I’ve got a secret.  I’ve learned how to keep Juniors and Seniors, but I don’t want it to be a secret anymore.  My good friend Mark DeVries told me once that based on Brentwood UMC’s youth ministry retention rate of Juniors and Seniors that I should write a book.  He told me that in 2005.  I wasn’t convinced that I had the answer, but believed that maybe I’d gotten lucky with a couple of classes.  Well 5 years later, I think the secret should be revealed.  Close your eyes … now open them – you are the youth director of a church that regularly graduates more active seniors than the number of seventh graders who started 6 years early.  You too can have this if you use Old Spice.  I love those commercials.  I wish it was as easy as closing your eyes and opening them.  Here is what we’ve learned and maybe it can help you.
Step 1 – Have a Discipleship Plan
I promised an answer to this question last week and then did 3 posts on how to create an intentional discipleship plan first, because it is key to solving the problem.  If you have not, please read Drivers License Myth, Training Fleas, and Programming the Gaps.  These posts set the stage for what Brentwood UMC has been able to accomplish.  We blew the lid off the jar that had been limiting our students growth by creating an intentional discipleship path for them to follow.  We created the path in 2003 and began to see results in 2005 when we graduated a class of 125 active seniors that classes confirmation class was 80.  The first thing that we did was to have programs that meet the depth of discipleship needs our juniors and seniors had so they could continue to grow.
Step 2 – Change Your Expectations
In my Driver’s License Myth post, I state that “our churches are dying because we are drastically short selling Christian Discipleship.  Our kids do not leave the church because they got a driver’s license.  They leave because they have been there and done that, because they are thinking is this really all there is, because we have failed to help them grow past a basic Christian understanding and are asking them to still attend all of our programming despite the fact it feels like 7th grade math.”  (by the way it feels to quote myself and I’m not sure that it is cool so please forgive me)
If we expect our junior’s and senior’s to continue to participate, we cannot expect them to attend the programs that feel like 7th grade math.  For BUMC, this meant that we did not expect our upperclassmen to attend youth group.  I know like wow.  One of the things I had to do was get over my own ego and realize that they were not coming and were not going to come.  The exception to this rule were those who choose to be leaders in our junior high ministry.
Junior’s and senior’s are busy so we realized that if they only had time to participate in one program what program would we want that to be?  For us, we wanted them to continue to participate in their small groups.  We had acknowledged the year before that small groups were the best means of discipleship and so we knew that if we could keep them connected there, they would continue to grow.  One of the things we have found is that our small groups reached their full potential for discipleship and Christian accountability in during their last two years.
Our expectations changed.  Instead of expecting our upperclassmen to participate in everything, we held them accountable for participating in the one thing that meet their discipleship stage.
Step 3 – Clearly Communicate Expectations
I had a parent apologize to me their senior year that they never came to youth group anymore.  My response was “you must not know that I told him to quit coming and go to his small group.”  The mom was shocked until I explained to her that we were estatic that her son was staying connected to the program that would best stimulate his growth as a disciple of Christ.
You will need to clearly communicate to students and parents how your intentional discipleship plan works and what programs you feel they must be attending.
Step 4 – Give Permission
While you are communicating what they need to attend, you need to give them permission to not attend other programs.  You want to still identify leaders and give them places to lead the younger members of your ministry.  Having youth be role models for each other is important, but not every junior or senior needs to be in a leadership position and many of them do not have time.
Step 5 – Trading Guilt for Encouragement and Accountabiltiy
For years I would try to guilt our upperclassmen into staying active in our programs, I found this exhausting for them and for me.  When I traded in my guilt speech in for encouragement, I found my personal anxiety level come down and my students as well.  I encouraged them to find their place on our discipleship journey.  I encouraged them to do the things that helped them grow up whether that was getting a job or finding leadership positions.
Then, I held them accountable.  After clearly communicating expectations, giving them permission, and then encouraging them, we held them accountable.  We followed up with small group leaders to make sure folks were participating and not falling off the map.  We were able to show them how learning to be accountable to their spiritual growth was a part of growing up and maturing as a disciple.
Growing together.
I know I make it sound easy.  Please feel free to comment and ask questions.  I would love to share with you more details if it would help your program.  Please know it wasn’t easy.  We sacrificed personal pride to ensure that our students continued to grow.  So my question is what have you learned in youth ministry that hurt your pride but lead you to a stronger ministry.