This morning I attended the funeral of a former student (who’s younger brother was also in my small group as a middle schooler). Tomorrow, I’ll attend another’s wedding. Both came through my ministry over a decade ago.

As I hugged my grieving former student (whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, he’s 25 now) he mentioned how much it meant to him that I would come. It was a short interaction, maybe 2 minutes and not much time for “pastoring”, but my hope is that the impact of my presence communicated something more…that I care about him as a person and not as a project.

It was then that I was reminded that my ministry to my students begins when they age into our ministry, but it doesn’t end when they age out. I’m not called to a demographic (teenagers), but rather I’m called to people within a demographic.

At some level the teens in your ministry believe that you love them because you have to. Because it’s your job to spend time with them. They think that you only love them because of what you will get out of them (church attendance, volunteer hours, a bigger crowd). When you maintain a lasting presence in their lives (be it ever so small) it says that you loved them because your wanted to.

Even when you leave your church, your state or leave vocational youth ministry altogether the Gospel is calling you to care for people over the long haul. Your students won’t always demand it from you, but they sure will notice it when you do. Every veteran youth worker inherently knows this, and I wish every young youth worker would understand it as well.

So, my encouragement is this. To the best of your abilities, keep in touch with students who graduate from your ministry. Celebrate their weddings, pray for them when they get laid off, mourn with them, even when it’s not in your job description to do so.

That kind of presence is transformational. It communicates something about the heart of God that no sermon or retreat ever can. It says that the God of the universe pursues them with a radical love that defies logic. Presence over the long haul shows that Jesus loves them over the long haul, and every person needs to experience that kind of love.