A little over three years ago, my wife and I sat in a booth at Red Robin with our middle school pastor. After treating us to dessert, he asked us if we would consider becoming “6th grade specialists” after that year. A typical volunteer in our context would journey with a class from 6th grade until they finished 8th grade and transitioned to high school ministry, then loop down to the next group of 6th graders. In fact, we were then winding down a 3-year cycle. But he had noticed our perennial interest in each new group of students. We would always show up on welcome night, even when they weren’t “our” group. He wanted us to give that same over-the-top first-year experience to all new kids.
We gladly agreed and have just welcomed our fourth group of students in as many summers. (This past year all three grades in the ministry were “our” kids when they first arrived.) Here are 9 keys to giving your new group of students the summer of their lives. Field tested by seasoned volunteers, middle schooler approved. (Much of it would also apply to transitioning freshmen into high school ministry.)
- Hype it up. The first several activities are critical to helping new students feel connected. Our staff team plans two or three low-key, cheap or free events within the first month of the summer. We promote these highly relational events with a trifecta of phone calls, in-person invitations, and personally written postcards. I also try to write a “glad you’re part of our group” note sometime during the summer.
- Show up. Consistency is key. Starting with orientation night before the new class officially joins us and throughout that first summer, kids need the security of familiar faces. Do everything in your power to be at those first events, no matter how silly or pointless you – as an adult – think they sound.
- Divide and conquer. My ego would love for me to be the point man for every student, but it’s better to get to know a few kids well than to have only a passing acquaintance with everybody. While I will know every 6th grade boy by name and face by September 1, there are a certain few that I will have reached out to in an intentional way. The other volunteers on the team are invaluable in connecting with kids that I won’t – not because I don’t like them, but because I am but one leader out of many.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Whatever level of technology fits each kid, use it well. Technically a 6th grader will have made up a false age to be on Facebook, but if they are using it (and if their parent is also a friend), I will be their friend. Look for who has a cell phone. Don’t fawn over those who already do to the point of making those who don’t feel inferior, but make sure you get each other programmed in. Free tip: make sure to verify an unlimited texting plan before you carry on long conversations consisting of “LOL” and “K.”
Make sure to verify an unlimited texting plan before you carry on long conversations consisting of “LOL” and “K.”
- Make it a party, not a date. Jonathan McKee’s newest book Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation (Amazon Associate link) is a great read, but the reality of 6th grade ministry is that I rarely get together with new students one-on-one. As I build trust with them and their parents, those moments come in time. An 11-year-old new to student ministry is usually freaked out at the prospect of solo time with someone that’s essentially a stranger. Grab a group of two or three. You’ll get to know them better than at programmed gatherings, but with the buffer of a friend if the conversation starts to fizzle.
- Keep it cheap. Proximity to entertainment choices will vary, but keep the cost of any get-together very low. Find whatever local pool the kids hang out at and take a few kids. Ask a family with a subdivision or backyard pool if they will host a pool party. Major- and minor-league baseball games each have their unique flair. Find out when Buck Night is! If you have a theme park nearby, check the cost of a season pass for yourself. I found that I only needed to go about three times before it paid for itself.
- Camp is where it’s at. Go with the group if you possibly can. My time at camp each year is priceless in terms of banking relational capital. Sleep and healthy food can wait for a week! If you can’t go, go visit the kids if camp is close enough to drive down for an evening or two. If you can’t do that, send them some mail or even a care package.
My time at camp each year is priceless in terms of banking relational capital. Sleep and healthy food can wait for a week!
- Parents are your friends. If mom or dad answers the phone when you call for their child, take a minute to chat with them first. Introduce yourself at church when you see them. Some of my most fruitful parental conversations take place when I am watching a ball game their kid is in. Wave to the kid so they know you showed up, but don’t underestimate the power of that bleacher time.
- Summer is not fall. Like a “game reset” in a tied white-knuckler gone into overtime, you can’t fully predict what fall will be like based on summer. Some kids that have been at everything in the summer will suddenly have sports or school commitments. Others who have barely showed up will become your most faithful attendees in the fall. Build on the foundation of the summer, but look for ways to keep kids engaged year-round.
Our youth pastor can’t learn 50-60 new names overnight, or spend loads of time with every kid, especially during the busy summer months. My wife and I, however, will know each kid by name (as long as they’ve actually come to something) and will have had a personal conversation with each one by the time school begins.
What does your team do to welcome and engage new students during the summer?