Yesterday, I had lunch with one of my youth group graduates who’s now in college. As our time together drew to a close, this student pondered, “So how long can we keep getting together like this?”

In processing her question, here’s what I think she was wondering:

Even though I’m not in your youth ministry anymore, do you still care about me?
Even though I’m in college, is our church still my home?

To me, this girl’s question points to the challenge we face in youth ministry. How can we show our youth ministry graduates the continued love and support of our congregation while simultaneously launching them into the next phase of their spiritual lives, a phase that requires them to be less dependent on us for their spiritual growth?

I’ll admit I don’t have this figured out. Even so, here are some of the strategies my congregation is using in order to better navigate this transition:

1. Prior to graduation, we host an event for seniors where we discuss how to find a church. We acknowledge there’s no such thing as a perfect church (including ours) and give students permission to find a church that’s not necessarily like ours. We explicitly tell teens, “You’re not betraying us by finding another church. In fact, the opposite is true. You’re honoring us.”

2. We mark graduation with several rites of passage. Doing so gives teens the opportunity to celebrate their journey of faith within our congregation, acknowledge the difficulty of transitions, and provide them with closure – with something that says, “Even though this part of your journey is through, God is not through with you.”

3. Upon entering college, our congregation stays connected with our teens by regularly sending them care packages filled with fun items and handwritten notes from our church staff.

4. We host a get-together for youth ministry graduates over the holidays. The gathering gives students a time to reconnect with each other as well as adult leaders. It clearly communicates, “Even though you’re away, we still love and care about you.”

5. Whenever the opportunity arises, I connect with youth ministry graduates. When I’m near their college campuses, I visit them. When they’re home, I seek them out after worship. Whenever possible, I meet with them to continue investing in their lives. I encourage and affirm them. I also challenge them to continue growing in their relationship with Jesus.

Yesterday, in response to my student’s question, I assured her that our relationship has no expiration date attached to it; That instead, I will always care about her.

My hope is that one day soon, by taking the aforementioned steps, students will no longer have to ask me this question; That instead, they will know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that both I and our congregation will continue to love and care about them, no matter where their journey takes them in the future.