It’s happened again. It’s May and I’m sending another class of 8th graders up into our high school ministry. I’m a 20 year middle school ministry vet and it’s still hard to say goodbye to students I’ve watched grow up before my eyes. Though I am not directly leading our middle school ministry now (I lead our student ministry team), there are 12 guys from my small group who are moving on.
Transitions are hard. Just as middle schoolers are starting to “get it” you hand them off to another ministry. You wonder if they’ll really connect and thrive in high school. You wonder if you will get forgotten, or that someone else will get the credit. So we hold on longer than we should. Transitions are bittersweet because you hate to see them grow up, but are excited to see what God does in and through their lives.
But let’s be clear…transitions are kind of the point. Middle schoolers are SUPPOSED to grow up and leave middle school. It’s God’s design for maturity. Nobody wants a 19 year old 8th grader hanging around (like Matthew McConaughey from Dazed and Confused). So, instead of fighting the transition your ministry needs to prepare their middle schoolers for it.
Over the years, I’ve done some transitions well and I’ve done some poorly. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:
1. Start the transition earlier than you think. I know the ministry calendar goes by quickly, but you should really start the transition process 5-6 months before the transition actually happens. When you enter a highway you need an onramp to get up to speed. In the same way, students need time to adjust to a new ministry. I’ve even heard of some student ministries who fully transition their 8th graders BEFORE the end of the year.
2. Stair step your ministries. One way to create anticipation for a transition is to save some experiences for older grades. Our high school ministry gets to travel farther and do cooler things than our middle school ministry. We do this intentionally so that our students have something to look forward to. Does your middle school ministry offer the same events/experiences as your high school ministry? If so, your middle schoolers will have nothing to look forward to and your transitions won’t be as effective.
3. Mix it up. One of the best ways to torpedo a ministry transition is to isolate your middle schoolers from your high school ministry. Face time = relationship = trust = smooth transition. Invite your high school team (staff, students and leaders) to teach and attend events/trips throughout the year, not just towards the end of the school year.
4. Celebrate the past, but get them excited about the future. Those bittersweet feelings are natural for you as a leader and for your students, too. After all it’s been their home for the past 2-3 years. If you’re doing middle school ministry well, many of your students have encountered Jesus in significant ways during their time with you. Many students will worry that high school “won’t be the same” and dread the transition. Every year our 8th grade celebration has a time for looking back at what God has done AND a time of looking forward where we tell them that we are EXCITED for them to move on because of what God has in store for them. If you communicate excitement about the transition, your students will be more likely to anticipate it as well.
Smooth transitions are better for everyone. Parents will thank you. Your high school ministry will thank you. Your students will thank you. So, let’s not make it an afterthought.