Five ways to engage families as partners in ministry

“We’re partnering with families.” 

Often in ministry circles, conferences, and resources, we throw around this phrase. It seems to sound important—like the right thing to say. We name it a core value of our ministry.

But what do we really mean? 

In our experience at the Fuller Youth Institute, leaders attach vastly different meanings to that phrase. And as a church youth ministry leader, I find myself at odds with partnership in practice (and I’m also one of the parents in our youth ministry!). In truth, it’s often more convenient, more efficient, and creates less conflict when we dream, plan, and lead ministry without much consideration for parents’ voices and participation. Partnering becomes just a platitude.

This is a tragedy. 

The Search Institute, a consistently trusted voice in the world of research on children, adolescents, and families over the past several decades, recently released an 80-page report urging anyone who works with young people to reconsider the importance of partnering with families. Too often we see the kid as isolated from their family system, and we focus on what we can do to engage and impact the individual teenager. The reality is that families still wield incredible influence over young people all through adolescence—in nearly every realm of their lives.

Search’s expansive report, titled Don’t Forget the Families,* laments that a majority of leaders and organizations (schools, community programs, and churches) have mostly given up on engaging parents and households. It’s too hard. Families are too disengaged. The problems and failures of families can’t be overcome. When we do engage parents, it’s often around pragmatics: we ask them to volunteer, bring food, or serve on a committee. All of this ignores “the one thing about which parents care deeply and that can powerfully benefit their children’s development: relationships in the home.” By ignoring and sidelining families, we do teenagers themselves a great disservice. 

Research shows that strengthening family relationships strengthens young people. Period. (Tweet that)

Virtually every outcome we hope for with teenagers—from academic achievement to spiritual engagement—is impacted by family relationships. So if we want to strategize how we can most impact the kids we care so much about, perhaps we should revisit our strategy toward parents. The start of a new ministry season presents the perfect opportunity. 

Here are five principles drawn from Search’s most recent work that we can take to heart in youth ministry this year:

1. Instead of talking at families, first listen to families

Most of us set ministry goals for the year, perhaps with a team, and then we communicate them to families and try to get their buy-in. In reality, this goes against both our stated values and good research. 

I am the chief of sinners here. I have an agenda of things I want parents to know, and often urgently need them to know, so I focus any and all communication energy on making sure they get the message I want them to hear. My emails are litanies of updates and requests. My conversations, calls, and texts focus on my agenda. And let’s be honest, that kind of communication is important. It has its place.

The problem emerges when it’s the first, or only, mode of communication with parents. If it is, we may create a disconnect between our priorities and goals and those of families in our ministry. The best research on design thinking and constituent engagement urge us to start with empathy for people’s real lives and experiences. Empathy requires time, listening, and genuine interest in what parents are thinking, feeling, and going through in their families and in their experience of our ministry.

So I wonder if we could consider this year:
  • How often will we reach out to parents to ask them questions rather than solely to give them information or make requests? 
  • How often will we schedule a 1-1 meeting with a parent to listen to their concerns, questions, and their family’s needs? 
  • How will we train and remind other leaders in our ministry to listen to families?
  • How often will we ask parents, “How can I pray for you?” 

2. Instead of just providing programs for families, build relationships with families 

We frequently throw around the ministry maxim, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” 

When’s the last time you heard this applied to parents? Turns out the same principle may hold true. 

Sometimes we are tempted to see ourselves as the source of wisdom and training for parents. We wonder if the solution to family engagement is to start a parents’ small group, or host a seminar, or develop a training series. These solutions may help. But the research points to the power of relationships for true parent engagement. If our programs aren’t centered in relationship building and trust, they aren’t likely to be nearly as effective as we hope. 

Recently in my church we were struggling with a next step in one area of our ministry to high school students. Rather than our ministry team resolving this question on our own, we decided to get together with the relevant parents and students to talk through possible solutions. What this ended up looking like was a backyard barbecue potluck—complete with citronella candles to ward off the mosquitoes—and a lot of laughter, stories, and eventually, ideas about what our next programmatic move might look like. Reflecting back on this evening, I am convinced that the relational investment in the families (with high school students at the table alongside parents) did much more to further the conversation than our team’s strategic planning on behalf of those students and families. 

Let’s consider in our ministries:
  • Do parents feel welcome when they see us or enter our ministry space? What could make them feel more welcome?
  • How do our existing program offerings connect parents with leaders?
  • How do parents in our ministry know that we care about them? How do they experience trust with us (both directions)? 
  • What is one concrete step I can take to support stronger relationships with parents in our ministry? 
  • About one quarter of parents in the study report feeling isolated from other adults, and one third feel overwhelmed. What can we do to connect parents to one another for friendship and support? 

3. Instead of buying into negative stereotypes, highlight family strengths 

Stop assuming, stop blaming. 

