2 Partnering-with-parents Mistakes I’ll Never Make Again
By Aaron Thompson
This post first appeared on Aaron’s personal blog.
Partnering with parents is a popular buzz-phrase right now. It’s also something most ministries haven’t totally figured out. I’m in that group of not-there-yet pastors trying to understand how best to do this.
But I have done enough with parents and families to know this: any partnership with parents starts with trust. And that brings me to the two biggest mistakes I’ll never make with parents (again).
1) I thought I knew students better than their parents did.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
I may have been up late texting with a kid, or listened to their heart on a retreat. But I wasn’t there the night they couldn’t sleep when they were four and needed someone to cuddle them through the night. But a parent or parent-figure probably was.
I might get to hear adolescents’ inevitable complaints about their parents (because I’m a pretty safe listener and getting mad at parental figures is a part of development). But in 95 percent of cases, when those same students are 25 and living on their own, those “evil” parents will be the first phone call in a time of crisis, not me.
I walk with students through life. I teach, equip, and train them. Yet even the students I’m most involved with see me for maybe eight hours a week. Their parents see them (depending on work schedules) at least four to five times that amount. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but in my ministry they’re rare.
Here’s what this looks like now:
At parent meetings, instead of telling parents about our programs, our plan for their students, or how to be better parents, I’ve found great success in taking time to just ask parents about their children.
When I started in ministry, parent meetings meant dumping all my plans, visions, and excitement on parents and leaving time at the end for “comments and questions.” Now, I’ve switched that. I put some handouts on the table, briefly mention a few key pieces to read later, and move straight into the heart of our time together: asking parents to be experts on their kids. Because they are.
“We’re just a piece of the discipleship puzzle, not the whole.”
This shows up in more than just parent meetings. It informs how we communicate with parents, how we talk with students about parents, and even how we see ourselves as youth workers. We’re just a piece of the discipleship puzzle, not the whole.
2) I shielded parents from bad news and difficult conversations.
This one’s tricky because it’s easy to make the opposite mistake of over-sharing with parents and undermining our trust with teens. But that’s never been my struggle. Honestly, I’ve known very few youth workers who make that mistake.
Most of us don’t share enough (appropriate) insights and updates on kids with parents—especially if those updates are potentially negative or uncomfortable.
Sure we might send out announcements about the next thing we want parents to drive kids to. But the phone call about an incident at an event, negative patterns of behavior, or potentially dangerous situations and relationships? They’re conspicuously absent from our communication strategies.
Here’s what I did completely wrong:
The place I most clearly messed this up was in my first year of full-time ministry on a mission work-site. I cringe at this now and almost don’t want to share due to embarrassment. But here goes.
While working to paint the home of a needy man in the community, one of our high school seniors (now working in ministry, and very safe) made a dumb choice with a ladder and was almost electrocuted by a power line. Thankfully the line was very low voltage since power was shut off to the home (we thought it was completely dead), and the girl was fine.
But as a 22-year-old youth pastor, I was TERRIFIED to make that phone call to parents. So I didn’t.
I just thought, I’ll leave it to the student to tell her parents, and they’ll call if they have concerns. Two years later they finally found out about it. Now, seven years later, they’ve finally forgiven me for not calling—I think.
“I’ve had to combat my doubts and fears and recognize that these are someone else’s kids.
Here’s what I’ve been learning:
That’s a mistake I’ve repeated (nothing as awful as that first story). Really, I feel like I’ve only started doing this well within the past year. Like I said, it’s hard to know when to share and when not to share. I’ve had to combat my doubts and fears and recognize that these are someone else’s kids. Parents should know when something goes wrong. Or when a child is slipping in faith or life. Or when situations and choices in a student’s life pose them real danger.
Today I don’t hesitate to make a call, even if I just talk in confidentiality-protecting generalities with parents of kids I suspect might be struggling. I’ve found that, to my surprise, the hesitation to call exists on the parent end of the relationship too. Most parents end up thanking me for taking the lead in communicating.
Several times in the past two years I’ve initiated conversations with parents that, early in ministry, I would have avoided like the plague. Not once have I regretted it. Every time, even if the subject is painful, I’ve walked away from the meeting confident that: 1) the parent had a deeper trust in me as a pastor and, 2) the student would be better cared for at home and at church as a result of the dialogue. Being a leader to students and their families means taking the initiative to start a conversation—even if it’s one you absolutely don’t want to have.
There are many more mistakes I’ve made in partnering with parents, but these are my two biggies. Anyone looking to strengthen their partnership with parents would do well to start here.
About the Author
The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry… Read More