Working With Parents: How It’s Changed Over The Last 10 Years

Steve Cullum
May 6th, 2019

Why did you get into youth ministry in the first place? If you are like me, it was because God placed a calling on you to work with teenagers, in order to help them understand Jesus’ love for them. You might have also started because you believe in the next generation and what God wants to do through them. Perhaps you realized the impact a youth worker had on your life and you wanted to do the same for others. Not matter the reason, I think it is safe to say most of us started to do youth ministry because of the students.

Soon after, you probably realized your ministry needs to reach much further than the teens. I had read books like Family-Based Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries and the Orange Leader Handbook by Reggie Joiner, which told me the importance of partnering with families. I knew I needed to connect with the students and their parents, but I didn’t quite know the extent of that directive. I mean, after all, I’m a youth pastor — not a parent pastor.

Through books like the ones above and hearing great speakers at conferences, I started to realize what it looks like to partner with parents. In the beginning, it meant simply talking with them. I needed to make sure I knew the parents and not just the teens. This meant talking with them before and after youth group, sitting near them at students’ extracurricular activities, and sending them an occasional email.

At first, it also meant keeping them informed, especially about what we were doing at youth group, so they could put our events on their calendars and maybe have a conversation about our weekly topic or Scripture at home. Tools like Orange’s Parent Cue were great resources to send to our parents. They gave a summary of our upcoming series, some suggested questions they can ask their teens, and provided a short article as a parenting resource.

When I was on the ball by sending these out and regularly connecting with parents, I thought I was doing a great job. I was even crossing over with the kids ministry once in a while to help them and their parents. I thought I was living out what it meant to partner with parents. I even thought I was running a solid “family-based” youth ministry.

Maybe I was, but things have changed.

Over the last ten years, youth ministry has changed. Actually, it’s been in the process of change for much longer than ten years, but the parent side of our ministry has been one of the most obvious to me. Back then, I was spending the vast majority of my time with teens. In fact, I was probably with parents about 5-10% of my time, and I thought that was good. In fact, it was a stretch for me. After all, I got into this ministry because of teens, not adults.

Today, I am somewhere around the 25-30% mark with parents. Some weeks, it is even close to the 50-60% area. I could speculate many reasons for this, but I think it all boils down to a natural progression of our culture and understanding of families. In our culture, families are more broken than ever before, and most of the parents today would admit they do not know what they are doing much of the time. That does not mean we do, by any means, but it does prove that we have more to reach than just the students. And if Reggie Joiner and many other great family ministry minds are right when they say parents are the primary spiritual leaders of the family, then we need to work with parents just as much as we work with teens.

So what does it look like today to work with parents? First off, it is messy, because families are messy. It does not look like a simple program anymore. We cannot rely upon a few parent meetings and workshops during the year. We cannot simply send home a piece of paper and trust it will make it to the parents and become the topic of their family devotions that night. We also cannot rely solely on ourselves to make the connections with parents.

Parents today are incredibly busy. On top of their jobs, they are hauling their kids all over the place. In this, I’ve realized they often feel alone. Yes, they are around some other parents on the sidelines of a soccer game or sitting next to them during their child’s play, but they are not truly connecting. So part of working with parents today involves helping them connect with other parents. This can look differently depending on your context, but it is important that we not only connect students with other students; we need to connect parents with other parents too.

We are also providing different resources. Many of us have been providing parent resources for longer than ten years, but the types of resources we are giving them today are very different than before. Yes, we continue to send them articles about parenting and provide trainings, but the context of those are now on cyber-bullying, sexting, social media smartphone apps, mental health awareness, and so forth. The resources I was sending ten years ago were mostly about how to talk to your teenager, how to help them overcome apathy, and how to help them choose a college.

We are also doing ministry with and pastoring the parents more than before. In fact, in the last year, I have had just as many pastoral counseling sessions with parents as I have with teens. Parents are often in over their heads. They are not sure about their faith, and they don’t quite know how to get their kid to talk about anything worth while, let alone Jesus. Their kids are doing drugs, skipping school, looking at porn, being bullied, experiencing extreme anxiety, living in fear of school shootings and terrorism, and dealing with the pressures of being a teenager in the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, parents are dealing with basically the same set of obstacles, and they need help.

As many of you have realized, once you began doing more ministry with parents, it becomes overwhelming. You have probably realized that you have two or three times as much work as you originally thought. Even in a small youth group of ten teens, when you include their parents, you have at least 20 to 30 people you are serving. When you then expand that to include grandparents, foster parents, step-parents, and legal guardians, you could be ministering to upwards of 50 people.

So one of the big changes we have to continue making in working with parents is to share the responsibility. Just like us, many of the people on our teams did not get into youth ministry for the parents, but times change. Our student small group leaders are now tasked with helping us reach out and connect with parents. That is one of the most important reasons to have as large of a team as you can get. In fact, our ratios of leaders to students is often 1:3. This is not only because we are anticipating more students each week, but because those leaders are also working with at least one or two adults for every teen in their group.

Youth ministry has certainly changed over the last ten years, and it will continue to change. Our roles as youth workers will also continue to change. One of the primary areas for change will be working with parents. I think it will only increase from here. Who knows… maybe in another ten years, we will be spending about 75% of our time with parents. But if it is going to strengthen the family, and help parents be amazing spiritual leaders of teens, then I say bring on the change. There will always be time for eating pizza and playing laser tag all night with teenagers. Working with parents, though, has become a key element to big life change in the family.

Steve Cullum

Steve Cullum is the student pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO, where he oversees their ministry to sixth through twelfth grade students and their families. He also hosts The Student Ministry Podcast and volunteers for the National Network of Youth Ministries. You can follow him on Twitter @stevecullum.

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