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The Subtle Seduction of Spiritual Sub-contracting

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We’re excited to have Marv Penner as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations he’ll be navigating in his seminars. Check out more information HERE.


I couldn’t possibly have been more sincere in my folly. 

I honestly thought I was doing what was best for everyone.  I was the superhero young youth pastor – my super-cape ruffling in the breeze behind me…my super-boots ready to spring me into action…  and my super-goggles seeing things that only a brash young rookie could see – a generation of young people with huge spiritual needs and enormous potential stuck with a bunch of parents who just didn’t get it!  Parents who seemed oblivious to the need to get involved in the spiritual lives of their kids, and apparently not caring enough to do it.  Parents who seemed so pre-occupied with their own self-serving agendas that they didn’t have time to lead their families spiritually. Parents who seemed culturally and relationally disconnected from their teenage sons and daughters. In fact – parents who seemed to be eroding the hearts of their kids instead of building them up.

The good news in this bleak landscape was that they had ME!

My job (as I had defined it) was to rescue these precious young souls from their spiritually lethargic parents and set them on a path to godliness that would sustain them into their adulthood. It was an enormous job, but I rolled up my super-sleeves and poured myself into it with arrogant bravado. And the feedback I was getting was pretty positive.  Kids told me how cool I was – and how crucial my investment in their spiritual journey had become, and parents patted me on the back telling me what a great job I was doing.  I didn’t even notice that many of them had begun to pull back even more from their kids, apparently comfortable with the notion that I had it covered.  I was frantically juggling relationships, available 24/7, teaching, praying, mentoring, leading… and feeling a heady sense of accomplishment as I basked in the affirmation.

Without realizing it, we had all bought into the “sub-contractor” model of ministry that has become pervasive in contemporary multi-staff faith communities. A generational expert is hired to shepherd an age group through each unique developmental stage, relieving the rest of the church family – and too often the parents – of any active role in the spiritual lives of their young people.

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that it wasn’t long before the whole thing started to unravel.

I quickly reached and exceeded my relational capacity and it began to take its toll on my own marriage and family. As I started burning out, my disdain for parents grew and I began to resent their lack of involvement. They became critical of the work I was (and wasn’t) doing. When their kids struggled spiritually it was my fault. When they wrestled with doubt it was because I wasn’t laying down the right foundations. When crucial topics needed to be addressed – moral purity, sibling rivalry, respect for parents, spiritual disciplines… it was my job to make sure they all got covered – and at the right time. I wasn’t feeling like a hero anymore.

Here’s something it took me way too long to learn!

Most parents of teenagers I know are not driven by selfishness, lack of love for their kids or a stubborn unwillingness to connect at deeper levels.  Actually – they’re scared. They’re not sure what to do (or not do.) They are calculated and cautious about what they say (or don’t say) because they believe their relationship with their teenager is fragile and a misstep could blow everything up.  They disengage for fear of ruining it or making things worse.

Many parents of teens feel enormous anxiety and inadequacy but have no place to process it. Of course teenagers sense the imbalance of power and often leverage it to their advantage giving their parents the impression that if they screw it up they will be shut out forever.  Add to that a youth worker who views them with suspicion or disdain and a lot of parents just step back and hope for the best.  It’s no wonder many of them support a “subcontractor” approach to youth ministry.  At least somebody’s minding the kids.

So –  what if we added the words encourage, empower and equip to our vocabulary of relating to the parents of teenagers we care for? The desired outcome would be a climate of “co-nurturing” and the process would involve a generation of youth workers who would come alongside (not displace) the voice of a parent in the life of their teenager.  What if our greatest joy would come from seeing parents meaningfully involved in the lives of their kids at many levels – and we had a significant part in facilitating that process?

In most cases this will not involve blowing up your youth ministry and swinging the programming pendulum way over to the other side. 

What I learned (through more than a few blunders) was that first and foremost it’s about creating a culture of mutual trust and respect with parents.  That means our job as youth workers is to trust and respect parents in their role and (this might be tougher) to be trustworthy and respectable in all we do. When parents get the sense that we’re on their team it doesn’t take long for them to get on ours.

By the way – and just between us… there’s nothing I’ve found in all these years of working with teenagers that has earned me more grace, forgiveness, freedom and support in ministry than having a churchful of parents who see me as an ally instead of an intimidating surrogate.

I sure wish I had figured that out a lot earlier!


Marv Penner is an internationally known author, professor, speaker, and youth ministry veteran who has spent more than 40 years working with students and families. He’s the author of six books on youth ministry, including The Youth Worker’s Guide to Parent Ministry, Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut, and Building and Mobilizing Teams. Marv is also a marriage and family counselor specializing in parent/adolescent conflict resolution, sexual abuse recovery, self-injury, eating disorders, and marriage and family issues.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS. 

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