I contend that partnering with parents to develop a teenager’s faith is the most overlooked aspect of discipleship in youth ministry today. Probably because it’s really hard. And frustrating. And not sexy.
I get it.
But here’s the thing: your students are not your kids. They are not your small group leaders ‘kids’ either. They are, however, their parents’ kids. You may be heavily invested in their life (and I hope you are) but your role as a youth pastor is not to replace the influence and care of their parents.
Instead, you are involved in a teenager’s life for a strategic (but limited) season to help them produce an authentic faith in Christ as they navigate adolescence. To try and attempt this mission outside the scope of their parents is unwise and inefficient.
I have two daughters with a third on the way (Lord help me). My girls aren’t teenagers yet but to think that a youth pastor might one day try to reach my kids and exclude me in the process is totally baffling. Don’t be that youth pastor. Be the youth pastor who knows what role they play in a teenagers’ life (and the limits of that role). Be the youth pastor that fights to partner with parents because you realize parents are the most significant spiritual influences of their children.
Now I know the objections to everything I just wrote.
- The parents of my students seem so disinterested.
- They never show up to my meetings.
- They prioritize sports/dance/school/archery/pottery classes ahead of youth group.
- How can I partner with parents when they don’t seem to want to partner with me?
That’s a legitimate struggle. Anyone who has worked with teenagers for more than 2 weeks has felt that tension. But it also isn’t an excuse to cut them out of the picture.
If you really want a killer youth ministry characterized by students’ becoming alive in Christ here’s a really helpful tip: win the trust of parents.
Youth ministry moves at the speed of trust. If you want to move fast and go far in ministry, win the trust of parents. When you do that, here’s what happens:
Parents will be more inclined to send their kids on that retreat or that missions trip you’re organizing.
Parents are more likely to lean into your ministry and invest themselves.
Parents are more likely to go along with the ministry changes you make.
Parents are more likely to listen to you when you tell them how important their influence is.
Parents are more likely to use the tools that you put in their hands to help shape the faith of their kid.
With that being said, I want to suggest six ways that you can win the trust of your students’ parents.
1. BE RUTHLESSLY RELIABLE.
I specifically remember one youth group night when we were at a hockey game with 5-6 other youth groups. It was an incredibly exciting game that was all tied up at the end of the third period. Everyone couldn’t wait to see what happened in Overtime. The only problem was that if we stayed and watched the Overtime period, we would be late getting back to the church for student pick up. I told every parent we’d be back at 10:00pm sharp. I made the hard call of standing up and ushering my kids to the bus so that we could get home on time, much to the students' disappointment and the heckles of the other youth pastors for being such a 'baby' (if I recall correctly).
I made the right call.
Many parents knew that the game went into Overtime and that I chose to stick to my word instead of sticking around to see how the game ended. They knew I was for them.
2. CANCEL YOUTH GROUP
Don’t ever plan a youth event that makes students choose between family and youth group. Your job is to support the family not cause tension! That means we don’t plan an event on Christmas or run a missions meeting on Mother’s Day. Promote the family every chance you get.
Additionally, consider canceling youth group meetings close to exams and other important times in a teenagers’ yearly calendar. This shows parents that you understand the challenges and rhythms of teenagers’ life and that you also value the things that are important to parents.
Lastly, it’s not a bad idea to cancel youth group last minute from time to time! I remember a few years ago we had a big dump of snow hours before youth group. I oscillated back and forth about canceling group. I wanted to go ahead with group because I wrote a great message, all the elements of the night had been planned, and we knew it was going to be a great night. I called another pastor on staff who had a teenager and asked his opinion on the matter. He said “My daughter really wants to go, but I don’t want to battle the snow, so we’re not going to attend. She’s not happy with me”. I immediately realized that in this case, my youth group meeting was causing conflict between parents and their kids. The best thing I could do is cancel group as to avoid making parents the enemy in the situation. Talk about building trust!
3. 1000:1 RATIO
This is the most challenging trust building activity of the bunch but one worth keeping in the forefront of your mind. In order to win the trust of parents, you need to make 1000 good decisions to every 1 not-so-great decision. I have no science or data to back up those figures but I think you understand my point. You are allowed to mess up from time to time and still retain a level of trust with parents. But that mistake has to be surrounded by a truckload of good decisions.
4. SAFETY FIRST!
I’ll admit it, safety is not a primary motivator for myself when planning a youth event. It’s not that I want to put students in danger, it’s just that it’s not on the forefront of my mind. In contrast, The State of Youth Ministry (a report by the Barna group) noted that safety was the most important priority of a youth program for parents!
That reality should frame how you talk about and promote events to parents. You must address and provide clear answers to the safety concerns a parent may have about any particular youth group meeting.
*In addition: don’t Instagram yourself driving down the highway with a car full of students. Don’t ask.
5. BE CHEAP.
Have you ever noticed how expensive life is? The parents of your students have as well. Don’t exasperate them by making your ministry too expensive to participate in. By making your ministry really affordable, you win trust with parents by showing them that you understand the financial pressures of life. Parents often don’t get that level of concern from other organizations that their kids are involved in. This is an area that you can easily win with parents in.
Here are a few tips on how to be a cheap youth ministry:
Make at least 80% of your youth meetings free
Don’t run a $20 event more than once a semester.
Don’t run expensive missions trips every summer.
Space out major events like retreats, camps, missions trips at least 3-4 months apart (and give plenty of notice to parents about the dates and costs at the beginning of the year).
Fundraise. Show parents that you're willing to work with them to offset the expenses involved with their kids being a part of your ministry.
6. PRESS “SEND” EVERY WEEK.
One of the most effective ways to win the trust of parents is to communicate often and communicate clearly. Set up an email campaign that goes out on the same day every week. Include things like:
A recap of what happened at the last youth group meeting.
Arm them with questions or resources to help parents engage their kids in what they are learning at youth group.
A calendar of upcoming events.
Highlight large events (like a retreat or summer camp) months in advance.
Highlight a small group leader.
I guarantee you that parents aren’t receiving that level of communication from other organizations that their kids are involved in. It makes you look like a thoughtful and coordinated and of course, garners trust!
*One last (but essential) note on the matter. Triple check your correspondence with parents for spelling and grammar errors. Poor grammar makes you look incompetent. Have someone proof your written communication or use a tool like Grammarly to help.
Those are six simple ways to win trust with parents that you could implement immediately. What are some other things you’ve done that help you win trust with parents?