?
  • Identity Crisis! Not only “who am I?” but “why am I?”
  • Exploring Prayer: what is prayer and what are some creative ways to engage it?

There are certainly some areas of growth (for example, how do we do small groups within each content option while still allowing for the sacred “cabin time” to happen?) but overall it felt like the time, energy and money put into making a memorable weekend was better used in terms of discipleship and forward movement in their faith. We’ve all heard the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But sometimes in our comfortable world of youth ministry traditions your students are better served if we take the risk to break some stuff.