"Don’t give up on your non-communicative high school grads. Keep them in your prayers, and don’t take their silence for lack of love or appreciation."
Sending Off our Graduates
Most congregations honor their graduating high schoolers—a blessing in church and a cake at coffee hour, and maybe the gift of a prayer book. But once graduated, how well does your congregation stay in touch? Those who go off to college or the military are only ever seen again for an hour on Christmas Eve, if at all. Those who don’t move away from home may feel that there are fewer resources in the parish to meet their needs.
“Don’t worry—they need to take time off to explore. They’ll be back when they have kids.” This is a common trope, but misleading. The reality is that only one third of them will ever return. Young adults have their own spiritual lives, but we are missing out on them, and they are missing out on the wisdom to be gleaned from a worshiping congregation.
Rather than assuming that high school graduates don’t want to stay connected to our churches, why don’t we do the best we can to stay in touch and to continue to be a resource for their spiritual journeys? Here are a few best practices:
12 Ways to Keep in Touch with Students after High School
1. The work begins at baptism
Remember that whenever you are present for the baptism of a child, you are promising to help raise that child in the Christian faith and life. High school graduates need you to treat them as adult individuals, not as extensions of their parents. Get curious about their lives at every stage, and start doing so well before they graduate, so that as graduates, they are truly known and loved.
2. Use your church membership database
Here is a very simple way to treat high school graduates as adults … even if they don’t move away. Send them their own church mailings, including the newsletter and invitations to pledge. (As a matter of fact, you might consider taking this step while they’re still in high school!) Go back through your database and identify young adults who are still lumped in with their parents. Find out where they are now and get back in touch.
3. Keep up with changes of address
For those who leave home for college or join the military, it’s possible that their postal address will change every year or more. If they don’t respond to your questions, ask their parents. But at the same time, don’t expect them to communicate in the same way your older members do. As new technology develops, learn about it and use it to stay in touch.
4. We in the church know that tactile things are deeply personal
Do you have knitters in your congregation? Have them make blankets to be blessed and wrapped around high school grads as you honor them at graduation time. Attach a tag to each blanket with the name, photo and contact info of the knitter, and another tag that says, “Made with love for N. by St. N. Church.” I still have a blanket that an old woman from my home congregation made for me in 1987.
5. Tell the church in your graduate's new home
Some graduates will land in a place with a campus ministry, and even more will find themselves within striking distance of a local church of your denomination. Contact the congregation, and encourage them to receive your graduate warmly.
6. Set up a prayer partnership
For each graduate, identify an adult other than their parents with whom they have made a meaningful connection. In cases where you can’t find somebody like this, tap any willing individual to make daily or weekly prayer for the graduate a priority.
7. Organize a care package ministry
Make this group intergenerational: elders, empty nesters, youth, and Sunday school kids. Send cookies, iTunes or Amazon gift cards, and devotional reading that is theologically sound. Your graduates may not take their prayer book off the shelf, but on a sleepless night they might just turn to prayerful words sent from home, or to an online resource you recommend. And chances are your grads will be very appreciative!
8. Send out your young adults as though on mission
For those graduates who were most active at church during their high school years, Ask them to write pieces for the church newsletter on what their life is like and where they see God at work.
9. Invite them to “Like” your church Facebook and Twitter pages
Despite media hype to the contrary, you can be sure that most of your high school grads are on Facebook and/or Twitter and use one or both of them daily. Keep your pages current and use your social media presence to report on things your church has done—not just to invite people to things you will be doing.
10. Invite recent high school graduates to form their own Facebook group
If you set it up yourself, don’t be the sole administrator. It’s not all that helpful to form a group for young adults and find that the only people using it are fans of young adults.
11. Organize a Christmastide retreat for young adults
Schedule it to take place sometime between December 25 and January 1. Give them time and space to worship together, play games together, and process their latest experiences in light of an assertion that God loves them unconditionally and is at work in their lives.
12. Brainstorm with others
If you want to take on some of these ideas, but aren't sure how best to proceed, get in touch with your diocese/synod contact for young adult ministries, or other folks in the church committed to youth and young adults.
Don't Give Up
When I was in high school and college, I did not know the degree to which people went out of their way for me, whether they were my parents, my teachers, or my church. I didn't write thank-you notes. I didn't always reply to letters. And I almost never said, “I love you.” I wish I could go back and be a more thoughtful and responsive teenager, but there is an aspect of this that is perfectly normal for that age. Don’t give up on your non-communicative high school grads. Keep them in your prayers, and don’t take their silence for lack of love or appreciation.
The Rev. Josh Hosler is the Associate Priest for Adult Formation at St. Paul's Episcopal Parish in Bellingham, Washington. He graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary, and he wrote this article while a student.