I was talking with a fellow youth worker the other day who asked me this question, "Can the Church really be a viable partner for parents?"
He shared with me about his current struggles a youth worker. He said, "Ryan, with all of the additional programs for students to attend, whether it be an extra-curricular sport team, counseling, therapy groups, community and non-profit service-based organizations, and the mall, what can the church possibly offer a student these days?"
That is a fair question. With all that a student can get involved in, along with all of the options available to a parent for personal, mental, physical, and yes, even spiritual development, what role can the church assume to partner with parents for the sake of the faith formation of a teenager?
Another fellow youth worker confessed to me that recently a parent of one of his students decided to stop sending that teenager to midweek program at church because that parent wanted to try a mindfulness technique at one of the local community centers. At the end of our conversation together, he simply said, "What's the point?!" Another fair question.
What is the point? Is what we do - the programs we offer, the time we invest, the camps we attend - truly effective? Engaging? Inspiring? Even necessary?
At the risk of sending you into an existential crisis, I want you to honestly examine these questions. As difficult for us to admit, they are fair questions. As youth workers, we pour our blood, sweat, and tears into our work, but what should we do if the people go elsewhere? Chalk it up to their ignorance? Or think more deeply about what you do and why you do it?
From a pragmatic leadership standpoint, it is always necessary to critically reflect on what you do and why you do it. But for the sake of the church and its viability to build healthy parent partnerships, consider these questions of yourself and ministry:
1. Are you serving where you feel called and most passionate?
2. If you are experiencing difficulty building parent partnerships, then do you need to re-evaluate how to better respond to families under your care?
3. Are you utilizing the most effective means at your disposal to equip and disciple students and families into the cause of Christ?
As our culture continues to speed into an unreachable horizon of achievement and success, the good news of our vocation is this: we get to bear witness to a different news, a more inspiring and true and peaceful kind of news. This must be our starting place, and the vision that we return to over and over again.
As youth workers and pastors and leaders in the church, we need to admit that for those not yet part of our church or for those who may not even identify as Christians, we are merely one voice in a million clambering for attention and time.
Yet, for those who understand the reality of the Gospel, for those parents who 'get it' - who get their redemption and salvation - then the church represents more than just a place for teenagers to hang out, your program, time, and investment epitomizes hope and grace in the here and now for teenagers everywhere. Remember that for encouragement.
I am going to put my cards on the table. I think the church not only can be a great partner for any parent, but I think the church MUST strive to throw everything it's got - capital, time, resources - at seeking the partnership of every parent and convincing them of this truth!
Here are some practical, easy ways that parents can begin to see you as a potential partner:
1. Don't ask for anything, but offer everything. We all know that you have a budget and limited hours in the week. But what would it look like for you to lead from a different starting point? For new parents and non-Christian parents alike, try leading and serving from a place of gratitude and generosity. My rule of thumb is even is even if a parent is wealthy enough to afford the moon, then I'm still going to give their kid a free sweatshirt, free stickers, and free resources. When I meet with the parent or student, I am going to buy their coffee, lunch, and snacks, until that parent tells me, "I can't believe your generosity. What can I offer? How can I get involved?" Inevitably, you will hear some iteration of these words, because ultimately, nothing communicates 'I am with you' more than generosity and charitable grace!
2. Treat every parent the same, regardless of belief or attendance. From the moment that I took leadership at my student ministry, I decided that I would treat every parent the same, including the most fringe, critical, and unbelieving parent. From the beginning, I made a conscious effort to see every student and parent who came through my door as an automatic part of our community, and I treated them that way until they gave me a reason to do otherwise. This communicates 2 big ideas:
First, I am with you and for you no matter what. You don't have to earn my trust or time. That by itself tells them a lot about the Jesus to whom we love and serve.
Second, this redefines the church as a place of exclusion to a place of respect. Jesus fought for us and stopped at nothing for everyone of us, including death on the cross. Should we not also fight for every person, even if that means remembering to send an additional email or text?
3. Be a resource provider and content curator. This may be the biggest game changer to the health of your parent partnerships. This also requires the most amount of time to prepare. Obviously, the church cannot be a fitness center, counseling center, restaurant, athletic stadium, cafe, and more. At times, we can embody some of these characteristics, but we cannot be these things all the time. The church, however, can be a source of faithful, Gospel centered information and resources. And we should work as hard as we can to provide relevant, timely resources for our parents and families on issues that pertain to them and the community. In the case of my friend who I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I later asked him, "What if you provided your parents with different options in addition to mindfulness technique brochures that they receive at the pediatrician's office?" Because let's face it: often times, parents only use what they have at their disposal. And the loudest voices tend to come from dominant cultural trends. As a youth worker, assist parents by offering a different option. set aside game planning for researching what really matters for your families. Though you may not get the traction you desire at first, eventually, by exercising your resources for parents and exposing them to other faithful, Gospel-centered options, the partnerships can not only develop, but thrive!
We should not feel offended if a parent chooses a different partner than us. Often, it is not personal. Parents - who also feel strained, confused, and tapped out - often simply choose the most obvious partner from the dominating trend at the time. And those voices can sometimes be much louder and well-funded.
Be a different voice. You cannot give up on fighting for both parent partnerships and the family. Instead, you should critically reflect on why that parent chose a different partner and then do the hard work of providing other options for your parents that somehow includes the church. Stay firmly rooted in your call. It is not about you. And keep fighting for the hearts and souls of the families in your community!
QUESTION: What ways have you creatively and intentionally partnered with parents in your church?