Engaging Parents as Allies, Not Enemies in Youth Ministry
As I look back now, I’m still dumbfounded that a church would hire a 19-year-old college sophomore to lead and minister to 6th through 12th graders. Sure, I had enthusiasm, energy and charisma, but I was significantly lacking in discernment, wisdom and adult relations!
As we met Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, my students endeared themselves to me. We laughed, dug into the Word, talked about real life issues and ate a lot of pizza. Each aspect of my new job came naturally to me. Except for one. Relating to parents.
I remember intentionally staying inside the building when parents came to pick up their teenagers. My thought process was this—if I stay in here, I’ll be less likely to have to talk with a parent and they’ll be less likely to realize that I’m just shootin’ from the hip and really don’t know what I’m doing. I saw them as the enemy, ready to attack me at any moment. I was simply protecting myself.
Twenty-three years later, my philosophy has changed.
I have moved from inside the building to knocking on parents’ car windows at the curb. I no longer see them as the enemies, but as my allies. This shift in thinking has changed everything!
One of the reasons for tension between parents and youth worker comes from the natural stage of adolescent development. Somewhere between the ages of 11-13, most students begin to make a shift from dependence on their parents to their own independence. While that shift is happening, young adolescents put less weight in the words and wisdom of their parents.
When Dan came into our Junior High ministry, he and I hit it off. He was confident, quick witted and ready to be challenged in a new way. Dan was the first born in his family, the first one of three that would come through our program.
One night, following our midweek program, Dan was riding in the van with his mom, Lisa. He was going on and on about what I had talked about that night. Lisa, as she tells it, had two thoughts rip through her mind as Dan gushed that night:
- I used to be the cool woman in his life!
- I’ve been saying what Heather said for seven years!
That car ride home could have caused a permanent wedge to be placed between that new Junior High mom and me. She could have seen me as a threat and become bitter toward me and the relationship I had with her son.
Only one thing saved us—Lisa had heard me communicate our philosophy of partnering with parents. Each time I stand in front of my parents, I say this: “As Junior High leaders, we acknowledge that we have a much easier job than you as the parent. We don’t have to tell our students to do their homework, put the garbage out or clean their rooms. We get them at their best on a weekend retreat, sugar and caffeine them up, and send them home to you, on the verge of crankiness. Because of all of this, they hear us in a different way. But we want you to know that we see it as our job to partner with you—to advocate for you—to speak the same truth you’re speaking.”
The middle school years are especially difficult for parents because their once talkative, affectionate and loving child often begins to withdraw.
One word answers become the norm and ear buds seem to be permanently stuck in their ears. Parents long for the days of open bedroom doors and snuggling before bed. If not addressed, they may begin to see us as youth workers as the adults who get what they used to get.
As youth workers, we can’t wave a magic wand and bring back the snuggle fests, but we can offer our parents windows into the world of their young teens. We can offer them opportunities to serve around the edges of our ministries—hosting a youth group gathering at their home, driving a vehicle for an event, staffing the information desk, running the sound board, or chaperoning a one-time event.
As they serve, they will see their children in action and experience a portion of our ministries they otherwise couldn’t. As they are around us and our ministries, they will see clearly that they are our allies, not our enemies!
Heather Flies has been the junior high pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie for 24 years. She frequently speaks at junior high schools on abstinence, self-esteem, and other current issues. She also encourages women, trains youth workers, and helps parents understand how to love their teenagers well. Heather is the author of I Want to Talk to My Teen about Girl Stuff and That’s What She Said/That’s What He Said. Heather and her husband, Chad, live in Minnesota.
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.