There’s a fairly common perception in the youth ministry world that graduated seniors are a critical part of a mission trip and as such, should be honored accordingly during such a trip (with things like special anointings or opportunities just for them).
While seniors are important to a youth ministry and high school graduation is a milestone that should be recognized by the church, I wholeheartedly believe that such things should be done BEFORE a mission trip, not during them.
Because mission trips are, at their core, about discipleship. They’re about the faith formation of ALL teens who participate in them, not just the seniors. While seniors should be welcome to attend mission trips and perhaps even provide some student leadership during them (especially if they’ve been part of your student leadership team in the year leading up to them), you should NOT assume that seniors will anchor your trip or automatically provide leadership during it. That’s classism and runs contrary to a gospel that says, “The first shall be last.”
What’s more, the truth is that while mission trips should certainly be open to seniors, not all seniors should go on them. Seniors who have checked out of your ministry often find it difficult to be part of the group, especially knowing that they won’t be in the fall. They have little, if any, motivation to befriend younger students because they recognize those aren’t likely people they’ll continue hanging out with in the future.
Some seniors – especially those who are over 18 and believe they’re already adults – may also find it difficult to participate in a trip where they’re still very much treated as high school students (and expected to abide by the same rules and expectations as a 15-year old freshman.) When those students choose to participate in a summer mission trip one last time, they may be tempted to push the boundaries, which can create problems not just for them, but for your entire team (and its reputation) in the community where you’re serving. Additionally, some seniors may simply have other priorities after they graduate – whether that’s hanging out with friends, working, or traveling. You’re far better off affirming and honoring those values than pressuring them to participate in a trip they don’t want to be on in the first place.
Perhaps most importantly, however, justice-focused mission trips are actually far more about the year ahead than they are about the previous year. When done well, justice-focused mission trips can catalyze and vault your team into a year of service connected to your mission trip. However, that won’t happen accidentally. It’ll require intentional debriefing, processing, and planning after the fact. Logistically, such things are often hard for seniors to participate in because they typically scatter to the wind. Even those who remain at home often find it hard to be part of these conversations knowing they won’t be part of what happens next in your ministry.
So, rather than be a senior’s swan song, it’s much healthier to invite seniors to participate in your trip as ordinary participants – no different than any other student who’s going.
Rather than lay hands on and pray exclusively for the seniors, do so for leaders within the local community you’ve been serving. Rather than asking seniors to share about what their experience has meant to them, invite everyone on your trip to do so. This gives everyone practice articulating their experience – something that will enable the experience (and its meaning) to be integrated into their persons and lives. Instead of anointing the seniors on a mission trip, commission and anoint ALL participants for their continued justice work after they return home. You might even consider asking seniors to anoint the freshmen through juniors as a way of passing the torch onto them.
When you do these things, you can effectively integrate seniors into mission trips in a way that will give them lasting, life-influencing missions experience without setting them apart from the group in unhealthy ways that can do lasting damage to your entire ministry.
To learn more about healthy practices for integrating students into your mission trip, buy a copy of Jen's book today: A Mission That Matters: How to do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm.