Getting parents on board (Hint: they already are)

Reimagining the parent-youth worker relationship as a way forward

Steve Argue, PhD Image Steve Argue, PhD | May 13, 2013

If you’re a youth worker, you’ve probably heard the news by now: parents trump you.

A growing body of research suggests that in general, parents are the primary spiritual influences in their kids’ lives.

While informative, this research is also challenging as it calls youth workers to think innovatively and systemically about their ministry approaches. So when you as a youth worker see a way forward through a plan, a solid direction, or a compelling vision that answers research’s challenges, you can’t help but get excited. You share your plans with your ministry colleagues and fellow leaders, and you feel ready to declare your ideas to the families in your ministry.

The Disappointing First Steps

You envision the parents of your students cheering at the new ideas, thanking you for being such a thoughtful leader, praising you for saving their children, their families, and probably their very lives.

And then you have that first conversation, that first meeting, that first program change. And nothing happens.

Blank stares.

A poorly attended “vision” meeting.

Sparse response to that email manifesto.

More questions about camp dates than your year-long formational teaching plan.

Given your disappointment, you’re left scratching your head and wondering: How do we get parents on board?

The Wrong Question

Let me start by saying that this can be an honest and fair question that often comes from a deep desire of youth workers wanting to support young people the best they can. It comes out of admitting that youth workers can’t do it alone, and that in itself is the sign of a more mature way of looking at youth ministry.

However, it’s the wrong question for at least three reasons.

Our view of the relationship is problematic. It’s the wrong question because it is laced with assumptions. We should always use caution about “getting” parents or anyone to “do” anything as it creates an odd relationship between parent and youth worker. It often is a symptom of a deeper, systemic problem where youth workers assume that they must “get” students, volunteers, and parents to do what the leaders ask. Youth ministry cannot be a machine where we “get” working parts in order. It is a dynamic organism that is held together through relationships grounded in love more than processes.

If you are trying to “get” someone to do something, step back and ask yourself questions about how you view others and how you view your relationship with them. If the connection you have with others is based only on a program, vision, or initiative, it is not a relationship. It’s something else. Don’t go any further until you reflect on this.

Our response to little buy-in defaults to judgment. Just because parents aren’t buying into your vision (no matter how brilliant) doesn’t mean they haven’t bought into loving their kids, seeking God, or wanting their family to follow Jesus. There’s an unhealthy subtext I often hear among youth workers that assumes parents don’t care, have been hypnotized by secularism, or are more interested in their careers than their kids. The Scriptures call this “judging.” Judging occurs when we critique the heart or the motives of another person. It’s one thing to call out a person on their behaviors. It’s quite another thing to accuse others for doing things because they are ignorant, evil, or self-centered. It’s remarkable how quick we are to question the motives of others, but are deeply hurt when others question our own motives. What if we were to start with the assumption that all of us want the best for each other? Likely we’d have a better chance of starting as friends than opponents.

Our assumptions start with parents not caring. The solution to “getting parents on board” is skewed if we think that parents don’t care. Parents care more than many youth workers think they do. Let’s therefore start with a basic assumption: parents typically love their kids. Let’s take it further: parents love their kids more than youth leaders love their kids. If this is the case, parents are already on board and this should be the starting place for youth workers. If we start here, the relationship between leader and parent can be transformed.

An (in process) Alternative

At our church, Mars Hill, we’ve been giving family formation more intentional thought. I’d like to say that that our musings have come from some deep, theoretical place. While that is partly the case, the bigger reality is that in our context, we started out as a church plant where cool 20-somethings showed up. And guess what? They found each other, had babies, and are filling up our spaces for kids and students. We have young parents asking questions about what it looks like to raise their children in the Christian faith. Some questions are thoughtful, others come out of desperation, and still others stress that they want a different faith experience for their children than they had growing up. It’s beautiful, vague, inspiring, and challenging.

As we have interacted with our parents, I’ve come to view parents’ questions in three basic categories. These categories are by no means an attempt to reduce or simplify the unique and complex needs of each of our families. But as a faith community, we have to start somewhere. What I do love about these three questions is that they are our parents’ questions, not ours. We are not asking the questions we expect parents to answer. We are listening to parents’ questions, letting them inform the way we answer them, together.

