Photo by archidave.
Our team had run out of ideas.
We were trying to pioneer a new way of youth ministry. We were no longer content with only ministering to teenagers and leaders. We knew that if we could connect more deeply with parents, the likelihood of their children sticking with faith would increase.
So we joined the scores of other churches trying to grow in our “parent ministry.” After a few first attempts, we noticed that the same families attended every event we hosted. We were unable to reach new families, or convince disengaged parents that this mattered. It was frustrating.
Putting our heads together, we agreed we needed to stop trying the same ineffective strategies. As we assessed our approach to parents, we gained a few insights about our ministry. While we did well in our communication via email, we rarely initiated a personal conversation with parents. We always claimed to be “available,” but that claim seemed hollow. It felt like it was time to make ourselves available in a more proactive way.
Thinking outside of our past youth ministry categories, we began to look at local schools and wonder, “How do schools get such high levels of parent engagement, while we struggle to get parents connected in a meaningful way to the youth ministry and our leaders?”
Taking one cue from schools, we started offering annual parent/leader conferences. We were a little nervous about whether parents would respond, but were surprised when so many parents signed up to come the first year. What’s more, we’ve been surprised by how this response has grown each year we have offered these times. It’s becoming one of the major hallmarks of our student ministry.
Here are five components we have found to be helpful in one-on-one meetings with parents:
Eliminate distractions and mixed messages. We know that if we simply add these conferences alongside everything else we normally do, they won’t seem like a priority and will get lost in the shuffle. We decided that for the two weeks we offer the conferences we “shut down” as many of our normal programs as possible. During the parent conference time, we only continue with our Sunday morning program while pausing our mid-week program. This allows for the priority and emphasis to be clear to families. It says, “THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT.” This approach also frees our leaders to give their focus to parents more intentionally during this window.
Be available to meet a variety of families and schedules. Although some parents can meet during the weekdays, we know that many parents are only available on the weeknights and weekends. This means that our staff members who lead the conferences work a lot during this 2-week season, but we think this time investment pays dividends down the road. We also found that giving a clear time expectation was helpful to parents. We decided that 30 minutes was the right amount of time for us. There was something about that timeframe that was inviting and not intimidating to parents. We allow parents to either sign up online through a meeting scheduling website or by calling to set up a time.
Stick to the promised time. There will be plenty of parents who will want to spend the entire day with you, but we found that the majority of parents will want to stick to what was advertised and committed. We are always ready to suggest that the parent set up an additional meeting if they have other things they want to discuss. Sometimes we need to remind them that this is about their child and not an open forum on their likes and dislikes of the youth ministry. By sticking to the shorter meeting, we are able to “own” the time and show our professionalism by sticking to the objectives that had been promised.
The content of the meeting must be both general and personal. We begin by talking for the first half of the conference. We share with them our ministry philosophy, and walk them through our programs and events. We share with them the values that drive our calendar. We often say things like, “If you can only do 1 or 2 things within our ministry, then do…” We are trying to help parents gain an overall understanding of why we exist and what an ideal partnership looks like, but also give them a vision that is less overwhelming for un-churched families or those whose lives are overscheduled. That leaves the second half of the meeting for a discussion about that particular family. We invite parents to share with us anything we need to know about their family, the student, or experiences that might help us minister to them and meet their needs. These times have proven to be very powerful, as families seem free to share with us things they have not shared before. We have been able to reassure them, grieve with them, celebrate with them, and always pray with them. So often we have found that parents feel so alone in parenting. We are able to help them feel more normal and to share that most families and students deal with the same things they are. This is the most tender time of the conference, in which a bond is often created between the youth pastor and the parent.
Be redundant. Think ahead of time with your team about the main message you want to communicate to parents. For us, it is that we are here for the parent, desire to partner with them, and commit to walk with them during the student years. If they hear nothing else but this message, we count the meeting a win. We open with it, transition with it, and end with it.
One issue that often arises when we share about these conferences is student confidentiality. How do we balance both respecting the student and sharing important insights with parents? If you know something specific that is a struggle area for a student, that information needs to be handled sensitively in the context of the meeting. A good general rule is: don’t share something a student has shared confidentially with you unless the student or others are at risk of harm.
Currently only paid staff members have been able to lead these parent conferences, mainly because of schedule constraints. We do everything we can to make the time work for parents’ schedules. Though the conference will take place between the parent and a paid staff member, often we will consult with a volunteer who is particularly close to the student prior to the meeting (e.g., their small group leader).
These are just a few of the ways in which we have used this parent conference strategy in our ministry. While it is still a work in progress, it has quickly become a significant part of our ministry to students and families.
In fact, it’s hard to remember how we connected with parents before this.
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