I Had A Big Parent Problem. What Happened And What I Learned.
Push-ups were not on my list of essential skills in youth ministry. I did, however, have a youth parent who thought they were.
Frank (let’s call him Frank) was a great guy – a super involved step-dad, new to parenting. The woman he married had two kids in my youth group who liked him, but they didn’t always know what to do with him.
In his pursuit to be a good step-dad, Frank volunteered to help with transportation, meals, and anything beyond regular weekly leadership. He had an unpredictable work schedule because he was a surgeon. But that also meant that Dr. Frank was accustomed to being the one in charge in any and every room. In all fairness, he was funny, playful, and always had the best of intentions. He was also strict – the kind of strict that makes kids walk the other way.
Things started out well enough. He drove when needed and jumped in when others bailed. But then he started coming to youth group before it was over, and then eventually he’d come for the whole time. As a new Christian, he was super excited to be involved.
For all his knowledge of medicine and surgery, Frank had a gap in his knowledge between how teenagers actually behave and how he expected them to behave. The diverse group of forty students were silly, sassy, and often rough around the edges. But they were all in – showing up, asking questions, volunteering, and forging friendships across typical friend-group norms. They messed around, talked, wrestled, and sometimes took too long to settle down for youth group. Sometimes I had to work to get their attention. You know, typical youth group stuff.
Enter: the push-ups.
Frank’s view was that they were kids, we were adults, and they should wait at attention until we spoke. Questions, once asked, should be answered promptly and respectfully, never have to be repeated, and snarky responses were absolutely unacceptable. When I lead, if someone responded going for a laugh instead of being serious, Frank would jump in and demand they “give me 10,” push-ups, that is. Even I thought he was joking the first time he did it. He wasn’t. If they hesitated, he bumped it to 15. If they refused, he told them to leave.
Pushup discipline started to leak out beyond the youth room. If Frank thought a youth wasn’t being respectful or attentive enough in the sanctuary or hall, he would tell them to “give me 10.” Kids started to avoid him. While understandable, this also meant that his two step-kids in the youth group were also avoided.
Frank began suggesting to other parents and church leaders that I needed to be more strict in youth group. My classroom management skills did not meet his expectations. He began to say, in front of others, yet still using a playful tone, that I was too soft and needed to instill discipline.
Parents started to approach me worried about the atmosphere in the youth group.
I assured them their children were well behaved and they were not being exposed to any others who could be a bad influence.
I made a plan for how to respond thoughtfully, carefully, and responsibly to Frank and the overall situation, receiving support from my supportive and empowering senior pastor. I approached our youth council and shared my perspective of the situation. Fortunately, my assessment was corroborated by others who knew Frank well. What I did not know is that a few weeks before, a few families had met with the council to discuss their concern about this entire situation as well. In fact, a few families had discussed leaving the youth group entirely because of his presence. A decision was reluctantly made that Frank was no longer allowed in youth group. Now, it was time to figure out how to tell him without embarrassment for him or his step-children.
The youth council set a meeting for us to talk to Frank. I expressed appreciation for all he had given and asked what role he truly wanted while reminding him that he had originally said he only wanted to be a “sometimes helper.” Frank became defensive, placing blame squarely on the unruly teenagers, their parents and teachers, and the youth pastor – me – who did not discipline well enough.
Slowly, though, and I’m not entirely certain how, the conversation shifted.
He began using the language I had been using throughout the entire situation – about healthy expectations of adolescent behavior, the ineffectiveness of pushups, and earning the right to be heard. Frank then shifted to revealing that he was worried that he had no clue about how to be a step-dad. This moment of anticipated confrontation became, instead, a pastoral moment.
The transition away from Frank’s regular participation in youth ministry was intentional and gave way to new policies. We let parents know we would be celebrating and thanking Frank as he stepped away. I then worked with the youth council to create a clear application and training process for those who would be with the youth in any capacity.
A parent was welcome to visit once and would then be presented with a letter explaining our policy for best practices. This provided me, and any youth pastor who came after me, cover for why we simply could not have someone just show up regularly. It also shared and dispersed authority to the youth pastor, the staff, and the youth council, which in turn provided mutual support and cover.
Who knew pushups could lead to better church policy.
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.