As part of traditional American commencement celebrations, many high schools and universities hold a baccalaureate ceremony. Dating back to the 1400s, these religious services honor the graduating class and are still important to graduates today.
The first baccalaureate service is believed to have been at Oxford University in England in 1432, when students were asked to deliver religious sermons in Latin as part of graduation exercises. American universities and high schools have since adopted the tradition, inviting key students or faculty, influential community figures, religious leaders or alumni to deliver inspirational speeches to graduates as they embark on the next step in their life’s journey.
“The purpose of the service is to incorporate a spiritual aspect into the graduation activities,” explained Kayla Boyer, upper school counselor at Glenwood School in Smiths Station, Alabama. “Since we are a Christian school, it is just another way to incorporate faith as well as the students’ families into the celebration. The message from the pastor is usually something inspirational about looking ahead to the future or keeping God at the center of all things.”
At Glenwood’s baccalaureate service, senior class officers pray, lead the Pledge of Allegiance and introduce special guests. Boyer noted that, when possible, the school invites a speaker from among local pastors who are closely related to the graduating class. Parents are invited up front and presented with a handwritten card from their graduate.
Today, most baccalaureate services are planned by parents of graduating seniors and are optional activities for graduates. But baccalaureate services are as much a tradition in most schools as graduation exercises, noted Michael McLendon, executive director of the Alabama Independent School Association.
“They vary in how they are conducted, and tradition plays a role,” he said.
Faith Academy in Mobile holds its annual baccalaureate service on the Sunday before graduation. According to principal Barry Pickering, the service includes praise songs, a message for graduates from a local pastor and a rose ceremony in which graduates honor their parents.
“This is the one end-of-the-year event that is designed to be for graduates and their families only,” he said. “It is usually the most special time for our families.”
Faith Academy shares a campus with its parent church, Life Church, and holds services on-site. But according to McLendon, many schools don’t have the indoor space to host large gatherings and schools often work with a local church partner to host baccalaureate services and graduation ceremonies.
Glenwood has partnered with Golden Acres Baptist Church in Phenix City more than 14 years, holding baccalaureate services in the sanctuary, followed by a reception in the church gym.
Gina Harper, Golden Acres minister of administration, finance and connect groups, worked with students at the church when the partnership began with Glenwood and also Central High School. The partnership provided opportunities for her to minister to students and families at both schools.
“I believe any way you are able to sponsor or work closely with schools in the community allows families to have a bird’s-eye view of who your church really is up close,” Harper said. “Every opportunity we get to show people Jesus, who we are and Who we serve is an opportunity to draw people to Christ!”
Highland Home School invites local pastors to deliver words of encouragement at an optional baccalaureate service on its campus. Many pastors present the gospel message, along with a challenge for students as they prepare to face life’s challenges.
“[It provides] that extra encouragement to get out there and make [good] choices and do the right thing,” said Kate Foreman, upper school counselor. “I think that’s just a great precursor to graduation, so that they really realize it’s going to happen in a couple of weeks. They’re about to go into the world, and it’s time to start making grown-up, good decisions that [they’re] going to be accountable for.”
Many universities hold baccalaureate services, while others have combined some aspects into graduation ceremonies.
Samford University in Birmingham ended its traditional separate baccalaureate more than 10 years ago, incorporating some elements into commencement. Holly Gainer, Samford’s director of university communications, said the university also began a graduate prayer breakfast at that time.