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Smooth Transitions

Dana Wilkerson

When it comes to slipping into a swimming pool, there are two kinds of people. There are the Jumpers and the Inchers. The Jumpers don't care how cold it is. They know they can handle the shock of the chilly water, so they cannonball right in. But the Inchers would rather get used to the cold water one slow inch at a time.

In your ministry there are Jumpers and Inchers. The Jumpers can leap right in and quickly adapt to new experiences and surroundings. However, most of your kids are probably Inchers. The Inchers need time to adapt to big changes and new environments. Keep this in mind when kids reach key transition years in your ministry. It won't hurt Jumpers to inch sometimes, but if you make Inchers jump, there's a good chance they'll never want to get in the pool again.

Transition years are exciting and scary for kids, and they're usually exciting and scary for leaders, too! They don't need to be scary, though, for either you or the kids. Here's how to successfully implement yearlong ministry transition programs -- from people who've been there, done that, and are extremely excited about the results!

Preschool Ministry to Children's Ministry
Implementing a year long transition period for kids moving from preschool to elementary ministry is a relatively new trend. Most churches aren't doing it yet, but there's a lot ommon to hear a children's minister say, "I'm not sure what to do with the kindergartners. They're too advanced for the preschool ministry, but they're not quite ready to be with the older elementary kids." So what do you do with these kids? Take these tips from Robin Dembicki, children's pastor at Dallas Bible Church in Dallas, Texas.

Dembicki successfully implemented a kindergarten transition ministry, and her excitement is evident when she discusses the program. "Kindergarten is a wonderful experience, and we make a celebration of welcoming them into the kids' ministry," she says. While DBC's goals and strategies for this ministry are specific to their programs, there are several key points that are transferable to any church.

Communicate with parents. It's imperative to involve parents in the transition process so they'll understand what their kids will be doing and help ease the kids into their new surroundings and experiences. "Parent communication about the logistics is key to the success [of your transition]," says Dembicki. Let them know in writing what your plans are, what to expect, where and when their kids will meet, who their leaders will be, and so forth.

Challenge kids to grow. While most kindergartners won't start the year able to read and write, they still need to be challenged to move to a new level of learning methods. This can be achieved by occasionally combining them with first-graders for games and activities so they have role models for these new skills. In addition, choose and train your leaders carefully so they can accommodate the differences among kids. Adapt your curriculum to fit readers and nonreaders, writers and non-writers. "Teachers have to be sensitive to where the kids are developmentally and skill-wise and use activities that will encourage their spirit-ual, relational, and emotional growth," says Dembicki.

Customize group environments. In situations where kindergartners are integrated with several older grades in a large group setting, such as in children's church, make every effort to make them feel special rather than intimidated. Designate a special place for kindergartners where they can clearly see and hear what's happening. Invite parents to join kids for a few weeks while they get acclimated to the new environment. Also encourage, allow time for, and train kindergarten small group leaders to "reteach" any potentially confusing lesson elements in an age-appropriate way. This helps younger children to not feel overwhelmed by new teaching methods, new words, and new people.

Children's Ministry to Student Ministry

Another group of kids that can often feel overwhelmed or disengaged are those entering youth ministry. Jason Curry, pastor to students at The Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock, Arkansas, asked his high school seniors what they remembered about sixth grade.

"Half of them couldn't remember anything, and the other half had horrible memories of an awkward stage in life," he says. His church is working to change that with their Trek6 ministry. "We set out to create something that would leave lasting memories and in turn lead to lasting relationships," explains Curry.

The Trek6 "creation" seems to be working extremely well, as Rock Creek's sixth-grade attendance has almost tripled in just two years. "When most youth ministries are playing catch-up to get sixth-graders involved," says Curry, "our kids are overwhelmed with excitement as they enter the youth ministry. It's been one of the best things we've ever done!"

Consider using some of the successful ministry ideas from Trek6 in your ministry.

  • Create a fun environment. Sixth-graders no longer consider themselves children, yet they're not quite teenagers. They're different, and they expect and need something different. Curry suggests throwing out the "Sunday morning rulebook" and making a wildly fun experience for the kids. "On any given Sunday, you might have a mud fight or play dodge ball," says Curry. "However, at the end of the fun, you apply a completely foolish game to a life-changing lesson," he explains. As the year progresses, the sixth-grade environment changes so it looks and feels just like the youth ministry.
  • Connect with older students. Perhaps the most important aspect of Trek6 is the relational one. This is how kids learn that the youth ministry leaders are with them for the long haul. They get to connect with people involved in youth ministry, such as high school students and interns who teach at Trek6 on a regular basis. So when kids enter youth ministry, they've already built relationships with several different students and leaders and feel like they're part of the group.
  • Coordinate ministries to serve kids. Did you notice that the minister leading Trek6 is the youth minister, not the children's minister? Whether your transition year ministry is part of the children's ministry or the youth ministry isn't important. What is important is that the children's and youth ministers work together. After all, since the children's minister knows where they're coming from and the youth minister knows where they're going to, together they can create the best experience for kids in transition.
  • Someone who knows where sixth-graders are coming from is Dembicki. DBC also has a special transition ministry for sixth-graders. Dembicki, like Curry, has seen great results from this ministry. Check out what's going on in the sixth-grade transition ministry at DBC.
    Challenge them spiritually. At this age, kids are beginning to be challenged by their peers about what they believe and why. Therefore, it's up to you to challenge kids to know what they believe and to live what they believe. Dembicki believes sixth-graders should be grounded in the basics of Christian faith and that they should discuss issues unique to their age from a biblical perspective. These studies should take place using a method that's consistent with what kids will encounter in youth ministry.
  • Connect with others. The sixth-graders at DBC learn to connect to a vast array of people. They learn to reach out to new kids, which can be difficult at this age. They enjoy special events such as pizza parties and camping trips with other kids in the ministry. The sixth-graders are invited to join in the Sunday evening student worship time so they can meet older kids and acclimate to the youth environment. And they connect with younger kids by serving and leading in the preschool and children's ministries alongside an adult leader. As kids learn to reach out and build relationships with people of other ages, it gives them the tools they need to forge relationships with the new people they'll encounter in youth ministry. In addition, making strong connections with other sixth-graders gives them the feelings of acceptance and belonging they need as they enter youth ministry.

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