I have been diving into the recently released Barna study, “The State of Youth Ministry.” I’ve gone over every piece of data several times as I’m attempting to make sense of where we are at collectively, but every single time I’ve dug in there has been one set of numbers that has surprised me.
- 56% of parents are very familiar with their teen’s youth program.
- 93% of parents feel their church’s youth group is “somewhat” or “very” effective.
- 95% of parents are “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with the youth pastor.
Wait a minute. I thought parents were like our arch nemesis? In my schooling for youth ministry, I often heard jokes tossed around that painted parents as an evil slightly below drugs or lock-ins. Obviously, this was done in humor, but there’s often truth in every joke.
For many years, I lived in fear of parents.
- I thought I was going to do the wrong thing in their eyes.
- I thought I was going to accidentally leave their kid somewhere.
- I thought I had to put on a persona to impress them.
- I thought I had to cater my ministry to make them happy.
- I thought they hated me.
The truth is…
- I did some wrong things, and they still loved me and poured grace into my life.
- I did leave some kids places, and they forgave me.
- They saw through my false persona and asked me to be me.
- They asked me to cater my ministry to their students, not them.
- I disagreed with some, but ultimately the parents I’ve met showered me with love and support.
Having recently come back from the National Youth Workers Convention, I engaged a lot of people and struck up many conversations. Parents naturally became a topic of discussion, and I was surprised how terrified all these youth leaders were of upsetting a parent. For many of them, their fear was actually keeping them from doing things that they were passionate about in their respective ministries.
Our fear of parents doesn’t make sense when you look at this data.
Shifting our Perspective
In the preface of this study, the authors ask for us to shift our perspective. Most of us are operating from our own narrow perspective. Perhaps we’ve had one horrific encounter with a parent so we attach that experience to all parents. That’s a narrow view. It may have been true in one instance, but it doesn’t get at the larger narrative. The authors say,
“It’s important not to limit your knowledge to anecdotal evidence.”
When I was first starting out in youth ministry, I messed up a lot (and still do). I remember taking one of my students to an R-rated movie. I thought it was no big deal. I was wrong. When their parents found out, they scolded me. They went at great length to tell me why what I did was wrong. They were right, but I didn’t think so at the time. I took this experience and created a narrow narrative in my mind, heart, and soul. I told myself things like…
- Parents just don’t get it.
- Parents don’t care.
- Parents are wrong.
My first problem was that I was simply lying to myself. It was probably a defense mechanism, but nonetheless, I was lying.
My second problem is that I attached all parents to this one interaction.
My bitterness toward parents only increased over the next few years. I had increasingly challenging times when dealing with them in various situations.
One week, while sharing all my frustration about these “evil” parents to my therapist, she asked me one simple question after I had exhausted my anger. She simply asked me, “Is any of this true?”
I wanted to shout “YES!” back at her, but I couldn’t. Internally, I knew nothing I had been saying or thinking was actually the truth. I had fabricated a story to myself, and I’d been telling myself that story for so long I actually began believing it.
I had to shift my perspective. I had to tell myself a new story.
It took time, but I’ve since adopted a new story about my relationship with parents.
The Truth of the Matter
Parents are on my side. They’re on your side. They want you to succeed. They want their student to excel. When they come to us with concerns, it’s not out of a deep hate for any one of us; it comes from a love and desire to see Christ move in their kid’s life. Maybe they go about it in a way that’s frustrating to you, but that doesn’t mean they’re against you.
The data shows a story that I wonder if we, as youth leaders, are telling ourselves.
We need to shift our perspective about parents. They’re not an enemy, they’re an ally. You need them, and they need you. We are a team, and teams only function correctly when there’s trust. Trust cannot happen if you’re telling yourself a narrow narrative based on a few bad encounters.
Let’s tell ourselves a new story – a story of togetherness.
RYAN SCHMALL is the Student Ministries Pastor at Redding First Church of the Nazarene in Northern California. He is married to his wife Jeanette, and together they have three amazing girls. Ryan is passionate about creating experiences and environments for people to encounter God in new and unique ways. You can follow him on TWITTER or read his blog over at IAMRYANSCHMALL.TUMBLR.COM.