Recently I asked a group of almost 300 youth workers from across the country who primarily work with students ages 12-18 this question:
“What is your biggest challenge in partnering with parents?”
This was a cross section of those who are paid and unpaid from a variety of denominations with multiple approaches to ministry.
They told me parents are:
- Drop their kids and run off
- Over extended and elsewhere
- Not willing to see youth ministry as the important program it is. They see it as just “another” thing for their kids to do.
- Unchurched/Outside of church
- Judging me because I don’t have kids.
It was interesting to read the responses that came in and then watch as youth pastors everywhere started to commiserate on their parent dilemmas.
Recently I was asked, “What is the biggest way your own perspective has changed since you are raising three teens?” After thinking about it for a moment I realized that in coming to be a peer with many parents of teens I hear the other side of the home story much more often. Students who come to youth group telling us how much their parents don’t understand them or that they are embarrassing now came into a new light. I have gotten to know the parents who aren’t believers but really love their child a lot and want what’s best for them. The parents of that boy who is rebellious turns out was adopted at an older age and is angry at his biological parents that they wouldn’t fight harder for him. His adoptive parents are jumping through hoops to love on their son, but his hurts run deep. The parents of the girl who claims to be an atheist just wants their daughter to understand the extravagant love of Jesus.
Holding these conversations against the backdrop of the challenges youth workers face with parents my first thought wonders, “Is the issue with the parent or our attitude toward the parent?” I think this hit home even harder when I was talking the other day to a parent of a strong athlete. She said to me, “I know it seems like I should come and see her play more often. I want to come to every game and every meet, but she says I embarrass her when I cheer for her. She tells me not to come.” I told her, “Go. She may be telling you now she doesn’t want you, but I can guarantee it matters a lot that you are on those sidelines cheering her on.” (As a reference btw, this mom is very respectful in the way she cheers her daughter I have seen it. She isn’t inappropriate or obnoxious.) You see it’s an intricate game when a teen tells her mom not to show up, and said mom thinks she is showing her child respect and love by NOT attending.
Each conversation I have shared is a parent I would have judged in the past. There is the parent who seems to be a ghost, the one who drops and runs, the one who can’t control their kid, and the one who obviously didn’t give enough in discipleship. It smarts to think about but there is a time when I would have thoughts parents got in the way of getting ministry accomplished. Maybe not all the parents, but certainly some of them.
So is there anything we can DO to reconcile the reality that partnering with parents (especially of teens) is a challenge and the reality that many are trying more than we may know? YES!
I offer three basic solutions:
- Be Proactive
We hear it all the time but there is study after study that proves it. Parents are still the biggest influence in their kids. No matter how much time they spend with you except for in extreme situations they always go home. Parents need us to go to them. They need us to hear their side of the story. They need us to honor them, and show them respect. They need us to try, and then try again, extending grace upon grace in offering help, hope and joy to their family. Even those parents who seem to have it all together need you to walk with them. Some need to know someone else sees that spark in their kids they know is there. Others need to be reminded their kids are going to make it through these tumultuous years.
- Be Creative
We host a parent meeting and two parents show up. We call it a failure and never try again. First of all, those two parents needed what you had to offer, don’t underestimate that. Second, what will you do different next time. How can you creatively reach out to parents? Can it be beyond a meeting or newsletter? What if you tried a survey that asked what THEY need? Try, try again, try something once, and don’t be afraid to fail. Try something new next time. Invent something. Do whatever it takes to show the parent that you believe that a changed and supported parent brings transformation to the family.
- Be Inclusive
I recognize you are one person and can’t do it all. We have to train up our team, even the volunteers to help us reach out to parents. We may believe in family-focused ministry, but it may continue to be a challenge for the church body as a whole to buy in. You do not have to be the only one who partners with parents, this can be something your team (even if you only have one volunteer) can help with.
We can treat parents as something to pass, but I have found personally all that does is complicate ministry. Never be afraid to hear their stories, offer grace, and just simply reach out.
Leneita Fix is the missions/training coordinator for BowDown Church and Urban Youth Impact in West Palm Beach, Florida. She is the author of Beautiful Chaos, No Teenager Left Behind and Everybody’s Urban. One of her greatest joys is serving in ministry as a family with her husband, John, and their four amazing children.