I became a vocational youth pastor at a very early age, before my wife and I had children. Unfortunately, none of that stopped me from having “wisdom” beyond my years when it came to what was best for my students (please note the sarcasm). That “wisdom” led me to a lot of unwise decisions in my first couple years of youth ministry. And as much as those failures stung at the time, I have learned to cherish my failures because they have provided a foundation of actual wisdom to build on as I continue to grow. In fact, one of my greatest failures in youth ministry led me to the conviction that a primary reason I attend church is to learn from, listen to, and partner with parents as we disciple their students together.
Especially when you’re new to youth ministry, it’s hard to draw the line between “friend” and “youth pastor.” Without friendship you may never become a trusted authority figure in their life. However, a number of issues arise if our students see us as peers. Specifically in the context of student/parent relationships, being a “friend” to my students first meant I usually believed anything they told me about their parents without asking questions.
This willingness to believe anything and everything my students told me about their parents came to a head with a student (whom I will call “Jack”), and his parents. I was closer to Jack than most students. I spent upwards of 10 hours a week with him. Jack was an awesome kid with a big heart and I saw a lot of myself in Jack’s strengths and weaknesses. While Jack could also be a handful at times (what high school boy isn’t?), I saw a world of potential in him as my youth pastor saw in me. Despite all his strengths and potential, when Jack described his relationship with his parents to me, he spoke about them as if they were mortal enemies. Eventually every conversation Jack and I had turned into a mini counseling session about how he was going to survive living in his house for the next few years with unloving tyrants as parents.
One day in particular, Jack had a major confrontation with his parents and sent me a text about the whole ordeal. In an effort to pass on moral support and encouragement I affirmed all the negative things Jack thought about his father in my response. I am literally cringing as I write this, but in an effort to let Jack know I supported him, I went so far as to suggest his father was more akin to a slave master than a loving father…yikes!
Well… Jack read that message and thanked me. Jack’s Dad also read that message and he wasn’t as grateful.. You can imagine the lump in my throat when I got the call from Jack’s mom asking to meet with me about a “concerning correspondence” they had seen on Jack’s phone.
Embarrassed, humbled, and terrified, I met with Jack’s parents the next night. I expected wrath, condemnation, and quite frankly I was worried if I was going to keep my job or not. I expected the worst, but they were unbelievably gracious, patient, forgiving, and loving. Jack told me repeatedly how much of a burden he was to his parents, only what I heard, saw, and experienced were two God-fearing parents who loved their son so much they would literally be willing to do anything it took to find a way forward together.They weren’t tyrannical monsters at all. The problem for me was that I was only listening to and learning from my students, not their parents.
This was a turning point for me and my ministry. As my stomach filled to the brim with fresh humble pie, I learned that sometimes parents know their children better than the youth pastor does. Parents have wisdom that a 20-something-year-old with no kids doesn’t possess. The simplicity of that lesson was a paradigm shift for me.
I began to spend a lot more of my time interacting with, listening to, and learning from the parents of my high school students. In the past I had heard some of their criticisms or questions as personal insults. I thought “those parents just didn’t get it,” and it was embarrassingly easy for me to dismiss what they had to say. The lens that my interaction with Jack’s parents gave me changed all of that. What used to annoy me began encouraging me, what used to anger me or drain me began to give me life. It was as if I was doing youth ministry from scratch again, only this time it felt like I had cheat codes in the form of parent suggestions and feedback.
Now that I am a father to two little girls, and when I reflect on the conversations with parents I have continued to pursue, one central truth keeps coming to the surface. I believe God allows us to have children so that we can understand and appreciate His heart for us. No matter how hard I tried to understand my student’s parents, until I had my own children, I could never fully understand them. That didn’t mean I couldn’t lean on those parents. I realized that the parents in my church knew and experienced a level of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and patience that I couldn’t comprehend yet.
Even on our best days as youth workers, we cannot willfully forfeit the blessing of listening to, learning from, and partnering with our student’s parents. I say that with conviction because there are four things I’m absolutely sure of when it comes to our students’ parents: 1) They love their kids more than we do, 2) They know their children better than we do, 3) They want even greater things than we want for their students, and 4) they have a unique wisdom to offer us that we would otherwise not have without them.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” When I consider my relationship with Jack, had I not listened to, learned from, and partnered with Jack’s parents I would have continued to feed Jack stones and snakes instead of bread and fish. The biggest mistake I made was trying to be a surrogate for Jack’s father rather than pointing Jack to his real father(s). What I offered Jack was spiritual malnourishment, what God and his parents were offering could feed his soul.
Partnering with parents is necessary work for a youth worker. They often have much more to give us than we can offer their students. When we realize we’re in this together with parents, that pressure and anxiety to perform for approval begins to dissipate. When we partner with parents we are rightfully and regularly reminded that we need to constantly be pointing our students to their parents, their Heavenly Father, and the gospel of grace before we try to impart our “wisdom” to them.
Because even on our best days as youth workers, I’m absolutely sure that when it comes to our students and their relationship with God: 1) God loves his children more than we do, 2) He knows his children better than we do, 3) He wants even greater things than we want for his children, and 4) He has a unique wisdom to offer us that we would otherwise not have without Him.