“You have no idea what it’s like to be a parent of a high school student. You’ll understand once you have kids of your own.”
My best laid plans to help fell flat. As these parents left my office my first thought was: “I’m a total failure. Is Walmart hiring?” My second thought was: “Those parents don’t have a clue. They do not understand this generation. If they would just engage… back off… not worry.”
Fill in the blank and I’ve had the conversation. After all, I’m the expert who was hired to guide students and resource parents in developing the faith of their kids. But who am I kidding? My best efforts as a youth pastor will always fall flat against the influence and guidance of a parent.
I just wish I would have embraced that fact a lot earlier.
For most of my ministry career I have had children of my own, but it was not until recently that I have had children in high school. My boys are 18 and 16. I could not be prouder of who they are and the young men they are developing into. However, their faith journey is not what I thought it would be.
They struggle to get their minds around who God is and what is expected of them. It gets complicated when others layer their expectations on them; and the desire for young men to be independent drives them to find their own way. Glimpses of God at work come here and there, but for the most part we wonder what God is doing and if they will respond to Him in faith. It’s certainly not storybook, but the good news is it’s also in progress.
There is a complexity to their lives that I never really appreciated in the high school students I saw once or twice a week. While I wish their journey could be easy and straight forward, I’m learning now that is simply an unfair expectation on them and for the students I have worked with.
We want to do everything we can to lead students to Christ. It’s our job to know, understand and lead this generation. We read everything we can get our hands on and listen to every podcast available to get deeper insights into the hearts and minds of this generation. We faithfully plan, prepare, preach and purposefully invest, but there is one truth that we must remember: Parents are right! They actually know what their children need far better than we ever will. While we are a significant piece in students’ lives, we can never assume that we know better.
We just don’t.
Here is some advice I wish someone would have shared with me. I’m not sure I would have taken it, but it needs to be said anyway.
DON’T ASSUME YOU HAVE MORE INFORMATION THAN PARENTS
Parenting teenagers is hands down the most challenging thing I have ever done. It’s a crazy roller coaster of your most contentious meeting, failed retreat, desperate hospital visit, late night counseling session and budget crisis coupled with joyful moments of connection, hilarious belly laughter, exhilarating adventure and momentous occasions all rolled into one – and on 24 hour repeat. There is simply no way for any youth worker to understand what it’s like to care for, guide, discipline, instruct and support a high school student until you have done it day in and day out.
So offer your best advice when parents seek it, but do not be deceived into thinking you know what is best. Parents have their child’s whole life as a reference point. There are things happening just below the surface that you are not aware of. They know their child’s tendencies, desires, needs and current situation.
Parents have the entire back story from birth to the present to lean into. They also know their own failings and contribution to the issues they are facing. Don’t assume. Instead, offer your support and understanding, and if asked, the wisest council you can offer.
MAKE THE CHOICE TO LEARN FROM PARENTS AND TRUST THEIR JUDGMENT
If you will allow them, parents can be your greatest source of knowledge for your student ministry. Not only do they know their own children, they are friends of parents, too. They talk. They know the issues teenagers are facing because they deal with it first-hand everyday.
If you want to know how your ministry can help students in their faith journey, start taking parents out for coffee and listen to the hurdles their kids are facing. Ask parents to give you the honest truth on what they, and their kids, need from the ministry you lead.
Spoiler alert… They need more adults who love Jesus choosing to love their son or daughter.
DON’T BE EASILY OFFENDED WHEN YOUR PLAN, PROGRAM OR PERSPECTIVE IS NOT THE ANSWER
While I don’t want to admit this, looking back, I had a belief that if students showed up to everything we offered in our student ministry, they would somehow have a leg up on spiritual maturity. Families who chose to do other things would be at a disadvantage. To my shame, I thought less of them.
The truth is, parents are the primary disciple-maker of their children. We have all said it, but I’m not sure we all believe it. There are a myriad of reasons why some families choose not to be involved with church-based ministries. When they choose differently than you would hope, don’t be discouraged. They have to do what they feel is right for their family. What you are offering to them just does not fit and that’s ok.
A bit of advice… Don’t forget to ask them what would be a good fit for them.
PRAY OFTEN FOR STUDENTS AND THEIR PARENTS
There is One who knows what’s going on in every student and every family. And He alone holds the answers and solutions to every situation families are facing. The greatest personal ministry you can have as a pastor to the next generation is to commit to regular prayer.
Prayer is not a resource for effective ministry; it is THE source for effective ministry. We need to go to The Source, seeking His good and perfect will for the students and families we have the privilege of ministering to. Make it a priority to lead the charge to pray regularly for the parents represented in your ministry. Send them a note or text of encouragement that lets them know you’re praying.
Friends, I know you’re doing your very best to help students become followers of Jesus. While we know a lot of insider information, there is no substitute for parents. They know their children far better than we ever will. It would be wise for us to spend some time with them, listening to their dreams, desires, fears and frustrations in order to craft the very best ministry efforts we can to serve them and their family.
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