Let me stop here and admit that “listening to parents” isn’t a radically new insight. Many youth workers attempt to do this regularly. What I’m suggesting is that we’re learning that, at times, we can listen for the wrong things by asking the wrong questions, built upon the wrong assumptions. For us, this is leading us to listen more closely, recognizing that “getting everyone on board” starts with seeking to truly understand what our parents are asking for. We’re hearing three things:

1. Help me get information and have access to resources when I need them.

Maybe it’s just us, but the parent classes and seminars we offer are rarely busting at the seams. We could assume that parents “don’t care” or aren’t “on board.” But likely, the reasons are more diverse. Some parents are too overwhelmed or too ashamed. For others, the thought of a seminar answering the complex issues parents are trying to navigate seems trite. Sometimes (let’s be honest) our meetings aren’t worth parents’ investment.

What we are discovering is that some of our best resources for parents occur when we catch parents in in-between/transitional times and when we offer resources parents can access when they need them most (which almost never fits neatly into our ministry calendar).

We’re seeking ways to meet this need by:

  • Developing regular, informative emails to parents (updates, articles, resources);

  • Creating resources that parents can access online (books, articles, trainings);

  • Offering timely trainings during Sunday mornings and nights when their children are in kids or students programming.

2. Help me serve/participate with my child in something that helps us live the gospel together.

Some parents have expressed a desire to do formational activities with their kids and students. A shared experience with a spiritual formation focus creates opportunities for parents to approach an otherwise abstract and anxious topic like spirituality with (literally) hands-on experiences. It creates a shared experience that cultivates the potential for a common spiritual language between parent and child.

We’re seeking to create these shared spaces by:

  • Leveraging current and exploring new shared experiences/events from our kids and student ministries;

  • Exploring service opportunities that create shared, longer-duration experiences that both parents and their children can refer back to as significant moments.

  • Preparing both parents and children to see the Sunday morning worship experience as shared space where we all learn from (and need) each other.

3. Help me be a better parent through relational networks.

Many parents have expressed the loneliness and busyness that comes with parenting, and the need for encouragement that comes with being with other parents “in the same boat.” While we often pride ourselves in giving parents information, what they really need is a friend who shares their life stage. While we can’t (nor do we want to) “assign” friendships, we can create spaces where these relationships emerge.

We’re exploring ways to meet this need by:

  • Hosting an annual conference on marriage and/or family for our community to attend and find connection;

  • Offering short-term, small group opportunities that allow parents in similar stages to have a shared and mutually-supportive experience.

Let me be clear that these ideas are “in process” for us, and I think they always will be. Given the dynamic changes associated with people and relationships in society, the questions, and the way we seek to answer them, must remain flexible. We can remain responsive by creating formal and informal feedback loops with parents and adults in our faith community who can offer their impressions and counsel as we seek to respond to and with parents.

I’ll be honest. Entertaining these questions is challenging. It threatens to shift our priorities, muddle our schedules, and expose us to more work (and more critique). But maybe this is the crux of the issue. If faith communities want young people’s faith to stick and are committed to supporting the faith formation of the whole community, the energy for family formation must start where much of the energy already is: in the hearts and minds of your parents who are crazy about their kids.

Maybe we youth workers are the ones who need to get “on board.”

Action Points

  1. Take a minute and reflect on your own impressions of your parents. What assumptions have you made about some (or maybe all!) of them that may need to be reframed for you to listen better to them?

  2. How might you begin to listen to parents to find out the questions they’re asking? Sometimes this is done formally. Other times it’s strategically placing yourself in non-formal spaces with parents. Find an intentional way to listen this week.

  3. As you listen, what themes keep surfacing? Resist trying to fit them into your vision or categories. Start by trying to articulate what they are really saying.

  4. What are some first steps you can take to answer (ideally with parents) the questions they are asking or needs they have?

  5. Catch a parent doing something right. Look for the small things. Cheer them on!

Steve Argue, PhD Image
Steve Argue, PhD

Steven Argue, PhD (Michigan State University) is the Applied Research Strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Steve researches, speaks, and writes on adolescent and emerging adult spirituality. He has served as a pastor on the Lead Team at Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids, MI), coaches and trains church leaders and volunteers, and has been invested in youth ministry conversation for over 20 years. Steve is the coauthor and contributor of a number of books, including Growing With, 18 Plus: Parenting Your Emerging Adult, and Joy: A Guide for Youth Ministry.

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