I’d love to say I’ve never judged a parent or a family situation throughout my years in youth ministry. It would be great to claim I’ve always listened, been a strong advocate, and formed opinions based only on facts. Saying those things wouldn’t make them true, however.
An especially difficult ministry skill is learning how to scratch below the surface. That happens when I take time to listen to a parent’s heart. Nine times out of 10, it reveals the why behind someone’s words or actions.
Scratching below the surface leads to “aha!” moments, when you see someone in a new light—or realizing you’ve misinterpreted a statement.Click to tweet
As a longtime youth minister and the parent of three teenagers, I’ve discovered that parents rarely say what they mean. That’s why it’s vital to break through the language barrier by running parent-speak through a ministry-speak translator. Then you’ll know how best to respond.
Here are four parent proclamations, along with helpful ministry translations:
Parents Ask: “Why isn’t youth group more fun? Why don’t you do more activities and games?”
Translation: “For numerous reasons, I’ve decided my teenagers need to be here every week. Maybe I can’t handle them at home, or I think church is good for them, or this is where they come to learn about God. The point is, I want them here, and they’re complaining about it. If you’d just provide better activities, my kids would want to be here and the fights at home would end.”
You Respond: “I’m grateful we’re on the same page about wanting your students here. Thank you so much for the time and energy you put into accomplishing that. There are many reasons we do things the way we do, and I’d love to talk to you about them more. Can we set up a time to chat one on one so I can explain?”
Parents Ask: “Did I know this permission slip (or money) was due today? Did I know this meeting (or event) was happening? You didn’t communicate that information.”
Translation: “Yep, I missed it. Honestly, the news could’ve been in the bulletin and you could’ve screamed it from the mountaintops, and I still would’ve put it on the bottom of my pile. Maybe I didn’t want to admit we don’t have the money. Right or wrong, I couldn’t make a decision, or you’re the only one who will give me grace, so this wasn’t a priority for me.”
You Respond: Overcommunicate with parents about deadlines and processes. You want to be able to say, “This was in the bulletin, in an email, on Facebook, on your answering machine, in five announcements, and in two texts.” When you send home information and permission slips, clearly state that if a deadline comes and goes, a teenager will miss out. At the same time, realize that pride often prevents parents from admitting why they’ve been dragging their feet. So never be afraid to extend grace.
Parents Ask: “Can you talk to my teenager about this tough topic?”
Translation: “I’m not the expert with my kids; you are. So will you please discuss this supremely uncomfortable topic with them? You can definitely handle it better than I can; after all, I’m overwhelmed by my parenting responsibilities 90 percent of the time. I realize this seems like apathy or overprotection, but often I don’t know what to say or do, so I don’t.”
You Respond: “I’m so glad we can partner together in your teenager’s life and faith. I know certain topics are tough to address; they are for me, too. Can we meet to brainstorm a plan about how to best help your teenager?” You can also survey parents, asking what topics they’d like to learn about in a class designed just for them.
Parents Say: “My teenagers can’t attend youth group every week because they’re in club sports (or another time-consuming extracurricular). Can you make exceptions regarding deadlines, service projects, and other dates?”
Translation: “I want my teenager to get into college, and I’m pretty sure the only way we can remotely afford it is through lots of scholarships. We need to take advantage of every opportunity that’s offered. I’m panicking about this.”
You Respond: Again, make your expectations clear. If teenagers have chosen a sport, fine, but that’s the choice. They may not be able to participate in both that and youth group, but when you can, reach out and try to accommodate them.
Time almost always fixes a translation miscommunication. The more time you take to listen to parents and avoid assumptions, the more you help their teenagers grow into faith-filled followers of Jesus.