Graduation is always an exciting time in your youth ministries. There are so many mixed emotions. You're excited for your students; you're happy because they're happy. There are always a few that exceeded your expectations, and maybe for these students, you feel especially proud. And of course, there's the bittersweet feelings of seeing a group of students transition out of your ministry. But even those feelings are tempered by the excitement and hope that surrounds graduation.
There are, however, another set of emotions we may feel at graduation, ones we don’t often stop and talk about.
Feelings of regret.
Feelings of guilt.
Feelings of doubt.
These are the “what if’s” of youth ministry that creep up every once in a while, especially at graduation.
You may have found yourself considering the students who are leaving your ministry and asking yourself questions:
What if I had done more to invest in that one student’s life? Would it have changed anything?
What if I was more intentional in my leadership? Could we have accomplished more?
Did our ministry really make a difference in the lives of these students? Are they as spiritually mature as they could have been?
Could we have somehow done more?
Maybe you’ve never asked yourself these questions. But my guess is that many of us have. If you stick around in youth ministry long enough, it’s inevitable that you find yourself watching students transition from your ministry and ask, “what if”? We have such high hopes for our students; we have visions of who we want them to be. We have expectations for the faith that we hoped they would have developed by the time they pass through our ministries. The awesome thing is that many students meet and even exceed these expectations; we celebrate those stories. But some students don’t. And it’s been my experience that these are the students that stick with you long after graduation is over.
What do we do when we find ourselves thinking about the “what if’s” of youth ministry? How do we cope with them?
First, I think it’s healthy to look back and wish we would have done more.
I mean this. I think that we should always evaluate with an eye toward improvement. You’ve heard people say that it’s not OK to ever look back and have regrets. I have never agreed with this sentiment. If you don’t take the time to look back and ask what you could have done better, you don’t care enough. While it’s NOT healthy to dwell on our mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with identifying areas you could improve.
Second, I think it’s important to remember that discipleship is a LONG journey.
The truth is that until we breathe our last breath on this earth, God is not done writing our story. Discipleship is a LONG journey. This perspective shift helps us remain hopeful. We may be disappointed or saddened by where individual students are in their spiritual journey. But there is great hope that God is still in the business of shaping lives.
Third, it’s encouraging to be reminded that we are merely one voice among many who will shape a student’s faith over their life.
I don’t want to take the pressure off of us; I still think we should approach ministry with a sense of urgency. What we do matters. But I want to put our influence in perspective. We are one of MANY voices that God will use to shape our students’ faith. This keeps us from taking too much credit or too much blame.
Finally, it’s OK to own our mistakes, but it’s not OK to allow them to beat us up.
Listen, at the end of the day, maybe you COULD have done more. Only you know the answer to that. But maybe there were moments that you could have been more intentional, or taken more of a direct interest in the spiritual growth of a student or your students as a whole. Human nature seeks to absolve ourselves of blame, but sometimes it's important to admit that we blew it. The most important thing we can do when we KNOW we've made a mistake is to let it be a teaching moment. Learn from it. Evaluate your actions and practices. Let your mistake be the thing that drives you to be a better and more effective minister. In that way, the mistake itself, while real, is redeemed. Our shortfalls become a part of the story we’re writing in which we are continually growing in the craft of youth ministry.
There are SO many emotions we feel at graduation. Some feel good, others not so much. But it's crucial for us to remember that both are part of what makes our calling as youth workers so rich.