I’m a Decent Youth Minister, an Even Worse Parent

This is the sixth piece in our ongoing series, “Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister.” While student ministry is often extremely edifying and even a barrel of laughs, it can also be isolating, discouraging, and totally exhausting. Our hope in this series is to offer comfort to those of us deep in the trenches of ministry, through personal stories of God’s goodness and grace in the midst of struggle. Other articles in this series can be found here.

Youth ministry and parenting have a lot in common. They both involve discipleship, and walking with young people through the good and the bad of life, pointing them to Jesus the whole time. Each endeavor requires mentoring, speaking into a life and training that young person to follow you as you follow Christ. Parenting and ministry are both about teaching the Scriptures in a way that can be understood and applied. As I have served in both roles for a while now, I have come to a depressing conclusion: It’s easier to be a good youth pastor than a good parent.

I have three amazing daughters ages 12, 10 and 7. They are each incredible gifts from God. Though I spend more time with my daughters than any of the students I minister to, I sometimes struggle to believe that I’m making the impact God wants me to make in their lives. This uncertainty about how I father my girls even causes me to doubt my effectiveness as a youth pastor. Let me just give you one example among many…

Last year, my oldest daughter had a really bad day at school, and started to release some of her frustration onto her family. This lash-out involved disrespect “of the verbal variety,” and the whole thing went down outside of the public elementary school where her sisters attended.

We were picking up our two youngest when the oldest staged this coup with my wife, which was extremely embarrassing. The school is only a mile or so from our church (and the neighborhood where we live). Mid-coup, our eldest decided not to wait in the car but instead to walk herself towards home without telling us. A few minutes later, we would go through the frightening experience of realizing she was missing, and frantically trying to determine where she had gone, hoping beyond words that nothing terrible had happened to her. We spent the next twenty minutes battling anger, helplessness, and worry. In case you are beginning to judge my parenting, we did end up finding her – in our church, in a fellow pastor’s office.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am really happy she ran away to our church and into the care of my trusted friend and colleague. If your kid is going to run away, this is the best case scenario. And yet you can imagine the depth of my shame when my parental incompetence became evident in front of the entire church staff.

Situations such as this have led me to believe I’m not the greatest dad in the world (no matter what my mug says). I may not even be the best dad of 2013 (I also have a t-shirt).

As a youth leader, I fail at times, and yet it seems my greatest failings are with my own children. This reality is particularly difficult for us as youth pastors for at least two reasons:

First, we have a reputation to maintain at our church. We are “the teen experts,” and so when our teen or pre-teen rebels, it is extremely humiliating on a public-level. What are the other youth parents going to think when they see that I can’t keep it together with my own kids – all the while giving them advice and teaching their children? The fear of man is an insidious thing.

Second, I don’t like to think that I need help when it comes to parenting. Recognizing I need the help of others means admitting that my seminary training and pastoral credentials don’t automatically make me an A+ parent.

Both of these concerns force me to face my own sin, which always seems to be a part of the equation, doesn’t it? Yet thankfully, I have seen these things shattered by a deeper exploration of the gospel.

Christ’s righteousness given to me (a gift I never deserved) is the best part of who I am, not to mention the only part that impresses God. This is my only boast, and my performance as a parent cannot add (or detract) one iota to Christ’s work on my behalf. I’m simply a sinner rescued by Christ – just like every other youth parent in my church. Even if my imperfections and struggles are laid out in front of the entire congregation, “there is therefore now no condemnation for me,” because “I am in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1).

The gospel also demolishes my pride. At times, I tend to forget that I am a mess without Christ; but my parental failures help bring my desperate state as a sinner into the spotlight. This is a good thing – the best thing – because it forces me to depend on God and His mercy, a strength infinitely more capable than my own. Parenting drives my wife and I to our knees (together), and we cry out like the Psalmist “as a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”

Being a parent who does youth ministry is not an easy thing, and it’s not for the faint of heart; it’s even harder when both you and your spouse are involved in youth ministry. Because of my job, our kids are submerged in youth culture day in and day out. My wife and I know from our own experience how this wears on a person. It seems our kids get introduced to ideas, philosophies, and attitudes much earlier than some of their Christian peers. Yet in all of this there is a silver lining. If we live humbly and transparently in front of the youth parents in our church, God can use us as models of godly, yet imperfect parenting. Our family has the opportunity to be a picture of grace, which is messy yet perfectly beautiful. Rather than falsely project that we have it all together, we can join the rest of the parents in our congregation as we figure out this grace-based parenting thing as a community.

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

Mark Culton has pastored over twenty years in Pennsylvania, Indiana and now in St. Pete, Florida. He enjoys building relationships with different types of people – all with the heartbeat of making disciples who make disciples. He can be found spending time with his girls, reading, playing sports, enjoying live music, and at the beach with his family. Mark married Jen in 2001, and they have three teenage daughters (Avery, Quinn and Preslie).

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