Make Graduate Recognition Special

Portrait of three happy students on graduation day.

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Hey Student Ministers,

The moment is near. You’ve navigated fall and its many football games. You’ve weathered the storm of band concerts, Christmas parties, various sporting events and seasons, and much more. You’ve planned and executed Disciple Now weekends as well as other retreats. And this was all in addition to the weekly grind of preparing Wednesday night messages, planning games, making hospital visits, discipling students and countless other tasks.

Now it’s graduation season. Soon your graduating seniors will receive cards, money and gifts from their loved ones. Like many student ministry leaders in churches across the country, you want to plan a memorable way to love on your graduates as they step out of student ministry into the next phase of their education, career and spiritual lives. This is an admirable desire, but it can also be a challenging endeavor. How can you best honor the accomplishments of these students in ways that push them to succeed in their pursuit of Christ in the future?

After nearly 20 years in student ministry, I’ve tried my hand at numerous approaches to graduate recognition. I’ve had years where our grads wore their caps and gowns and marched down the center aisle on Sunday morning to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.” And I’ve been part of less formal acknowledgements of their achievements as well. As you contemplate the final touches of your plans for “Graduate Recognition Sunday,” consider the following suggestions for helping your graduates and their families feel special while also keeping Christ at the center of your worship.

Focus on Christ in Your Worship Service

Don’t allow the recognition of graduates to overtake the true reason for our Sunday gathering: the worship of Christ. If you set aside time during the worship service (like I do), be mindful of the pitfall of elevating the individual above the One who truly deserves the praise. Allow graduates to understand the significance of their accomplishment in light of the greater honor of being called a child of God in Jesus Christ. Yes, recognize their success. Tell the church of their future plans. Allow them the opportunity to see their church family smile and encourage them through applause. But keep Christ at the heart of the moment.

One way I focus on Christ in my church is concluding the recognition portion of the service with a time of corporate prayer. I invite family members and anyone in the church who has spiritually impacted the students’ lives to surround the students and lay hands on them. From nursery workers to Sunday School teachers, many have played a role in the students’ spiritual development. Therefore, the students’ accomplishments are the church’s accomplishments, and the church’s accomplishments are Christ’s accomplishments, bringing Him the glory. I’ve been moved to tears regularly as I’ve heard prayers whispered over graduates from men and women who have been praying for this student since they were in their second grade Sunday School class. It is moving, it is powerful and it honors Christ.

Let Them Tell Their Story

Graduation is a milestone in the life of any teenager. They’ve looked forward to their graduation since kindergarten, and their parents have, in some ways, dreaded it since the day they were born. Each of your students is a beautiful individual whom God has created in His image. They are uniquely gifted and equipped to serve Christ and His Kingdom through their talents and abilities. But most of their church family only knows their Wednesday and Sunday selves. One way I allow students to tell their stories is with a Memory Table. All graduates are provided a table to decorate and adorn with pictures, trophies, trinkets and keepsakes from their childhood. As congregants make their way to their small group classes or the worship center, they can pass by these tables and see glimpses of their lives.

Obviously, decorating a table takes time. So I allow families to begin decorating their assigned tables following the Wednesday services, and the tables must be completed by 8 a.m. Sunday morning.

Give Them Something Special

One of the joys of graduating is receiving gifts, especially money, and students usually expect to receive a gift from their student minister. Early in my ministry, the churches I served always purchased Bibles for graduates. In fact, I still have my very own blue NIV Thinline Bible with my name foil stamped on the cover. In recent years however, I have noticed most of my students already have a fairly nice Bible. So I have considered what other gifts I might give that would serve a purpose and be used by the student moving forward. Below are a few options.

Alumni Shirts – My students love to collect youth group t-shirts. We usually make a shirt for every event or retreat we plan. So I decided a few years ago to design a graphic tee that can only be given to those who finish their time in student ministry well. I realize it may sound cheesy, but I am the king of cheesy ideas, and students love hoodies and quality sweatshirts. Therefore, I spend a little extra money and purchase high quality threads that they are proud to wear, even on their college campuses.

Picture Books Memories fade, but pictures help slow the process. Take as many pictures as possible over the years and organize them well on your computer. When you present graduates with a gift bag, and they reach in to find a picture book with photos from their seventh grade winter retreat, they will immediately be reminded of how much they’ve changed and how wonderfully their church family has loved them over the years. You can scrapbook, old-school style, or you can employ the efforts of an online business that prints photos and photo books.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go I told you, I’m the king of cheesy. But this Dr. Seuss book is a classic, and you can make it even more special by asking former Sunday School leaders and family members to write words of encouragement and favorite passages of Scripture on the inside cover. Easy win for all!

Celebrate The Accomplishment

Big days deserve big parties. Many of your graduates’ families will plan to have a party to celebrate their achievement. Why not do the same at the church? Plan a nice meal. I don’t mean pizza and chips. I mean a formal type of multi-course meal. Decorate tables, and assign seating. Invite graduates and their immediate families to be the honored guests. We do this each year at my current church for lunch immediately following the worship service on Graduate Recognition Sunday. Each year, we employ the efforts of the current 11th grade students and families to help select a menu, decorate the room, serve the food, etc. These families always work diligently to make the day special because they know the following year will be their opportunity to enjoy the experience also. If Sunday is not an option for your ministry setting, consider a Saturday evening meal.

Whatever you do, make sure your graduates know that you are proud of their accomplishment. There are so many reasons to worry about the future of younger generations. But Christian students who graduate from your student ministry, whether they attended for years or only months, are equipped to advance the Kingdom of God in countless ways. Keep serving Christ and students well as you advance the Kingdom, obeying your own God-given calling. Happy Graduation Season!

Cleve Mallory serves as student pastor at Eastmont Baptist Church, Montgomery.

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