How Grace Informs the Youth Leader’s Relationships with Parents

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“I just don’t want my daughter to make the same mistakes I made. I fear she’ll be exposed to things she just shouldn’t be as a thirteen year-old,” said a mom in exasperation as we sat caddy-corner from one another in cozy arm chairs. She was worried that her daughter would see and experience “un-Christian things” on an upcoming retreat with students from all around the country.

I will be honest here: I sometimes have a visceral negative reaction to parents’ fears that allowing their students to be involved in various aspects of our youth ministry will “expose” them to something evil, destructive, or irreparable.

I could feel my body tighten as a defensive stance formed in my heart, and the following arguments began racing through my mind:

“But these are things she will be facing soon, if she is not already facing them. This is the opportunity for us to help her navigate culture’s messages.”

“But the danger isn’t just from the outside. The sin in our selves can be just as, if not far more insidious.”

“Your daughter is not you, and operating out of your fear of her making the mistakes you made can actually lead to self-fulfilling prophecy, sometimes.”

But by God’s grace, I held my tongue. I am slowly learning that beginning with redemptive listening and empathy can facilitate partnering with parents in a far more effective way than education or explanations. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for offering the vision of your ministry and the theology behind it (we must be sharing those things with parents!), but timing can be very important.

When relating to parents, my first prayer is that the Lord will help me to remember that they, also, have been created in the image of God. They’re human! And it can be really beneficial to assume that parents are doing the very best they can. I am not a parent, but in being greatly blessed by the honesty of supportive parents in my last decade of youth ministry, I’ve been given the chance to hear honest confessions of much fear and also glorious stories of the Lord using their failures to display the grace of Jesus. A parent repenting to a child can be an incredibly powerful display of humility and need for the cross.

In continuing to approach difficult situations with the parents in my ministry, the following three things have been helpful touchstones for me to keep in mind:

1) I want to honor the heavy and difficult role that being a parent entails. I pray for grace to withhold my judgment (or lay it before the cross), to have compassion, and to look for the dignity beneath the fear/sin/etc. In the scenario above, for instance, that might be: “Wow, this parent is truly committed to their child growing up in the Lord.” Or, “Man, she cares enough to come have a conversation with me.” Or, “Gosh, I can see that she has likely been through a lot in her life; it is amazing that she came through such dark times and has such a heart for Jesus now.”

Being in youth ministry invites us to support and minister to parents almost as often as to youth. Parents are the primary disciplers of their students (if they are following Jesus). They are in need of reminders of the power and hope of Jesus, just as often as you and I are. He is their ability to parent. He is their ability to lead their student toward Him. He is the One who will never stop pursuing their child, that they might have forgiveness, redemption, and secure identity in Himself. What does it look like for you to help the parents in your ministry know deeply that you are with and for them in loving their child?

2) I want to look for that plank in my own eye. Rarely are there better moments to take a deep breath and ask for the Lord to reveal the Matthew 7:5 sin that is going on in your own heart. Am I defensive, frustrated, critical? My own story/wounds/past may have been triggered, and I need to take that to Jesus before responding. Otherwise, I’m using this interaction with a parent to work out or cathart my own junk. If the Holy Spirit graciously allows me to become aware of some of this “junk,” I tend to create a shelf to place it on for that moment so that I can deal with it at a later time with someone else (a mentor, pastor, safe friend). Don’t let your past wounds get dusty up there; they will come back to haunt you in other meetings if they don’t get processed.

3) I want to consider my assumptions. Assumptions kill relationships. What are my assumptions about this parent’s fears; could I ask them about their fears, instead? What are my assumptions about this parent’s motives, or their story? What are this parent’s assumptions about my role in their student’s life? Laying bare assumptions – in your own mind/heart, and potentially with the parent – can be enormously helpful. Sometimes it has been helpful for me to be able to actually vocalize that I am for the parent (even to remind myself!), and that I’m there to support them, not to undermine their authority.

And if you happen to be a parent whose parenting style differs drastically from the parent you are ministering to, I would invite you to ask the Lord to help you be curious about the person in front of you, and to put on your “learner” hat. Be aware of whether your posture is curious or defensive/accusatory, because the tone in which you ask the questions will make a huge difference.

These are experiences that come with great need for the Holy Spirit to work – both in my heart, providing patience, and in my mind, providing the words to offer in grace and truth. Sometimes, if I feel defensive and stuck, or unsure of how to proceed, I will pause to pray with a parent before responding at all. And often, it’s after the conversation has happened that I will pause to pray and reflect on the three things mentioned above. I may need to follow up with the parent to apologize for having failed to listen to or honor them well, and to reemphasize that I am there to partner with them, to encourage and support them in their discipleship of their child.

May the Lord soften us and give us eyes to see and hearts to love the person in front of us, even if they appear to be disgruntled, scared, or angry.

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