Looking back on the past ten years, I have found that I am guilty of playing favorites.
I have always found myself seeking out volunteers, chaperones, small group leaders, helpers, drivers, lackeys, and gophers who are young adults. I started doing this partly because I believed that youth would be more comfortable or less inhibited without parents around.
I, like many youth leaders, had this thought that if a parent was in the room, the mouth of every teenager would slam shut and all ministry would come crashing to a halt. I wasn’t that way with my parents, nor was I that way with any of my friends’ parents when I was a teenager. But for some reason I projected that upon every teen and every parent.
The reality, however, has been much different. I’ve found that very few teens and parents are dysfunctional in a youth ministry setting. I don’t know if I was told that teenagers wouldn’t or couldn’t talk around their own parents or their friends’ parents, but I know that I am not alone in that assumption, and over my time in ministry, I have seen little evidence to support it.
Another, much larger part of why I avoided parents’ involvement in volunteer roles, was because I found myself intimidated or uncomfortable with being in charge of adults older than myself. Who was I to be telling someone not much younger than my parents what to do? I hardly knew anything about being an adult or even about being a youth leader, so why would I be in charge of the “real” adults? I often felt like an overgrown teen hoping that the parents and church wouldn’t discover me.
When I was planning my first mission trip, we were traveling far enough that we needed to stay at a hotel half way. My volunteers were all college-aged former youth, in a similar stage of life as myself. As a 22 year old who had never gotten a hotel room before, I ended up calling my mom to make sure I was doing it right instead of asking a parent or my Head Pastor for help. I did this over and over because I feared that parents leaders might clue them in to my weaknesses. This, I think, is a sin of inexperience. I believed asking for help or appearing to know less than my volunteers made me ineffective, weak or stupid. None of those things are true, and there is so much to be gained by utilizing parents as volunteers.
Parents of teenagers have a good amount of experience with teenagers, more so than the young adults who’s only reference is that they vaguely remember what it was like being a teenager themselves.
Yes, your teens’ moms are way more likely to wear mom jeans, and yes, your twenty-somethings are way more likely to wear skinny jeans, but wisdom and experience trump trendy and relevant every day of the week. Parents are aware of the culture of their teens, and they see it from a parent’s view, and in some ways that view will rival our own awareness of the community culture we minister to. They are tapped in to other parents, the schools, teams and organizations, and the home life of their own teens. This resource alone is invaluable to my ministry. Once I got over the fear of being younger than the people around me, I began to find that my parent volunteers were as useful and capable as my younger volunteers with an additional decade or two of life experience and an intimate knowledge of teenagers in their natural habitat. So let me share some of the ways I’ve found to be effective when implementing parent volunteers in my ministries.
The parents I knew and had a relationship with made the best volunteers. They knew my personality, style and timing, so they knew when to jump in and when to hang back. I knew their personality and their gifts, so I was able to utilize them effectively. They can be honest with their concerns instead of going over my head or gossiping to other church members. And, I have the freedom to be honest with them.
I try to form a friendship with all of my volunteers before they do any actual volunteering, so there are dinners, casual coffees, after-church chit chats, all the things I would do socially to make friends. And I try to make a point of doing it without their teens present if possible. That way I am getting to know the parent and not sucked into relationship-building with the teen. Even when the teenager is present, I try to make sure conversation stays on the parent.
I don’t have to be best friends with them or get matching tattoos, but finding a little common ground and chatting about each others’ lives has been one of the best ways of screening parent volunteers I’ve found.
Parent volunteers can be great, but like any other demographic they are not uniformly suited to be youth ministry volunteers. I still keep my critical eye open when going through the process. Even though they are Johnny’s dad or Suzie’s mom, I still background check them and do a quick Google search. After building a relationship with them, it can seem strange, unnecessary or, in some cases, even inappropriate to scrutinize them in this way, but my first priority is to the safety of my youth. In addition, there are some things I can’t learn from a Google search and background check that are still important to know beforehand. So before I put in the time to train my volunteers and bring them into the ministry, I want to be sure that they are capable of being somewhere on time, that they will be where they say they will be, that they don’t need me to watch over them while they complete a task. Even though they are parents and older than me, this is a necessary step. Sometimes parents are chronically late or pathological cancelers. Sometimes parents have short fuses and hot tempers. Everyone has their own criteria for their volunteers, and I find that sometimes with parents we don’t always do our due diligence. Even though parents can make great volunteers, they can also make awful ones, too.
Before I give any volunteer a job, I make sure they are given the tools they need to succeed. For parents, some of these tools are built in, like a familiarity with teens and some knowledge of teen culture. For the other tools, I like to meet a few times – while building that relationship – to work on them. I like to talk about how to listen to a teenager, and especially how to let teens talk to other teens before interjecting. Yes, as a grown up, they probably know most of the answers to the questions I am asking, but I want them to let the teens work it out.
Another tool I find useful to equip my parent volunteers is how to be “child blind”. Many of my first parent volunteers were quick to “volunteer” their own child to do a task or chore, like stacking chairs or carrying Bibles, even if it made more sense to have a different youth or a group take on that task. To help foster the dynamics of the group and to establish the relationship between the volunteers and the youth group as a whole, parents need to be comfortable calling on or tasking any of the youth. Parents need to see their youth as just another one of the youth present. I always take the time to sit down and make sure each of my volunteers knows everything they need to know and has the opportunity to ask anything they need to ask well before they are knee-deep in youth ministry.
It can be easy for a parent to find themselves drawn to their own child’s experiences. They may only be interested in small groups their child is in or be overly concerned about what their child is doing or saying when they are engaged with other youth. Even though that is part of being a parent, I have found it to be the single most destructive part of parent volunteers. By setting appropriate boundaries, I make it known to my parent volunteers exactly how they should be interacting with their own youth, which is the same as any other teenager present. This comes more naturally to some than others. To help the ones that struggle with it, I may assign parents and teens to separate vans, groups, teams or whatever. I also make sure the parents understand that youth group is separate from their family time or family matters. Bringing outside fights or issues into the group can be toxic to the ministry. I make sure that my adults know that if there is a situation or problem outside of the ministry that may effect a meeting, they need to let me know so I can help them maintain their appropriate boundaries. Setting boundaries for parents and their children is the biggest part of parent volunteer preparation. Once I’ve selected and trained my adults, this is the last and most important step.
Parents of teenagers have become some of the greatest volunteers I have had in our youth ministry. I am constantly impressed by the different ways in which my needs have been anticipated, how my lessons and discussions have been augmented, or how smoothly problems have been solved. Even though I had to get over my own anxiety and hang-ups about being young or perceived as ill-qualified, I have never once regretted it. I don’t only select parents as volunteers; I still have my skinny-jeans-wearing trendy twenty-somethings, too. The health of the ministries I lead has strengthened, and I give most of that credit to my quality volunteers (the rest of the credit goes to the Holy Spirit, some good luck and a stack of Pizza Hut coupons). And as a side bonus, I have seen some teen-parent relationships grow and mature through spiritual formation and fellowship, which is an amazing thing to be a part of.