Parents are the enemy: In this phase, I believed that parents hindered my ministry because they often prevented their kids from attending ministry events. The underlining thought was, “If they’d leave us alone, we’d get more discipleship done.” Tragic thought.
The and-family add on: In this era, youth ministry thought leaders began to emphasize the importance of ministering to families, and instead of being given additional resources or training, we were given new titles. The expectation of family ministry was added to our job descriptions, and our titles changed from youth pastor to pastor to youth and families.
Family as a given: Today, if you’re doing youth ministry without thought or strategy to engage the family, you’re still playing youth ministry at the kids’ table. The family conversation is loud, it’s falling on receptive ears, and it is gaining traction.
Prior to being a parent of teenagers, I wasn’t anti-family; I just didn’t really understand parents and family dynamics enough to give them the priority they deserved. I was all about building the youth ministry and discipling teenagers. Sadly, I’m sure I probably wounded families in unknown ways by not engaging and caring for them as I do now.
So, maybe you’re like me (or the me I used to be) and you need some simple ways you can make your youth ministry a bit more family friendly. Here are 10 practical ways you can connect better with parents and make your youth ministry a more family-friendly place. These ideas won’t add too much more to the work you’re already doing, but I’m confident they will get you more connected to the parents who drop their kids off at your weekly program.
1. Give them dates. While we (youth workers) may not be great at planning, most families actually think ahead and plan around the important dates of their teenagers, as well as around their infrequent opportunities for time off work. The earlier you can communicate important dates to parents, the more you’ll help families navigate their growing and busy schedules. When you introduce a last-minute date, you most likely will create tension within a home. This family pain can be avoided by clear and early communication. You don’t need to give them all the specific details; simply paint the big picture and provide the dates so they can work around them.
2. End on time. It’s frustrating to drive to pick your kid up at a specific time and wind up wasting time sitting in the car. When you give parents a pick-up time, it’s important to honor it, just as you want them to pick up their kids after camp or a special event so you’re not waiting in the church parking lot. You’ll respect parents by getting their teenagers home early (or at least on time). Just remember that every time you have a student at a program, you have a chance to bless that family or mess with their fragile routines by adding more chaos to an overly frantic pace of life.
3. Get them talking. Don’t assume teenagers go home and begin telling their parents what you talked about at youth group. Also, don’t assume parents are going to take the initiative to engage their kids in spiritual conversations. When possible, email or text parents potential discussion and follow-up questions. At the very least, post them on the youth group blog or website. If parents know what was discussed at youth group, they have the opportunity for further discussion on the way home, at the dinner table or later in the week. When you provide them conversation opportunities, they’ll appreciate your efforts.
4. Keep them home. One of the best ways we can care for families is not to barrage their kids with so many opportunities to leave the house for church events. Many families might be healthier if youth ministries cut their programming opportunities in half and encouraged more home-time. When my three kids were teenagers, family night became very difficult to navigate because of all their various commitments. Evenings at home became rare and sacred. Communicate to parents that you don’t want their kids out very often and will work to limit church nights so parents can take advantage of their family time.
5. Talk them up. Many youth workers swing a verbal bat at parents. Taking shots at parents (e.g., “Your parents don’t know what they’re talking about.” “Sometimes parents can be so dumb!”) is immature and damaging. Parents already are made to look like buffoons in media. Don’t add to that. A verbal bash may assist in making a point, get a laugh, or make you look better (for about eight seconds); but in the long run, you’ll be minimizing your integrity. Instead, talk highly of parents and verbally support them and encourage their very difficult roles. I make it a goal to try to include at least one positive reference about parents every time I speak to teenagers.
6. Speak good words. When you get the privilege to interact with a parent, do everything you can to affirm his or her child. Parents of teenagers constantly feel as if they are failures. Your kind words of affirmation can give them hope and breathe life into their weary parenting bones. Parents are desperate to hear positive comments about their kids; some kind, targeted, encouraging words can make a huge difference. (e.g., “Your son was a star at camp this weekend.” “I love watching Lauren talk to those who aren’t connected. She’s amazing at making others feel welcome.” “I smile every time I see Erik; I so enjoy having him around.”) Make your words count, and be liberal with your praise.
7. Teach them more. Don’t pretend to be the authority on parenting if you haven’t been through the expedition yourself. Even if you have kids—and are an amazing parent—work to maintain the posture of a co-journeyer. You may be a culture expert, but if you haven’t parented teenagers, be cautious about how much advice you attempt to share. Parents often feel they are failures, and they’re looking for help, coaching, ideas and parents who have been there and understand. Use experienced parents to lead niche conversations directed to specific needs (e.g., understanding your teenager’s brain, how to talk to your child about issues of faith, etc.). Utilize local parenting experts and older saints within your congregation to teach parents practical steps they can take to improve their relationship and understanding the changing teenage culture. Parents want to learn, but most want to learn from those who have experience and can identify with their feelings at various stages of their kids’ lives.
8. Keep costs down. While this seems to be a no-brainer, unfortunately it’s not for many of us. Youth workers often don’t think of costs of ministry activities because they’re typically not paying to attend themselves. Looking for ways to minimize costs is helpful to a family budget. You’ll have to get creative to figure out how to keep costs low. One year, we decided to leave later for camp on Friday and return earlier on Sunday so we didn’t have to pay the camp for additional meals. Consider the use of scholarships for those families who have more than one teenager in the youth ministry. This is not simply a tough-economy principle, but is family-friendly to every family, regardless of its income.
9. Watch the calendar. Pay extra attention to what’s happening during a typical school year. Don’t schedule extra meetings and events during holiday seasons. Pay special attention to the dates many of us don’t typically notice: SAT/ACT tests, band competitions, homecomings, etc. I can remember holding a big youth ministry event on the weekend before finals. Parents wanted their kids home studying, and all the kids wanted to attend the event. Conflict. My fault. That type of poor programming puts pressure on families to make and enforce tough decisions.
10. Invite them along. Let parents know that you want them to join in some of the youth ministry activities. Make it clear that they’re welcome to sit in, tag along and occasionally pop in to see what’s happening. I’m not suggesting that you encourage them to lurk and never leave their kids’ sides, but make sure they feel welcome.
You don’t need to start a new parent Bible study, offer a weekly group parent counseling session, or add another hour to your monthly parent meeting. Instead, being a parent-friendly youth ministry requires that we develop a different way of thinking, one in which we are more aware of the reality of where families are today and where we seek to connect with them however we are able.
Doug Fields is the co-founder of DownloadYouthMinistry.com, a youth pastor for 30+ years, and the author of more than 50 books including Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, Speaking to Teenagers and Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry.