During my time as a student pastor, graduation season was always a bittersweet experience. It was a joy to see students we'd invested years in cross the stage and receive their diplomas. Leading up to that I'd often be asked to write recommendation letters for college applications and scholarships. But it was tough because for some, that would be the last time they'd be involved in a local church, or it would be some of their last participation in our student ministry.
Over the weekend, one of my favorite Twitter follows, The Wrestling Pastor, put out a tweet that was hilarious if not for its accuracy. One of the realities that comes with graduation season is that for some student ministers, they'll be handing graduation recognition to students they've never met. Maybe it's their grandparents who want them to be recognized, or they were nominally involved in the life of the ministry so you didn't get the benefit of getting to know them. It can be frustrating if we're honest. I know I had that many times handing a gift and recognizing graduates I didn't know.
But I think we should still recognize our graduates. And I think it's important for churches to carve out time in a worship service to celebrate their accomplishments.
1. It's Good to Celebrate - It's been a really lousy last few years, hasn't it? Think about it for your graduates. Their life for the last two years has been completely thrown off. The things that they normally would have like homecomings, proms, senior celebrations, are all either cancelled or dramatically altered because of COVID. They've lost a lot in a short time. So celebrate something good happening.
2. Milestones are important in faith formation - We do this with other milestones in the local church. We celebrate baby dedication (which is really parent dedication, but the parents aren't the cute ones) where the church and the parents commit to investing in the child. We celebrate professions of faith and baptisms. We recognize God's work in people's lives when they commit themselves to Him, follow His call to ministry/missions, and other benchmarks in their lives. Graduation does the same thing, in many churches it signifies the transition out of next generation ministry and into "spiritual adulthood."
3. It's a chance to invest - Student pastors, don't get cute, cheesy, or lame with the gifts for graduates. Give them something they can take with them. Give them good books that will challenge and sharpen their faith. Feel free to leave a comment of what you give your graduates. There are so many good resources out there you can give that will help them in their spiritual growth. For the graduate who is nominally connected, you might be giving them a resource that helps change their life.
4. The church gets involved - Older believers get the chance to recognize and honor the accomplishments of students, and younger believers get the chance to see what their future holds. Making it a part of the worship service shows that no one goes alone. Even for the students whose parents aren't part of the church, they're part of a faith community that is committed to and interested in their best.
5. It provides a needed transition - Churches do well to recognize the accomplishments of graduates, and to build this into an ethos that reflects Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:11 of the distinction/break between childhood and adulthood. Graduation season gives that chance to challenge, encourage, and push those students into the reality of spiritual adulthood and what it looks like for them in the local church. If they're going away to college, help them connect with a local church and a parachurch college ministry. If they're staying in town, help them connect with adult groups within the local church. Encourage them to serve, to use their spiritual gifts, and help build up the Body.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.