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The Grand Slam Secrets of
Getting (and Keeping) Parents On Your Team

After just two months into his new role as youth pastor, Jack had hit a wall. Frustrated and confused, he had called me, hoping to get that a little perspective from the oldest youth pastor he knew.
I suggested what I almost always suggest at times like this… food And so, over a Grand Slam breakfast, Jack unraveled his story:
"You won't believe the program I walked into. Get this…this church has 'always has' youth group on Thursday nights…Thursday nights! When the church interviewed me, the parents used all the right buzz words…purpose-driven, family-based." Agitation rose in Jack's voice.
"So what happened?" I asked.
"When I sent out the newsletter announcing that we were moving to a gender-specific small group format on Sunday nights, you'd have thought I'd just committed murder! The parents started burning up the phone lines. And to make matters worse, my pastor sided with them. I've always been told that if I do youth ministry the way it is supposed to be done, I'll likely get fired. I finally understand."
"So what are going you to do?" I wondered out loud.
"I'm going to make the changes that need to be made. If the parents don't like it, that will just be their problem."
I was quiet for a moment, and finally responded, "No, my friend, if the parents don't like it, it will be your problem!"
"So what?!" Jack asked, "Am I supposed to run a program I know won't work…just to keep the parents happy?"
And with that one question, we were launched us into a series of breakfasts in which we would make the four "Breakfast Discoveries" for moving parents from adversaries to allies:
Breakfast Discovery #1: There's More Than One Way to Cook an Egg
Jack had become infatuated with the idea of changing the night and the format of his youth ministry, eventually convincing himself that this change was the only way to accomplish his vision. But the more we talked, the more Jack realized what he had known all along: Effective youth ministry happens with all kinds of models, in all kinds of formats, at all kinds of meeting times.
Jack's programmatic obsession had led him to demonize the parents, to question their motives, to assume that they simply didn't care about the spiritual lives of their kids. The truth is that these parents desperately wanted the youth ministry to succeed, and they loved the fact that their kids wanted to be at church every Thursday night.
As he thought about it, Jack had to admit that the Thursday night gatherings did at least have some momentum. The kids did love coming. They were bringing their friends. In fact, being together on Thursday nights was the only part of the youth ministry they did like.
In the churches I have consulted with, I have repeatedly observed this fascinating, ironic rule of thumb: The first program a new youth pastor tries to change is almost always the one that is working the best.
In most churches, there are plenty of things the both parents and kids hate about the youth ministry. New youth pastors always have a choice to make: Rush in. Make indiscriminate changes that result in tremendous resistance, or Strategically build partnerships with parents by focusing first on making the changes they actually want.
In the long run, youth pastors who choose the second option find themselves in ministries that are enormously easier than those who choose the first.
Breakfast Discovery #2: A Clean Plate, Please
My bride Susan couldn't miss my stunned expression. "Annie just got fired," I said as I hung up the phone. "All she said was 'church politics.'"
Church politics…the dirty word of youth ministry. How many youth pastors have fallen, never to return to ministry again, all because of the ubiquitous power of "church politics." But what I find most surprising about church politics is how surprised most of us are that we should ever have to deal with them.
Some youth workers pride themselves with the naïve notion that they "don't play politics." But, as Jack learned, the second we join a church staff, we step onto the political playing field. The question is not whether or not we will play, but whether or not we will play well.
Like a football player who says, "I don't play games where people get knocked down," a youth pastor who insists on not playing the game will quickly find himself hit, blocked and tackled; growing increasingly critical of very game he has chosen to play. The answer is not to be found in complaining but in learning how the system works and then working the system.
Does that sound distasteful to you?
It did to me too, until the day of Annie's phone call, the day of Susan's discovery of the real meaning of politics.
As soon as I hung up the phone, Susan walked to the bookshelf and pulled out the dictionary. Now after almost 25 years of marriage to this woman, I have learned that when she does something weird like this, she is usually on to something.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm looking it up." I want to see what "politics" really means. She read the definition, her brows furrowed, her eyes fixed on the page. Suddenly, her face brightened, "Guess what word comes right next to 'politics.'" She held out the dictionary and said, "Just take a look!"
