Boy, Was I Wrong!

Shaun Sass
October 4th, 2009

That big white horse in the parking spot marked Youth Pastor—it was mine. The guy in the white hat sitting behind the desk in the office marked Youth Ministry—that was me.

The plot was simple.

Young, suave, heroic youth pastor rides into town at sunset to save a whole generation of kids from their pathetic parents and families by providing everything they need to guarantee their personal and spiritual growth through the vulnerable adolescent years.

It seemed so obvious to me at the time. “Everyone knows that parents of teenagers are hopelessly out of touch with their kids’ needs,” I told myself. “They’re so focused on managing the trajectories of their careers that they have little time or interest in getting involved in the complicated lives of their own sons and daughters. Absorption in their midlife crises leaves them no energy to invest in the important task of guiding their children into truth. And besides, they don’t have the foggiest notion about being cool enough that their kids would like them in spite of their obvious faults.”

My task was enormous! A surrogate parent to a growing youth group! My role became more overwhelming each day—although the parents seemed enthusiastic about it. “Go for it, Marv,” they cheered as I knocked myself out week after week.

The harder I worked to help my students overcome the handicap of their crummy parents, the more bitter I became about what I saw as their parents’ incompetence and lack of emotional and spiritual investment.

At least the kids were encouraging. They often told me how much more fun I was than their moms and dads. How much more understanding. How much more in touch with what was happening in their worlds. Their affirmation was the fuel I ran on, and I was working hard to keep my tank as full as possible.

What amazed me in the midst of all this was that, in spite of the excellent relational modeling I thought I was pulling off, it seemed the parents were still pulling away from their kids—and becoming more demanding of me.

  • “You need to do some better teaching on sexual purity. And while you’re at it, tell the kids they can’t date until they’re 19.”
  • “Isn’t there something in the Bible about kids keeping their rooms clean?”
  • “I just found a little baggie of white powder in my son’s jeans—aren’t you teaching them about that kind of stuff down there in your youth group?”

I felt like the guy spinning plates at the circus—frantically running back and forth, trying to keep kids from crashing.

And feeling hopelessly alone in the process.

I wish I could say that I came to the realization that my ministry approach was counterproductive and unbiblical, but I guess I’m not that smart. My epiphany came unexpectedly and quite by accident.

The Turning Point
I had shown a video addressing the issue of teen sexuality at a Bible study. It generated some great discussion among the students, and apparently some of them had continued the discussion with their parents at home. Several parents requested an opportunity to see the video I had shown their kids. I scheduled an evening when they could do just that.

The response was overwhelming. The room was packed with parents, and the lively discussion that followed told me I just might be onto something. As the parents left that evening, there was nothing but gratitude and a consistently expressed desire to do it again.

Duh! What if these parents—whom I had been judging as incompetent, self-centered, and disconnected—were none of these things?

What if, in reality, they were just afraid, a bit unequipped, and sometimes feeling inadequate for their parenting task? If the latter were the case, my perspective and approach to family ministry would change dramatically.

And it did.

Building Bridges with Parents
I began to look for opportunities to strengthen the hand of parents instead of undermining their roles in the lives of their kids. It meant a whole different way of thinking about the family, the church, and youth ministry.

The toughest transition was consciously acknowledging the fact that all the kids in my ministry had families. The shape and health of those families varied widely, but that didn’t change the importance of supporting rather than replacing them. So I found myself acknowledging not only the existence of the family but also its complexity and importance. There was so much to learn.

My first thought was that a lot of the parents needed some parenting instruction. You see, I’d been cataloging their failures for several years and was full of advice on how they could improve! After all, my own preschool family made me feel like an expert on all points of parenting, so I couldn’t wait to pass on my wisdom.

Needless to say my well-meaning advice didn’t receive a very warm welcome. I’d spent so long looking down on parents that they didn’t see me as an ally. This was a right I would have to earn.

It was then that I discovered that the shortest path to the heart of a parent is sincere encouragement. If we understand encouragement to mean infusing someone with courage, there is no more meaningful ministry that youth workers can have in the lives of parents. And I’ve found that the easiest way to encourage parents is to say something positive about their sons and daughters. (Now that I’m a parent of teenagers, I more fully understand how closely we tie our own sense of self to what’s happening in the lives of our kids!)

To hear that Melissa asks good questions or provides good leadership or brings a welcoming spirit to a group gives me hope. Most parents are constantly braced to hear bad news about their children—so any good news we can authentically give them will always be appreciated.

Once a bridge of relationship with parents is established, there’s no group in the world more open and grateful. Parenting teenagers is a thankless and often lonely job, so our “alongside” ministry as youth workers will usually be viewed positively—provided we approach it with humble and teachable spirits. But involvement that’s condescending and arrogant will send families scrambling back to self-protective postures and may undo whatever trust has been earned.

  1. Ministering to Parents. Through years of trial-and-error experimentation, I’ve learned that every minute of effort invested inparent ministry pays dividends directly into the lives of their kids. I’ve also learned that I can do a whole lot more than simply encourage. In my role of providing an adult voice in the lives of kids, I should take every opportunity I’m given to speak positively about parents! An affirming tone in matters related to family is so important for this generation as it shapes its attitudes. Strategies as simple as building a family-based application into a Bible study or encouraging kids to ask their parents for advice or input on important issues will go a long way in showing them that family is crucial.

  2. 2. Consulting Parents. Getting their input on the shape of our youth ministries tells them that their involvement is necessary. A parent-advisory council may be an appropriate way to formalize our commitment to hearing their voices on issues that affect their children. Consider even the possibility of including parents who don’t attend church on such a council—that way you’ll have a full cross-section of the families you serve.
  3. 3. Connecting Parents to Each Other. As trust grows, we can provide other dimensions of parent ministry. Helping parents connect with each other through programs like “you pray for my kid, and I’ll pray for yours” can create a sense of community and the encouragement that comes with it.
  4. 4. Offering Resources to Parents. We have access to a lot of material that’s immediately helpful to parents—research, statistics, books, audio or video tapes that address adolescent culture issues, et cetera. Hosting an “Understanding Your Teenager” seminar or putting together a panel of experts on some aspect of parenting adolescents is another way to say that—although we may not have all the answers—we can put them in touch with people who do.

The bottom line is pretty basic: We want the students in our care to become all God would have them be. And if that’s accomplished by strengthening their families and encouraging their parents to be involved in the process, so much the better.

Being viewed by parents as conurturers in the spiritual lives of their sons and daughters may be the highest compliment youth workers can receive. And involving parents in our ministries means a whole lot more than letting them bring the cookies or drive the van.

It took me far too long to figure out just how wrong I was. I learned that when you work with parents, you don’t always feel like the hero—but seeing a family ride off into the sunset sure makes for a better ending than the Lone Ranger story I was writing.

The white horse and hat are history.

Shaun Sass

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.