Thinking Ahead | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
March 2020

Thinking Ahead

By Chris Wilterdink

The first half of 2020 will be memorable. There will be portions of it in history books and social studies classes, reviews written with the benefit of hindsight about the challenges, successes, and changes to culture that we are living in right now. As of the end of March 2020, organizations and events are postponing or cancelling activities as far into the future as July and August. As witnesses to the upheaval and change, young people may feel a sense of sadness as they recognize the personal and social losses they will endure as a part of quarantines and other responses to COVID-19.

Young people may be hesitant to share about personal impacts and losses experienced during this pandemic response because they recognize the gravity of the larger situation.

As a local church youth ministry leader, this is an excellent time to think creatively about how you and your church can help address one group of experiences that will be lost because of the effects of quarantine: the rites of passage that normally take place in April, May, June, and July.

You can encourage physical distancing while still building social connectedness!

You know the rites we are talking about:

  • The end of the school year. Getting yearbooks delivered and signed. Graduation ceremonies and parties. Senior recognition rituals at church. Tests and receiving grades. Good-byes to physical spaces like classrooms, campuses, etc.
  • The interruption of in-person social closure. Groups of friends from clubs, teams, choirs, and college roommates who all the sudden won’t see each other again.
  • Confirmation Ceremonies that recognize and welcome youth becoming members of the church and responding to their baptismal vows.
  • And all of the “moving up” activities, joining the next grade-level up, learning about lockers, schedules, new teachers, and more.

Given that these interruptions will leave a void in a season where the church is often very adept at recognizing growth and maturity among young people, you have the chance to create new ways to recognize these rites of passage. You have the right and responsibility to help young people remember that they are on a journey to adulthood, a journey to spiritual maturity, and they remain connected to a family of faith that will support them in that journey!

So in this time of innovation, here are a few ideas to get your mind going. As always, talk with your volunteers and ministry team to come up with even better ideas than these!

Senior Recognition:

  • Graduation Parades – Divvy up the graduating seniors at church, and organize a drive to deliver gifts, letters, etc. from the church to each graduate. Livestream or record the deliveries to your church’s website or social media accounts.
  • Virtual Award Ceremony – Schedule a video call for seniors (or any age, really) and volunteers that have served them. Give each volunteer a few minutes to share a positive and uplifting story of how they have seen a specific young person grow over the years.
  • Virtual Yearbooks/Collages – Set up a shared file for digital photographs from your ministry. Invite a team of volunteers to tag and sort those photos into experiences and by name. Then create a collage for each senior or person you would like to recognize. Share the finished products with them digitally or in print.
  • Testimonies – Part of recognizing Seniors is helping them share their experiences with the larger church. Have them record 1-2-minute videos talking about stories from their life in the congregation and share them on your church’s social media or website. Invite youth speakers to be a part of livestreamed worship.
  • Determine a way to share about graduating Seniors’ plans and connect them with churches or ministries where their next school, work, or military role will take them. Consider starting pen pals or virtual chats with leaders from churches or campus ministries and your graduating youth. Be a conduit for their continued growth!

Social Closure:

  • Provide platforms for volunteers to connect with each other, with you, and with the youth they are serving virtually. Continue with small groups, Bible study discussions…Heck, even download “Netflix Party” and have a shared movie night and discussion! Keep those connections going.
  • Provide chances for virtual “reunions” of small groups, or classes that are close with each other.
  • If you end up back in your ministry setting without the student, make the most of it by hosting a virtual tour. Ask for prayer requests, items or devotions that could be left in a space by those who are missing gathering there. Livestream or add this to your story on social media.
  • Contact teachers who are part of your church, or schools where your students study. Ask them if they need any help with social closure or maintaining support of their student body.
  • Create care packages to send to students who you may not see. Remind them that you exist, and are excited to see them again in person when you can. Do this yourself, or ask church members to each “adopt a youth” or “young adult” and send care packages and notes of encouragement monthly.


  • Continue teaching lessons virtually and hosting discussions online.
  • Equip parents more than ever to continue conversations related to your material at home. Create additional questions and prompts for parents to read and discuss Confirmation material at home.
  • If you utilize mentors or small group leaders, equip and connect them with each other to help prepare them to maintain relationships until Confirmation can be celebrated in person.
  • I recommend waiting until in-person gatherings are again allowed to enjoy the Confirmation service. This celebration and welcoming of new church members should absolutely be done in person if possible. If there is a lag time between the completion of Confirmation and when a service can be hosted, consider creating prayer partnerships between the youth and leaders of various groups or committees in your church. Encourage connection within the body,.

Again, times like these require significant creativity. Our ideas and suggestions above are just the starting point for the amazing ministry that you will help to happen over the next several months. Remember, even though the common term is “social distancing” to encourage people to be at least 6 feet apart and in groups no larger than 10, it really is “physical distancing.” You can keep your youth and young adults spiritually engaged and socially connected, even though physical distance separates you for now.

Chris serves as Director of Young People’s Ministries for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Chris has a BA in English Education, and an MS in Project Management, and over 15 years of local-church youth ministry experience. He is passionate about leadership and faith development in young people and helping ministry leaders understand their value in the lives of young people. A Stephen Minister, Chris is a native of Colorado living in Franklin, TN with his wife Emily, 2 children, and sausage-shaped beagle.