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Retaining Students Beyond Graduation

John Gilman June 15, 2016

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A month or so ago, high schools held graduation ceremonies. Soon, the graduates in your youth group will likely head to college in the fall. Some may remain local, but others may not. In either case, churches face a harsh reality. Every summer when graduates enter their next level of education, attendance takes a hit. As a church, our hope is that these students will keep coming back to the church when they’re home for the weekend or the holidays. But, of course, our ultimate hope is that they will become engaged in a church body while away for college. However, often times they leave the nest and stop going to church in any capacity.

Youth groups might feel like fun and friends to exiting students, but that isn’t what keeps students engaged in the church once they leave their parents house, because often times, their friends are leaving as well. And regardless of how personal and inspirational your pastor is, it’s not going to keep the students committed. Even if they’re really involved as a volunteer and close with many of the members of your church, it won’t keep them hooked.

So what can we do to keep graduating students active and engaged?

1) The relationship with the student pastor and/or small group leader. This is vital. Students who have fruitful relationships with their youth pastor and small group leader, especially the seniors, are more likely to stay in touch with those leaders as they leave for college. But it needs to be a priority of the leader to keep those lines of communication open. If communication is consistent, students are more likely to come back to your church while they are home on the weekends or for holidays.

2) Engage with students on social media. It may be something as simple as liking a picture they post on Facebook or Instagram. Comment on their posts. If you know they’re going to be home one weekend, let them know that you are looking forward to seeing them. Send them encouraging messages every now and then. You never know when what you have to say may speak to someone and what they are going through at that moment.

3) Parents make a huge difference. Kids that have been bribed or dragged to church their whole life may see their newfound freedom and rarely set foot in church again since no one is there to make them wake up and go. On the contrary, kids that have been shown a good example by their parents about why they attend church are more likely to stay engaged. Think about it this way. We don’t go to church because we have to. We go to church because we get to. Think about the billions of people across the world who don’t get to go to church. It’s a privilege to go to church. Communicate that to your students. It will teach them to make their own decisions, and that only sets them up well for the future.

You may have other ideas. Obviously there are only a few here, but we believe they are good ones. We want your students to remain engaged and we realize it takes more than one action or activity for that to happen. Keep these in mind as your students leave for college this fall.

  • Suzanne Phillips Smith

    I shared this on our diocesan Facebook wall: https://www.facebook.com/TheEpiscopalChurchinMississippi/. I thought it was a great article to give people in our churches tools to let the graduates know that they are loved and missed. Thanks!

  • Suzanne Phillips Smith

    Oh, yeah. I was supposed to leave an idea…I was a youth minister before I worked for the diocese. When our youth graduated I already had their birthdays, so I would send them birthday cards and send them news from home.

  • Jen Liskey

    I think staying in touch during the college years and offering a place for them to return are important. A strong college ministry is so important.

  • Kathy Howell

    We have several area colleges and universities, so connecting with students is not only an academic-year project, but also a year-round connection experience with contacts at the local schools. We sponsored prayer walks through one of the universities recently and also
    provided our congregation with daily prayer guides for the week preceding the walk. The prayer walk provided a chance for people to have the experience of walking the campus as if they were a student, professor or staff member–sometimes having an experience like this can create a connection, relatable feelings of understanding and possibly increase compassion and empathy as well as a desire to increase prayer support. College students also have the option of being part of our Emerge group where young adults pursue Jesus in community. This Sunday night group shares a meal, worship, and communion.

  • Susan Gregg

    We try to keep the graduates engaged by sending them our monthly newsletter to their college address. A little piece of home in their new surroundings and let’s them know that we are still caring about them even though some are far from home.

  • Barbara Barden

    Relationships with staff and other adults in the church are critical. We are so fortunate that our grads stop by most times when they are in town to visit. We also do send care packages twice a year while they are away at college. Since we also have many colleges in our city and particularly one right down the street we have many attend our worship services. Many of our paid child care sitters are also college students so we enjoy getting to know them during there 4 years here and for some who end up staying in the area the relationship is continued.

  • Kirsten Pelton

    We do “adopt a grad” to connect each graduate with at least 1-3 different congregational members. These adults will provide a goodie gift every semester and a actual hand written card every month. We are also encouraged to pray for the student daily and to reach out via text/email with additional support.

  • Jennifer Booth

    Great ideas, we do the adopt a grad thing as well and have a congregant assigned to college students to be praying for and communicating with them. We also send care packages to students who are away at college.

  • Melanie Capps Morton

    Thank you for the posts below as well as the suggestions. I don’t work in this area, but have been increasingly concerned about the students that never come back.

  • Debbie Keyser

    Thank you for the gentle nudge to again begin to address this issue. We are revamping and trying again in the fall to keep that connection for our high school students when they graduate and go off to college. It is definitely a weak area for us but we have a real heart and concern for this age group so we are going to try to set up some gatherings that we can ask our youth pastor to attend to keep that connection without burdening him more. WE are also going to set up an email communication to our college students to encourage them while they are away.

  • Ami long

    Pastor works really hard at staying in touch with this age group. It’s definitely the age group that tends to stray off. College care packages twice a year definitely help!

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