Many of our societal myths about families simply don’t hold. As the Search report asserts, “We equate family composition (who is in the family) with family strengths or deficits—even though this study and others have shown both strengths and challenges across all types of families.” Family demographics—including race or ethnicity, household income, immigration status, sexual orientation, or community size—accounted for very little of the differences in developmental relationships in this particular study. So while single parents, for example, certainly could use all the support they can get, let’s stop assuming that a teenager from a single-parent home is less relationally connected or less likely to thrive.

On other fronts, we label parents as “disengaged” or “hard to reach” when they don’t jump on our bandwagon or show up for our parent training. Is it possible we are missing the value they have to contribute in the home through their relationship with their kids, even if they aren’t engaged with our ministry agenda?  

We also tend to assume that families with little material assets are weak in other assets as well, rather than seeing strengths their families possess. The main differences in the study were found among families who have trouble making ends meet. In these families experiencing financial strain, stronger relationships in the home are linked to kids who are doing well. So again, one of our best strategies for working with kids whose families are struggling financially is to help support their relationships. Rather than treating them as passive recipients of our ministry’s services, let’s assume they may be able to become active partners in ministry. And even if they don’t, let’s start by giving parents the benefit of the doubt that they care about their kids even more than we do, and they want to build strong relationships in the family.

  • How might we listen to the families who seem most different from us or from others in the ministry?
  • What could we learn from reaching out personally to connect with families who are most disengaged? 
  • How can we shift our expectations for parents who may not be interested in or able to partner in the ways we have in mind, and instead support them in their relationships with their kids?
  • How do we provide support and advocacy when parents need it?

4. Instead of giving families expert advice about what to do, encourage families to experiment with new practices 

Search Institute’s Don’t Forget the Families report draws deeply from their research that led to the Developmental Relationships framework (which is worthy of its own post). This framework asserts that truly transformative relationships involve five essential actions that together contribute to the holistic development of the young person.  

While the majority of families studied (about seven out of ten) do well in three of these essential actions—expressing care, challenging growth, and providing support to young people—they are weaker in two other key areas of developmental relationships: sharing power and expanding possibility. That’s too bad, because sharing power is one of the actions most consistently and strongly associated with positive development. 

Sharing power involves respecting the young person and responding to their unique needs and interests. It also means negotiating decisions in a way that involves the young person’s voice and collaborating on shared goals and problem-solving. It’s closely related to the core commitment of churches we identified in Growing Young as “Keychain Leadership.” And it turns out it’s as viable in the home as in the church for keeping a teenager engaged in the family, while also contributing to their own growth. 

Search encourages leaders to help families boost these practices in order to help boost their relationships. In other words, they don’t need us to be the experts, they need us to give them encouragement, ideas, and contexts for trying new things. 

In addition to sharing power, another practice we are well-positioned to help parents with is connecting their kids to other meaningful adults. While this was the least-practiced action in the study, research across disciplines (including our own Sticky Faith research) affirms the critical importance of 3-5 non-parental adults in a young person’s web of support to contribute to their overall thriving. 

  • How could we help parents connect their kids to adults who share an interest, can teach them about new ideas or cultures, or expose them to different future vocational paths? 
  • How might we provide opportunities for families to try new things together—serving, participating in mission, or just doing something fun together with other families? 
  • What resources can we provide for families to utilize in the home in their own relationship-nurturing efforts? (Try ParentFurther.com as one source of ideas. The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family also offers a host of practices to try.)

5. Instead of focusing on parenting as a set of techniques, emphasize parenting as a relationship 

The great news for parents is that no one has the secret for perfect parenting. 

There is no single ideal parent technique or activity that helps develop stronger relationships. The authors of the Search Institute report reassert, “We join with other researchers who have argued that, at its core, parenting is a relationship rooted in mutual affection, attachment, and influence that occur between parenting adult and child.” 

I’d say it this way: Parenting is a reciprocal relationship through which all of us are changed. This is a mystery. Let’s get together, wonder about it, and cheer each other on. 

At the end of the day, some of our greatest success in ministry may come not from giving families the perfect techniques for dealing with problems, challenges, or discipline, but from freeing them to fight for what matters most: the relationship. 

How can we do that? The study highlights the unsurprising ways families spend time together: playing together, getting outside, volunteering, and creating together were among the most common practices mentioned by families in the study, with “unplugging from technology and distractions” layered in. Perhaps the great news is that most parents have all the resources they need for forming and keeping close ties with their kids through adolescence. They just need support, encouragement, and sometimes new ideas for reigniting family warmth

Partnering with parents doesn’t have to be a frustration, a distant hope, or a shameful ministry secret we bear. Listening, building trusting relationships, believing the best, giving families shared experiences, and supporting relationships in the home can reboot our family ministry toward healthier partnership—without the platitudes.  

 


 

* Research quoted from Kent Pekel, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Amy K. Syvertsen, and Peter C. Scales, Don’t Forget the Families: The Missing Piece in America’s Effort to Help All Children Succeed (Minneapolis: Search Institute, 2015). See http://www.search-institute.org/blog/6-shifts-for-better-family-engagement