We’re honoring our high school seniors this Sunday. I know it seems early, but a lot of schools have graduations in May and by June many of them are already gone on trips or camps or whatever. So although it may seem early to recognize graduating seniors, it’s actually good to do it early rather than miss the window of opportunity.
One thing about recognizing seniors before graduations occur is that this allows the church to support them through the transition, not just as a sign of accomplishment, but to recognize that this is a significant milestone and they are going through a lot. It’s a big step. Doing this in May means not only that we bless them to mark the transition, but that we can bless them in the transition as well.
One of the hardest things about honoring the seniors is finding a date that will work for all of them. At St. John’s, I thought we had this all figured out and then two schools changed their prom date from Friday night to Saturday. I had one mom tell me that her daughter had prom the night before and an AP test the next day and she wouldn’t be coming to church for the senior recognition. I kept telling her I think it would be important for her daughter to come but she finally said no, but thanked me for my persistence! I think it’s too bad she can’t come because one thing the church can do is recognize who youth are as people, not just talk about their accomplishments or achievements. In all the other places where graduation is honored, they tend not to talk about the person, just what they have done or what they are going to do next.
What we do is invite the youth forward at the Sunday service and share a bit about each person and what they will be doing next. In the past few years, each year I’ve noticed more and more youth doing something other than a four-year college, and I think it’s really important to share all of the things youth are doing, and that all of them are an important next step. Not everyone is going to Sarah Lawrence or UCLA. When you say that out loud, that these kids that people in the congregation know and love and respect are working to earn money for school or going to a junior college or taking a gap year, it gives everyone in the congregation a chance to see that their worth and value is not dependent on their achievement, or their child’s achievement. It’s really good for parents in the congregation especially to hear about something other than comparisons with those who are doing “better.”
I create photo boards for each of the seniors (this was a photo board done for me for the reception at CDSP). I use a full-sized poster board and create a collage of photos from their lives to show how they’ve been a part of this community, but you can use a smaller sheet if that works for you. I have an advantage because I’ve gotten to see them through all of their lives. I know a lot of people who work with youth don’t have that, but you can also talk to parents to get pictures of their kids. I usually ask for a baby photo, baptism photo, and confirmation photo, but I also usually have a ton of pictures that I’ve taken at church events over the years.
Some people also do a PowerPoint presentation for the church, with a walk down memory lane for the whole group. I think that’s great, and I think it’s important that it be shared with the whole church, not just in youth group. I don’t want that false separation of “youth” and “church.”
I give them the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss. There’s apparently a version of that book now that allows people to write in memories and names at the end. I priced them and they were too expensive for us, but you might want to consider that option. The reason I use this book is to remind them they’re not leaving their childhood; it’s something that they take with them as they enter adulthood. God is not expecting them to be all grown up. Instead, Jesus asks them to be like a little child, and those childlike qualities are important to us as adults.
One person asked me, “Why wouldn’t you give them a study bible or a cross key chain for their college dorm room?” My answer is, “Because they’re probably not going to use it.” This year I’m giving them temporary tattoos as well. I usually try to give them something festive and celebratory, like poppers or bubbles, because this really is a time and rite of passage to celebrate.
The religion part comes in my personal card to each kid. I don’t quote Scripture per se, but I talk about why their faith is important in the future. Many of them have never been to any other church so one thing that’s important to tell them is that there is faith beyond this church building. I tell them “You can find it anywhere, though you may have to shop around. Don’t walk away from it.” I tell them, Feel free to explore, and don’t think you can only find faith at St. John’s. There’s a lot of other churches, a lot of other faith communities. Find people and do something for other people. Don’t spend your college years focused on your grades. Put your faith into action. I get that you don’t want to get up Sunday mornings, but find a way to put your faith into action.
The role of the church of your childhood really has a lasting impression and may stick with youth more than you know. At the Youth Ministry Day celebration a couple of weeks ago, one of my former students came up to me and asked, “Do you still give people ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go’?” When I said yes we do, he told me that now he reads that book to his own children. I asked if it was the book we had given him, and he said it was. It was a great reminder that even small gifts can have a lasting impact on the lives of young people – and the children that follow them.
[Image of photo board (c) 2013 Sarah C. Jones (http://sarahcjones.com). Used by permission.]