One of the hardest things about doing student ministry in the same place for so long is saying goodbye to the graduating seniors and making space for the incoming 6th and 9th grade students.
We only have so many relational pegs:
I am sure you have probably heard the term relational pegs or something to that effect. The basic idea is our hearts only have so many relational pegs in them. We are one giant (or in my case, small) fall green lego panel. On this lego panel we can fit a finite number of lego people. Each lego person takes up two pegs, and once our panel is full so is our heart. Being in one place is good news on so many levels.
But it is pretty difficult to offload students with whom you have given your heart to. You love all your students, and as they graduate they stay on our panel and when they come back we love to catch up with them, and hear all about their new adult lives. We work hard to track down our current and former students in an attempt to both maintain relationship as well as check in on our investment.
Before you know it, your current students who you have walked all the way through adolescence with are graduating, your favorite kids are returning home from college, and this strange and immature group of students are now taking the place where your beloved students once stood. This is the forever rhythm of student ministry, and because of that, many youth workers simply pull the plug after 5 years.
A helpful way to take people off the panel:
The way I have managed to continue to love students with all my heart and make sure my heart remains open for the incoming classes of students is by offloading my graduating seniors. Now, I know this sounds harsh, and I guess you may be right. But I am called by God, and tasked by the church to pour my life into current middle and high school students.
Everything else is kind of of my time. Since, loving students after high school is really on my time, then I need to clarify my expectations with students leaving my ministry. If you don't do this well, they will feel like you are paid to love them and now you no longer are paid to be with them so they are out of your circle of love. And on most levels they are right. So, instead of unintentionally hurting their feelings, why not come right out and say it. Clarity is really powerful.
This is what I tell my graduating seniors:
"Hey, __________. It has been the highest honor walking through your high school career with you. I love you so much and could not be more proud of you. I am looking forward to all that God has in this next season of your life. You know, for these past few years it has been my actual job to run after you, chase you down, and check in with you. I can't believe that this is my job! But now that you are graduating, it is no longer my job to track you down, chase you, hold your feet to the fire and make sure you are walking the straight and narrow."
"So, if you want to continue to be in relationship, which I do, the ball is in your court. You are no longer my project. I would love it if you and I become friends. But friendship is a two way street. It means that you will have to initiate conversation, you will have to be proactive in sharing your life with me. It means that you will have to ask me questions and show concern for me and my life. We are now moving into adult status and I am looking forward to all that means. I love you and the ball is in your court!"
With this one little speech the playing field gets clarified and the students who pursue adult relationship actually fill my tank and often partner with me in ministry. And so far, after almost 10 years, this little speech has allowed me to offload students from my relational panel so that I can give my heart to this incoming class. And in just a few short years will be giving this exact same speech to them! It's so hard to say goodbye! But we must do it well so we can do the job we have been called and tasked to do!