Serve the Parents
Building on research showing the importance of partnering with parents in ministry, some of which was discussed in Part 1 of this series, we now turn to a practical way to apply that research in your ministry with parents.
In my over 25 years as a youth pastor, it took me far too long to realize one important truth: My ministry is as much to parents of teens as it is to students.
For years, I hid behind many excuses:
- Lack of resources: until recently there were few books written for youth pastors about how to work with parents, and little training in seminaries.
- Lack of experience: like many youth workers, I started working with youth at age 21 – far too young to relate successfully to parents of teens. Some bad habits were set in motion then, and took decades to repair.
- Lack of time: I couldn’t even reach all the students and leaders effectively – how could I possibly add parents to the mix?
Armed with plenty of alibis (with a good dose of insecurity thrown in), I plowed forward for years, unknowingly neglecting a crucial leg in my already precarious stool. Like many youth workers, I believed that “This is the best I can do!” was enough. As Mark DeVries writes in Sustainable Youth Ministry, “Most churches have chosen to do youth ministry with a model best described as gambling.” [[Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008), p. 10.]] What I did not know at the time was that the parents were having an even harder time than I was, and they desperately needed support. John White puts it well in his classic book Parents in Pain:
When I ask, “How can I become a good parent?” I am asking several other questions such as, “How can I cope with the pains of parenting? What can I do with my personal weaknesses, my impatience, my selfishness, my immaturity, my resentment, my weariness, and my doubts? How do I cope with conflict with my spouse?... My problem is less one of ignorance than one of incompetence. [[John White, Parents in Pain (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1979), p. 23.]]
As I shared in my first article, as youth workers we must pray for hearts full of compassion for the parents of our teenagers. Many of them are truly struggling, and we must seek for ways to care for them. But where can we begin? I have recently developed one approach that I wish I had used years earlier: organize consistent parenting seminars. These can become invaluable instruments in your toolbox.
Plan a parenting seminar series? I can barely plan youth group for next week!
What follows are the basic steps I used. Located in a small coastal town in Southern California, it’s my hunch that our community might have some different parenting needs than, say, an urban environment in the South or a sprawling suburb in the Midwest. Regardless, I think you will find that you can use many if not most of these steps to guide your own process.
Listen: Figure out what your unique community needs
As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until this year that I finally figured out that I simply needed to provide a safe place for parents to feel supported. How did I figure this out? I think I truly learned to listen. When parents would grab me for a quick question, or ask me to lunch, I didn’t just answer their questions and try to sound like an expert. Instead, I tried to hear the “question behind the question.” If they asked me, “How do you think the youth group is doing?” I tried not to become defensive. Rather than hear their question as a test or criticism, I recognized that perhaps they were trying to figure out if their own son or daughter fit within the general trends of the rest of the group.
Once you start really listening, you may sense that parents need help with their children’s friends, how to mentor their kids spiritually, or how to deal with violence on campus. This approach will cultivate profound results down the line. As one youth pastor wrote to parents in an online article: “We realize that students spend way more time with you than they do at the church. Because of that, we want to be in a position where we can help equip and train you to be the most effective parent and disciple-maker you can be.” [[Travis Jenkins, A Parents’ Guide to Youth Ministry, 1/23/09.]] What parent wouldn’t want to hear that from their youth pastor?
Formulate your goals: What do you want to accomplish with the series?
Once I did some listening, I established some simple goals. I asked myself, “Who do I want to reach with these seminars?” Your answer to that question determines the overarching aim of your seminar.
Since my goal was to reach parents across denominational lines and create networks of support, my primary goal in planning parenting seminars was to pick rather general topics. For example, this year I offered a seminar titled “Help, I’m the Parent of a Teenager: Developmental Stages of Adolescence.” It allowed for a generous amount of Q&A about nearly every topic under the sun. Parents simply needed a platform to talk about the challenges and questions of parenting teens. This environment allowed them to quietly discover that they were not the only ones struggling with the issues they faced.
For your ministry context, you may detect that you have a number of parents who came to faith later in life and need assistance in learning how to shape the spiritual lives of their own children. Or you may be dealing with a rash of students caught up in online pornography – which means you want to equip parents in engaging more in terms of understanding technology in the home. Or you may have a large number of single parents who need support and resources. Shape your direction based on the audience you want to target and what you’ve learned through listening to that audience.
Location, Location, Location
Once you’ve decided on your topics and your audience, you’re halfway there. These two steps shape your decisions related to location. Since I am now the campus pastor for a local Christian high school, I wanted to find a neutral and central location in order to reach more than one local church body. I had also been asked by many parents to find a setting that would feel accessible to their unchurched friends. So I chose a facility downtown where a variety of events are scheduled throughout the year, from wedding receptions to public lectures (with the bonus of good parking too).
If the expense of doing something like that feels daunting, this is a chance for you to partner with other local parents or youth workers. Perhaps your own church doesn’t have the finances and resources to host a seminar, but if two other youth workers, or even a youth pastors’ network, can come together, it could be a profoundly effective tool on many levels.
