In January 2008, my husband and I volunteered to be small group leaders for high school students. We met with our church’s Family Ministries Pastor, and he welcomed us into high school ministry—with a twist. He asked us to start with 5th grade students, and move up with them through middle school, eventually graduating into high school programming. This wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, but the idea of growing up alongside a group of students had appeal and we agreed to take on a portion of the Class of 2015.

As our group moved through middle school, I remember seeing “Class of 2015” written on emails and registration packets and thinking, “That is forever in the future.” I felt secure watching the classes of 2011, 2012, and 2013 graduate. I assured myself, “You still have time.”

Then the class of 2014 graduated, and the girls began saying, “We’re seniors now!” The last year was a blur, full of this-is-the-last-time’s and college prep, culminating in this past Friday when I watched those original 5th graders walk across a stage, tassels waggling from side to side, to receive their diplomas.

What had seemed like such a long time 7 years ago passed before me on 40 feet of high school stage. On Monday, we got together for one last time as a group. It was raining (in true Pennsylvania fashion) so we huddled inside to roast marshmallows over tea lights. We sat in a circle on the floor, like we have done literally 100’s of times, and reflected on the highs and lows of high school, celebrated the wins, and anticipated the future.

After the girls went home, I thought about all our adventures, mishaps, and milestones. Leading students is equal parts rewarding and challenging. If I had to do it all over again (which I will), I would give myself some pieces of advice.

Since this is a post about finishing a chapter, I’d like to share—in clichéd graduation speech form—some words of small-group-leading wisdom.

I present to you, leaders of the class of 2019 and beyond, what I have learned:

Find next-step-ahead mentor(s). It can get crazy out there. Students will throw you curveballs, whether it is the questions they ask or the actions they choose. Surround yourself with people who have been leading students longer than you. If you are the veteran in your ministry, widen your circle by reading books, interacting on blogs (LeadSmall.org and OrangeLeaders.com are a great place to start!), and connecting with small group leaders from other churches.

Join forces with other adults. One of the greatest blessings in my experience of leading small has been walking alongside other leaders who are also invested in my students. There are days I think Chap Clark’s model of 5 adults for every 1 student is just as beneficial for the adults as it is the kid.

Partner with parents. History is one of the most valuable assets in directing the future. Nobody has a window into your students’ histories like their parents. Through both intentionality and happenstance, parents act as guides into the worlds of their children.

Remember it’s just a phase. When you feel like your small group is going nowhere spiritually or intellectually, take a step back and tell yourself, “It’ll get better.” I spent an entire year of middle school fielding dialogue about the hotness of the Jonas Brothers. I would try to direct conversation (“You know what else is hot? Hell. We should talk about how to avoid going there.”). But in the end, interest in the Jonas Brothers fizzled out and more important topics emerged.

Say I don’t know… a lot. Students will ask big questions. Difficult situations will emerge. You’re not going to have the answers, and that’s okay. The best thing you can do in that moment is say, “I don’t know, but let’s look for the answer together.”

Show up. Go to their games, concerts, recitals, and events. The first couple times, they might ignore you or act surprised to see you. They may even ask, “What are you doing here?” But if you keep showing up, they will stop being surprised and will welcome you by saying things like, “I’m so glad to see you here!” If you do it right, over time, it will be weirder to them when you don’t show up than when you do.

Don’t say goodbye. The truth is, high school graduation is not the finish line. Your group will overcome obstacles, change, and grow, but they will still need you post-graduation. On Monday evening, as ten cars pulled out of the driveway one by one, it struck me that it would probably be the last time all of us would sit in a circle and share together. Yet our conversations are just beginning

And yours are too.

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Steph is the Lead Writer for the XP3 Middle School curriculum at Orange. She has a decade of experience leading students and volunteers, including the privilege of leading a group of girls from 5th grade to HS graduation. She recently moved to Atlanta, and is embarking on another 4 years of Leading Small in a high school setting. Steph is married to Tim, and spends her days writing, planning adventures, and drinking coffee. She is the author of the book The Volunteer Project: Stop Recruiting. Start Retaining. You can read more of her thoughts at stephwhitacre.com.

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