It comes round with alarming regularity if we stay in youth ministry any time: young people move up from one group to the next. Some make it. Others don't. Perhaps they'd dropped out of the younger group already, and although we were waiting for them, they were never likely to come. Perhaps the meeting day changes and they choose Scouts. Perhaps they move house or church. Perhaps we never find out why they left.
Here are a few ideas to think about that may help ease transitions:
Having Move-Up Sunday for Sunday groups. This happens in mid-June for all of our children's ministry. Young people who are moving up in September, start in their normal groups during the morning service, then they and their small group leaders head up to the next group five or ten minutes into the group time. Older groups are ready to receive them and welcome them in. They stay there for the rest of the session. They don't go back again until September, but at least they've experienced the group.
Overlapping attendance. Young people in mid-week groups who are due to move up in September, can attend both the younger group and the older group after half-term in June. If they're feeling a bit old for the younger group, they can move up earlier. If they're feeling a bit nervous, they can stay longer in the younger group. Or they can do both. Holly Byles, Youth Minister at Holy Trinity Claygate also transitions her year 13s (top year in college in the UK) to her young adults group from this time. Holly writes:
"I have recorded the impact of various transition elements on their settling to regular attendance in their new groups from September and this is the biggest variable difference I have found - whether they have visited the group they are moving to before the academic year starts."
Overlapping groups. Both our younger youth and our older youth meet on Thursday nights. The younger youth finish at 7.30. The older youth start at 7.00. They overlap in the main church, having a meal, between 7.00 and 7.30. It would be an exaggeration to say they all mingle together, but there is some mixing, and the younger youth realise (hopefully!) that the older ones aren't that scary, and know the space well. For three years, the younger youth experience a quarter of the older youth's group time.
Ali Demet, Youth Coordinator at St. Tom's, Lancaster has a wide group, with years 7-13 all together mid-week and at the 11am congregation. She deliberately runs a years 6-8 group at the 9am congregation to ease transition. So as not to make mid-week transition too scary for year 6s, she's running her youth night this term with only years 6-8 together for the start of the night, before year 6s heads home and the older youth arrive. The year 6s are then invited to the remaining mid-week youth events of the term - including a Water Fight Night and Beach BBQ.
Overlapping leaders. This year, we have invited leaders from the younger group to the older one as they transition. They know the younger youth well and the younger youth know and trust them. With those safe people around, the experience of being 'a small fish in a big pond' doesn't feel as scary.
Overlapping everything, apart from the space. Ali Demet has her older children's group on the same night, at the same time, just in a different part of her church centre. If you've got the facilities and the team to do it, this is a brilliant way to make transition as easy as possible, for young people and for parents who have to drop off and pick up!
Involving younger team's leaders in planning. If I was to identify one change that has really helped us this year, it's been this one. You get into a certain way of doing things in a group. Others move up to the group and have to get used to your way of doing things. If they can't, they leave. Instead, at least for the autumn term, maybe for longer, ask a couple of the younger team's leaders, for their help in planning the older group's programme. They know what the younger youth like, what they're familiar with, and how long the talks are they normally listen to. All of that information can really help the older team structure the sessions so they will best hold on to the younger group when they arrive.
Focussing on individuals, not just the year group. Ross Mungavin, Youth Pastor at St James, Gerrards Cross with Fulmer, writes:
"We move year 6s up around Easter each year and have a “Graduation” as part of a Sunday service. I send them all a letter with a book or a Bible explaining everything that happens in youth (young people love getting post!) and invite them to join in all our activities.
Every time one moves up, I make a big deal of it on their first time and we give them a big round of applause and pray for them as a group."
Holly Byles writes:
"Twice this term and twice next term, leaders from all the respective groups visit those moving up e.g. younger youth leaders visit the year six group (top year of primary school in the UK and normally the year before joining youth groups)."
Holly Byles' younger youth's small group leaders are taking their oldest year group out for dinner tonight. What a great way to celebrate the end of an era! More intimate than a graduation, but serving the same purpose - saying goodbye well. The year group is also being built into a really strong whole which is more likely to hold people in for the transition.
Move parents as well as young people. Holly Byles holds a parents' meeting for the year six parents. For her groups, moving groups means moving from the morning service to the evening service, so it's a big change for families and this meeting is always well attended, Parents ask questions, Holly introduces the youth ministry with its groups and their aims, and encourages parents to prioritise their child's group attendance.
Melinda Stylo, Youth Minister at St. Mary's Maidenhead, writes:
"The first Friday in September we have a BBQ for those starting Older Youth and their parents. The first half of the evening is social and then the young people go off with the evening service congregational leader and vicar, who talk to them about how they can become involved in serving (AV, welcome team, coffee rota, the band, doing the readings etc). They also explain that, although most of our older teenagers attend the evening service, it's not a youth service (although of course we do take into account the fact that a third of the congregation is between 15 & 18).
The parents go off with me and I talk them through how the youth groups work and then do a session on encouraging each other to keep their young people focused on Jesus during their GCSEs - putting church into the revision timetable etc."
Starting with a residential. We found an interesting answer to our 11-14s/14-18s transition this year. In March, we had a residential weekend for our older youth group. Bookings were lower than we'd expected, so, mostly for financial reasons, we invited the top year from the younger group. Only a small number came, but they really enjoyed it. Afterwards, it seemed strange to stop them attending the older group, so we let them keep coming. Now, in May, there are a really healthy number of year 9s already attending our group for years 10-13. By the time September rolls around, they'll be very comfortable and we'll start with a bang.
Go big in September. Work hard to start with a splash in September (pool party?!). Send out personal invitations to your first event. Why not engage your older youth in encouraging the younger youth to come? Within your budget, make your event unmissable.
While you're here, please have a look at Dave's book: 'Raising the Bar: Nearly everything you need to know about Christian youth ministry' here.
In it, you'll find other ideas about transitions. You can find out what other youth leaders think about the book and read a couple of free chapters. It's the best resource I can give you to keep you going in youth ministry long-term.
Everyone is Welcome photo by Katie Moum. Welcome photo by Belinda Fewings. Both on Unsplash.