"Polka?" (this was getting weirder by the second).
"No, the word before "politics!'"
Her index finger rested just beneath the word…'polite.' "Don't you get it?" she pressed. "Working the political system is simply doing the polite thing."
Slowly it began to sink in. I know you may get nauseated at the sound of the dirty word, but if we hope to keep parents on our side, we need to think politically, to act politely. And politeness requires that we never move forward with a new initiative until there is a critical mass of parents who support our decision. Here's why:
I would never make a structural change to my home without first getting input from Susan. She is my partner. I don't ask for her input because I am "being political." I ask for her input because she has as much invested in our home as I do.
We are foolish to make changes that affect our youth without first consulting the people who have the most investment in them. They are the senior partners, the ones who will be doing ministry with "our kids" long after we have gone.
You will know if you have sought the counsel of a significant number of parents when you initiate a change and the momentum of parents is flowing with you instead of against you. This process will take longer than closing your eyes and charging ahead. But in the long run, you will have saved yourself an inordinate amount of time and headache.
Breakfast Discovery #3: Stick to the Menu
At the first sign of resistance from parents, many of us, like Jack, seek solace in the most popular myth floating around youth ministry these days: If we are faithful to the mission of Jesus, we will likely be fired.
Though there are times when the gospel does put us in opposition to the powers that be, more often than not, it is not simply gospel that creates the opposition.
In my experience, there is one reason, more than any other, that leads senior pastors and parents side against us: When they see a youth pastor neglecting the very job he or she was hired to do.
Perhaps a parable can help explain what I mean.
Imagine you have a job installing water filters. Your boss comes to you, after your first week, and asks how things are going.
You respond with boundless enthusiasm, "I LOVE this job. This week, I rescued three cats from trees. I unstopped five drains. I helped two different people stranded beside the road, and I installed a new hard drive on my computer."
We wouldn't be surprised by a boss responding, "And how many water filters have you installed?"
Miss the number one priority of your job, and that warm, encouraging boss of yours will no longer "on your side."
Since most youth ministry job descriptions are fuzzier than the dice that used to hang from the mirror of my 1962 Volkswagon, let me clarify the single expectation that almost every church has for its youth ministry, regardless of what the job descriptions might say:
Unless the church has hired you exclusively to reach out to students outside the church, the first result that your church is looking for is the engagement and discipling of the youth people of the church.
Fulfill this responsibility, and your senior pastor and the parents will give you immense support and freedom to do whatever else you might feel called to do with the youth ministry. Neglect this responsibility, and there will be no end to the obstacles you will confront.
Someone might respond, "But I have the gift of evangelism. My heart is focused on reaching kids who might never darken the door of a church." Another might say, "God has called me to be a prophet, to speak against shallow pastors and faithless parents.
Wonderful! These are marvelous callings. And if you have one of them, thank God for it. Just don't expect the church to pay you for it.
Breakfast Discover #4: A Side Order of Grace, Please
Let's face it. Parents are the easy target in youth ministry.
You won't have to read far in contemporary youth ministry mythology to find parents caricatured as shallow, faithless, materialistic, interested in nothing more than seeing their daughters elected cheerleader and their sons earning the highest possible SAT scores.
Enough already.
I'm a parent of two teenagers. I know I don't pray with them enough. I'm quick-tempered. I lecture too much. I rescue them when I should let them suffer the consequences. I know I'm not doing enough and worry that what I am doing is the wrong stuff.
When it comes to this whole mission of parenting, I am hopelessly, helplessly in need of grace…from God and from the youth leaders in my church.
I need help. And the parents in your church are a whole lot like me. Getting us on your team will help us, but it can't help but help your youth ministry even more.
And we'll be the ones cheering the loudest when you knock one out of the park.

1 Responses to “YM Article I saw”

  1. Anonymous Tim 

    Good reminder, thanks!

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