I had no idea. NO IDEA! Who knew that connecting with parents would be such a pivotal aspect of youth ministry? When I was just starting out, I read pages and pages about the importance of parents but I mostly dismissed that stuff. I was in it for the students! Parents were an afterthought.
Silly me. The biggest surprise of the past three years of ministry has been discovering the value of my connection with parents. Not only that—connecting with parents is one of the greatest sources of joy in my life these days!
Here’s my recipe for building and maintaining a connection with parents of students, in no particular order. Youth workers: This stuff will help you connect with parents, which in turn allows you to connect more effectively with the students in your ministry. Parents: Here’s an inside look at my playbook. There’s nothing to hide here. You should know my intentions so that you can let me know if I’m not living up to them.
A lot of these ingredients apply to a youth worker who is younger than the parents of students in his or her ministry. Some items will morph as a youth worker gets older, but a lot applies regardless of age:
- Be organized and communicate clearly. Good organization and communication go a long way toward building rapport and trust with parents. A youth worker doesn’t need to be an administrative rock star, but a baseline skill set is necessary.
- Always build up parents in front of students. This is a promise I make to parents every year. I need them to trust that I’ll never talk negatively about them in front of their kids. That means, for example, when a student comes to me and complains how their parents took away their phone for a “lame” (in the student’s words) reason, I’ll listen and affirm their feelings of frustration. But neither will I ever say, “Oh, that’s so dumb that your parents took away your phone! Dude, your mom seems really controlling.”
- Admit your mistakes. Parents don’t expect perfection, so there’s no reason to hide if you mess up every once in a while. If you’re messing up frequently you might have a competence issue, but that’s a conversation for another day. I bet parents will give you more trust if you fess up to stuff every once in a while. It doesn’t need to be a huge public confession. Usually it’s enough to just admit your mistakes in the context of a personal conversation.
- Be open to correction. Every year at my parent meeting I invite parents to confront me, as long as it’s in person. Don’t get defensive if parents confront to you. Sure, parents probably don’t know as much about youth ministry as you do. But they often know a lot more about life than you do, especially if they’re older than you. Chances are there’s at least a kernel of truth (or a lot more) in what they’re trying to tell you.
- Defer to parents’ authority. As long as it’s not blatant sin, don’t call out a parent for decisions related to their kids. It’s not your place. Parents have a special and unique authoritative role in their kids’ lives. They have the right to make decisions that you can’t or shouldn’t make for their kids. Your opinion, in a lot of cases, doesn’t matter unless parents ask you for advice.
- Encourage and educate. Don’t focus on what parents are doing wrong. They’re not looking for a critic. They need someone who will encourage them. One parent told me he loves it when youth workers share positive comments, observations, or affirmations about his kids. You can also encourage parents by educating them. Help them understand their kids’ life stage. You’re not a parenting expert, but you are an expert on teenagers and teenage culture.
- Leverage their superior knowledge about their kids. Most parents have known their kids since they came out of the womb, or shortly thereafter. Youth workers usually know kids for just a few years of their lives, and it’s only for a few hours at a time. Parents know their kids much better than you and live with them every day, so lean into that knowledge. More than once I’ve said to a parent, “Tell me what I need to know so I can connect better with your son!”
- Get close to a few. You can’t be best friends with every parent. But I’ve found it incredibly valuable to pinpoint a few parents who are kicking butt when it comes to raising their kids and who are open to allowing me deeper access to their family. These kinds of relationships are highly rewarding in terms of learning, encouragement, and friendship.
- Pray for them. Because parenting teenagers can be difficult and parents need all the help they can get.
- Be graceful and assume the best. Parents are going to make mistakes. They’re going to do things that frustrate you from time to time. Guess what? Youth workers do the same thing to parents! Show grace and assume they’re trying their best.
I envision a day when every single youth worker sees parents as valuable allies. Parents and youth workers are on the same team—both want to see teenagers madly in love with Jesus. That means we have an opportunity to mutually support and encourage each other. As youth workers we can do our churches, our church families, and ourselves a favor by intentionally connecting with parents.