If you ask my leaders, "What is one thing that Ryan talks about ad nauseum?" I guarantee that they will tell you two things: Contact Work and Parent Partnerships.
Student Ministry is not rocket science. Some people try to make it so, but any schlep called by God can do this work - just ask my wife. :) I would rather compare Student Ministry to baking a cake from scratch. The cake itself only requires a few ingredients, but the slightest distortion of any ingredient - an extra ounce here, too litter there - will always result in a catastrophic pile of culinary disaster! Trust me, I know this, too - ask my wife. :)
Student Ministry requires only a few key components, and truly, depending on the scale and mixture of those components, either beautiful dessert is made or get ready for hours of messy clean up.
No one would disagree that Parent Partnerships is one of those key components to the health and faithfulness of a Student Ministry. Yet, to what extent ought a Student Ministry leader pursue these partnerships? How close relationally should one get to a parent, especially given that many Student Ministry leaders are in their 20's and some without kids at all? Furthermore, how does a true partnership function? If you know the parent's first name, does that qualify as a partnership? Does one need to engage in deep, theological, and familial relationships with a parent to form a partnership? Where's the balance?
I tend to learn best by addressing the 'via negativa' — the "what not to do" — probably because I make more mistakes than I do not. I am going to address the negative of how not to build a parent partnership in an effort to get to the best, most faithful ways to reach out to parents. Generally speaking, I've either made these mistakes in the past or got stopped just short of committing it. Therefore, below I want to offer 3 mistakes to AVOID when beginning this process:
Mistake #1. You are not the Parent of your students, so don't act like one (to them or their parents). You are a Pastor, a leader, a caring adult volunteer, or even simply a caring adult who loves teenagers. You are not the Parent. Do not subvert the authority of the parent (unless in the rare case of an abusive or harmful situation). Rather, honor the parents of your students, even the 'hard-to-honor' ones, and recognize that for better or for worse, all of the parents in your community love their children more than you ever could. You must set aside your own ego and personal gratification of a student's reliance upon you for the sake of fostering the health and well-being of the families under your care.
Leverage your God-given role in the life of your students in such a way that directs them toward a healthy relationship with their parents.
Mistake #2. Parents do not have disposable time, so use it wisely. Consider this in everything you do with parents, especially in how you communicate. Learn from your parents the most effective and strategic tool for communicating, regardless of what it might be, and do it. If they like pigeon carriers, then so be it, even if you might love and want to experiment with the latest communication technology tool. For example, when you compose an email, place in the subject heading 3-4 key words that describes your letter. Use bullet points and bold face type. Ask direct questions that satisfy your objectives without the fluff and filler. Effective communication is the first step toward building a bridge to partnership. When done wisely, it will convey to the parents your intellect and credibility, as well as your thoughtful consideration for them. Seem counter-intuitive? Just try it, and then tell me what happens. Then, upon establishing this foundation, this pragmatic step toward relational capital is worth its weight in gold!
Leverage strategic communication and thoughtful consideration of the needs of the parent in order to build the relational capital necessary for you to complete your ministry goals.
Mistake #3. Not every Parent is a Christian, so don't make assumptions. Not every parent believes in Jesus, nor trusts the core tenets of the Church. Quite honestly, some may even be taking a huge risk to allow their child to participate in your ministry. Therefore, equal care must be taken in the faith formation of not only the student, but the parent, as well. Use basic terms that are understood by people both inside and outside of the church. Share your philosophy of ministry and core values in such a way that upholds the dignity of the parent, not your seminary education and professors. Invite the parents to engage with you, and take into account their keen critical eye, along with their insight into the life of their student. You don't have all of the answers, and a fresh perspective, even if it seems contrary to your philosophy of ministry, is always worth a second thought.
Leverage the initial trust that is given to you by a non-Christian parent with an even greater response of charity and goodwill, especially if that amounts to additional work, response to questions, and a higher expectation of communication.
Building parent partnerships requires a long-term outlook of ministry. Play the long ball. Most parents, especially in a post-Christendom context do not easily place their trust in a local church. Take the time to earn it. Invest heavily into these relationships, and discover just how much your ministry opens and flourishes with them on your side. In doing so, you will experience ministry dividends beyond your wildest imagination!
QUESTION: What are one or two creative strategies that you have used to build a long-term sustainable bridge to parent partnerships.