Conversely, if you are seeking to invest specifically in the parents in your own church, consider asking a family to host the meeting in their home. Many people prefer the hospitality of a home to the well-used multi-purpose room of your church. It can create a more open environment for honest discussion and personal warmth.
Presenters: Find local experts
Unless you have labored long and hard in the trenches yourself, I would strongly suggest that you outsource when identifying seminar speakers. Personally, my standard is to look for someone with at least twenty-five years of experience in their respective field. Not only does that sound good on a flyer, it also provides more guarantees in terms of quality. Open your eyes wide: you may have such an expert right under your nose in your church. Several years ago I hosted a breakfast for the dads in my church, and someone suggested I invite a female kinesiology professor from the local college to come speak on youth and sports to these fathers. I was unaware of this person’s particular expertise in this arena. However, I trusted the person who made the referral. Though I had some strong hesitations, the event ended up being outstanding!
People to consider: Christian Marriage & Family Therapists, college professors who are also believers, senior pastors with credibility in the community and specific experience on a particular topic, and agency directors who are believers. If you are newer to your community, consult with long-term pastoral leaders in the area, who have history and relationships to draw upon. For our community, I asked a Christian college professor, a Marriage & Family Therapist who managed a residential treatment center for substance abuse, and a pastor who also has a Doctorate in Ministry in Pastoral Counseling.
Publicity: Pound the pavement
In our fully-wired culture, getting parents to show up will take more than some anemic posters on bulletin boards and an email one week beforehand. Be prepared to use multiple modes of advertising: newspaper, flyers, websites, email blasts, texts, verbal announcements at church and through Facebook. With the series I did this year, we found it valuable to advertise outside churches by distributing flyers in coffee shops and other local hangouts. Recruit a team solely committed to communication.
This isn’t rocket science. If you’re excited, others will get excited. Especially if this is the first time you are offering parent training, you will need to cultivate support from your church staff to keep it front and center on your church’s agenda.
In my own context, I listed the various people and places where I needed to get attention:
- The school where I work has a Parents’ Council. I asked for ten minutes at the meeting closest to my first seminar, and did a mini-presentation of what we would cover. I encourage you to recognize the power of personal invitation, and invite these parents to do the same.
- I also asked for a discussion at my local youth pastors’ fellowship related to the topic we were covering, thus creating new interest in the topic.
- I sent strategically-timed emails reminding people to make announcements, invite friends, and keep it on the radar. In other words, I asked people once to promote my seminar; then I asked them again. And perhaps even again!
- I took the time to recruit reps at every school, church and agency to represent the seminars—especially PARENTS. I invited youth pastors, senior pastors, and local youth professionals to also promote this. IMPORTANT: I really sought buy-in from some senior pastors. The reality is that they have more clout than youth pastors. Keep in mind that many senior pastors are also parents of teenagers, so they have extra motivation to address these issues.
I had volunteers offer to pray throughout entire seminars. This cannot be an afterthought. If your seminars even begin to accomplish the goals you have set out to achieve, you will need that covering. Be expectant that God will open doors of ministry to you and the rest of the pastoral team.
A Long Obedience
One of my favorite resources is the author David Elkind, a renowned expert on adolescence who sounded the alarm on the effects of stress on teens long before anyone else did. This quote from one of his many books summarizes the unique challenge that youth workers and parents must face together:
Letting go is never a single event in which we launch – once and for all – a young person into adult life. In fact, we begin the process of letting go when our children are infants and probably never stop until we are gone. [[David Elkind, Parenting Your Teenager (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), pp. 132-133.]]
Even better, the Apostle Paul expressed this reality centuries earlier in his letter to the church in the region of Galatia:
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (Galatians 4:19-20).
With such a daunting task ahead of you, wisely assemble a plan of action that not only includes great ideas for youth group on Wednesday nights, but also conceives big dreams about how you can serve the parents in your midst. You won’t regret it for a minute.
- In the beginning of this article, Kelly listed 3 of her excuses for avoiding serving parents of her students: lack of resources, experience, and time. Which of these did you resonate with? How could you mobilize these excuses into motivation for change in your own ministry?
- Resistance to serving parents of students in our ministries could possibly be linked to our relationships with our own parents. Did you have a strong or challenging relationship with your parents in high school? What insights can this bring to your ministry today?
- How often do you meet one-on-one with parents of youth? Do you initiate that contact? Why or why not?
- Work with parents can often function more from a mode of “damage-control” than from a position of initiative and creativity. Talk this topic over with a few trusted colleagues and supervisors. Come up with one tangible way you can connect personally with a parent in the next week.
- If planning parent seminars seems like a great next step for your ministry, begin by making a list of who would need to be on board in order to launch these ideas into action. Forward those key players this article and set up a meeting to dream about the possibilities!
- If training seminars feel like too big of a first step in your context, gather your youth ministry team and brainstorm other ways you might begin to more intentionally resource parents. Similarly, if you’ve already utilized the seminar method, brainstorm what the next phase of your parent engagement strategy might look like.
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