It doesn’t take most youth ministers long to realize the limits of our relationships with teenagers. In the best-case scenario, we see students for a few hours each week. No matter how engaging or relevant we try to be, we soon realize the need to partner with parents in order to be effective in communicating the gospel.
Still, we may be surprised to find that we’ve had it backwards in our minds: We imagine we need parents to support what we are doing with their teenagers at church. In reality, we are called to support parents in their calling as the first and most important disciplers of their children. This is the biblical model of forming young people in the faith. The Old Testament commands for Israel to pass on the faith are directed most explicitly toward the home, within the larger context of the whole covenant community (Deut. 6:4-9, 20-24).
Even once youth ministers are bought into this model of encouraging and supporting parents, we may often find ourselves at a loss for how to build the needed relational equity. Here are some things I have learned to say to parents in effort to build trust and partnership.
“I’m so glad we’re on Team [teenager’s name] together.”
As a youth minister starting out in my early 20s, I was mostly oblivious to the ache parents can feel when, in the midst of a strained parent-child relationship, their teenagers are connecting spiritually with another adult. Of course, every Christian parent hopes his or her child will have other adult Christian influences. But the reality still can sting in the midst of power struggles and the quest for teenage autonomy. In my desire for parents to trust me as a 20-something, I didn’t always see the grief many parents experience over their changing relationships with their teenagers.
Whether you know a parent well or are just getting acquainted, emphasize your desire to partner with that dad or mom in caring for his or her teenager. Using the language of teamwork sets the tone for what you hope will characterize the relationship. As youth ministers, we’re not trying to replace parents, so we don’t want to contradict their authority and influence. Instead we want parents to know that we will give them the benefit of the doubt when their teenagers make disclosures about home life, that we’ll stay in touch with them out of respect for their God-given roles as their kids’ primary disciplers.
Consider asking parents to tell you what their approach has been in navigating challenging relational or behavioral dynamics with their teenagers. I have often told parents that I want to be on the same page and even to find subtle ways of backing them up to their kids. I might offer something like , “I want to be another voice saying what you’re saying.” If the parents are not believers or respond to this question in a way that isn’t biblical, I look for whatever I can affirm and seek to build on that. (As trust between us grows, God may give me an opportunity to gently share spiritual wisdom, but I want to do this prayerfully, knowing I haven’t yet walked a day in parents’ shoes.) Most of the time, however, we have a shared perspective based on our hope in Christ. Knowing what parents have been saying at home helps me be supportive rather than competitive.
“I see your child’s strengths.”
Nothing is more endearing to a parent than hearing someone else call out their child’s strengths. Nothing.
I can say this now as a mom—when another human being sees my boy and calls out the gifts I see in him, my heart soars. I feel deeply connected to that person and see him or her as an ally.
I remember the day this clicked for me as a youth minister. I was meeting with the mom of one of my freshmen small group girls. She wanted to let me know about some difficult transitions going on in their family. As we talked, I thought of of some things I had observed about her daughter: namely, her sensitivity to the needs of others and her tender heart for the Lord. I shared these observations with her mom, who began to cry. In his kindness, God gave me words to express qualities that she also observed in her daughter. God aligned our hearts in our watching and noticing. That conversation opened up a wonderful sense of partnership between us as we walked with her daughter through some difficult years.
Ask God to show you the unique gifts, abilities, and personality traits of each kid in your ministry—and then look for any opportunity to call those out to parents. They will love you for it. Nothing will make them feel more that you are working together well than to know you are staying attuned to who God is making their teenagers to be.
“I’m watching and learning from you.”
Here’s a secret that will deescalate many frustrations with parents in your ministry: Parents of teenagers often experience a lot of shame around the ways they’re not measuring up. In particular, parents of high schoolers feel pressure to make the most of these last four years with kids at home coupled with the disappointment of having missed opportunities, spiritually and otherwise. They can feel as though they’re blowing it, and their time is almost up. Knowing this helps us to be intentional about offering the encouragement of the gospel, which reminds that we don’t have to measure up thanks to what God has done for us in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10).
We can also encourage the parents in our ministries by calling out the things we see God doing through their family life. Noticing something as simple as a family culture of fun, warm relationships between siblings in the home, or a parent’s diligence to support a son or daughter with counseling resources can go a long way to encourage a weary mom or dad. I didn’t have my own children for most of my years serving in full-time youth ministry, but I often joked with parents that I’d be calling them for advice and support someday (and now as a mom of two young boys, I actually do!).
Whether youth ministers eventually have our own families or not, we can cheer parents on by letting them know we are watching and learning from their example. Of course, we believe that anything good in family life is ultimately a gift of God’s grace; still we can call out the ways we see parents being faithful to him in big and small ways.
“I’m praying for you.”
One of the greatest privileges we have as ministers of the gospel is to intercede on behalf of those in our care. This is true for our students of course, but also for their parents as they do the difficult, beautiful work of ministering to their teenagers day in and day out. There’s a tendency in the church today to delineate between youth ministry and “real” pastoral ministry, but as you sit with parents and pray together about all manner of grief, family conflict, and counseling issues, you’ll find that youth ministry is pastoral ministry.
Whenever you have the opportunity to pray with a parent, whether in a formal meeting or at the end of a brief phone call, lean in and take it. Use weekly emails or other communication to invite them to let you know how you can pray specifically for their families. Regularly bring the parents in your ministry before our gracious God, trusting that he is always at work to bring teenagers and their families into fellowship with himself.
If you‘ve ever felt daunted by the task of working with parents in your ministry, we hope you’ll sign up for our webinar on youth ministers and family discipleship, Tuesday, August 1 at 1:00 p.m. CST. Panelists Connor Coskery, Terrence Shay, and Kerry Trunfio will join Chelsea Erickson and Rebecca Lankford to share some best practices for partnering. Together, they’ll introduce you to resources that can help youth ministers serve whole families in the church.
If you’re looking for one-on-one coaching and small group support on this and similar topics, consider applying today for our youth pastor mentoring program.