Parents. They probably aren’t why you got into youth ministry. For some of us, they may often be why we want to get out of youth ministry. For others, they have been some of our greatest source of encouragement and support. For all of us, they are an important aspect of youth ministry that we often struggle to know how to approach. Over my years of youth ministry (I’ve had the privilege of serving at the same church for 18 years) I’ve gone through a lot of phases when it comes to how I view parents:
The “Intimidating People Who Drop Them Off” phase – In my early years, I just wanted to hang out with and invest in students. I was young, and parents were kind of scary. I talked to them if I had to, but I was too busy focusing on my “calling” to have much time for them. And let’s be honest, in our limited time of trying to balance programs, budgets, student crises, newsletters, and janitorial duties (not to mention our personal life, finances and families), it is tough to find space for the parents or our students. Yet, that doesn’t lessen the importance of it.
The “Win Them Over” phase – This is the phase where I realized these people had the keys and cash to get their kids to my stuff. I realized they were the true keepers of the schedule. In this phase, it was all about appeasing to parents. I committed communicate dates, deadlines and dollars well while nailing the logistics and details that would speak value to them. These are all good things… really good things. In fact, if you aren’t doing these things well, you probably aren’t doing your job well. But in this phase, parents were no more than the pawns to help me get to a spot to better minister to their kids.
The “These People are Clueless” phase – I would have conversations with students who could recount all the ways their parents were horrible. I would watch parents blunder through their life and think, “Do they have a clue what they are doing to their kids?” I would see moms and dads who would throw water rather than gasoline on the fire of God in their kids’ lives. I would get frustrated. I would complain to teammates. Every once in a while I would “call out” a parent, and even more rarely I would reach out and seek to care for parents who were trying to navigate the tricky teenage years and try to hear their perspective.
The “Just Wait Until You Have Kids” phase – This was less of a phase for me as it was an underlying battle in my pre-parenting days. Every single or married-with-no-kids youth worker has heard it when talking with a parent about whatever he/she is facing with their teenager, “Just wait to you have kids…” I used to hate this statement. A big part of it was due to infertility battles my wife and I were facing, but another aspect was the level at which I felt undermined on any ability to speak into the life of a parent on how to work with their student. So, as this statement was thrown out, I would go into “fight or flight” mode. Sometimes I would fight back with a statement like, “You’re right, I am not a parent yet, but I was a teenager once, I specialize in working with teenagers and I have done a lot of work with teenagers, and I’ve worked with a lot of other parents who are going through what you are going through… So listen up!” Sometimes I would just mentally throw up my arms and say (to myself), “Fine, you want to call my thoughts into question? Good luck figuring it out on your own!” In either case, the posture I took was an adversarial position with parents, which leads nowhere helpful really quick.
The “Okay, I am Clueless” phase – I was offended when people insinuated that my lack of parenting experience may be skewing my understanding. I was annoyed when I saw how clueless parents were. Then, I became a parent. Man, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing half the time with my 2 daughters and son. A lot of my prayers are, “God, let you grace cover up how much I’m screwing them up.” I’m realizing that I was right on my theory during the “These People are Clueless” phase. They really are clueless, but I was dead wrong in my response to that theory. I am clueless too. As much as I hate to admit it, those people during the “Just wait Until You Have Kids” phase had a point. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some “next-level clueless” parents out there who are messing their kids up in their uber controlling or neglect tendencies. Also, “kids” or “no kids” are not the validating factors for you to minister well to parents. But, there was something in this phase for me that helped put everything in check. I would say it was a big old sloppy serving of empathy. I feel what they are feeling. Parenting is tough. Parenting teens is ridiculously tough. They could use all the help and support they can get. The “Pray, Appreciate, and Empower” Phase (where I’m trying to live now)- In all these phases I’ve walked through, I believe God has been teaching me a different mindset and approach. I still believe the primary role and focus I’ve been called toward is ministering to Middle School through College-Age. I realize, more than ever, one of my best ministries to this age group is through ministering well to their parents.
The unhealthy slant to the other phase was an adversarial “me vs. them” mentality. In this shift I’m continually finding ways we can come alongside parents.
Parents are not the enemy. They are not the obstacle. They are essential partners in the effort of helping students move into deep relationship with God. What phase are you in? Maybe it’s a phase I didn’t even highlight.
Derry Prenkert is a DYM Author and Student Ministries Pastor/Nappanee Missionary Church.