A Word of Confession from a Parent to Youth Ministers
God bless you abundantly, my sisters and brothers called into the ministry of shepherding teenagers. Your ministry is daunting and your rewards are intangible. You enter into a young person’s life at a precise and designated moment in his or her development; just as precisely, you exit that life when the next bell rings, and your sheep moves on to a different pasture.
What follows are some insights – or better put, confessions – about what may be going on in the life of the parents of your charges when you briefly intersect with their families. I speak from my own experience, and I believe that some of what I offer likely applies to many of the parents standing on the sidelines of your ministry now and in the years to come.
Parents are afraid. Our fear may be numbed by routine busyness, but it grips us tightly when our children begin to show signs of independent personhood. Not only are their bodies turning into adult ones, their minds are each day more their own. The unlocked access to their every thought, question, and experience is suddenly guarded and passable only upon invitation. As a parent, one day you’re thinking, “She just talks my ear off!” and the next, “She never tells me anything!”
While these developmental changes are challenging enough, the world is a big, mean, scary place, and it seems determined to claim our teenagers. Drug use, bullying, gender confusion, social media, internet porn (and just about everything else on the internet), sexual activity, alcohol use, and falling away from the church and the faith: these are just some of the haunting threats streaming through a parent’s mind each and every day.
And let’s not forget the very real threat before a parent of a teenager: the voluntary act of giving our children a lethal weapon (a car), and after a very rudimentary training period, sending them out into the world completely on their own with that weapon. Will they survive? Will they react when another weapon swerves into their lane? Will they text and drive? Will they get high and drive? Parents are terrified, and that fear can make us anxious, curt, and defensive whenever we leave the foot of Jesus’ cross.
Parents can perceive the church as their Community Center and you as the Activities Director. This is a shameful but common perception. In our desperate love for our teenager, we “shop and compare” the church programs and the bible studies and the trips being offered to the youth of our community. We want the best “product” most likely to keep our children occupied and protected from the flesh and the devil. Parents know we cannot provide this protection on our own, but we erroneously think you can! We lose sight of the real savior, and put that expectation solely on our youth minister.
I recall some years back when I was in charge of a weekend Confirmation retreat. During our Saturday night bonfire when the kids were roasting marshmallows on sticks found in the woods, one overly animated young fellow managed to poke his hot stick in the face of a nearby girl. Not a single adult even knew this had happened until I got a very angry phone call from the girl’s dad the following Monday morning. He had every right to be angry, as his daughter had been hurt, slightly burned, and he was concerned about scarring. The challenge for me was receiving his often made remark, “I thought this was a Christian retreat.” In this instance the parental concern was over physical protection rather than spiritual protection, but this father mistakenly believed that Christian programs can protect each child from all injury.
Parents understand the law more naturally than they understand grace. It’s why Jesus had to come to us, right? We human beings are more inclined to think we can keep the law than we are to trust in this crazy promise of God’s perfect and sufficient grace. Nothing activates this heresy more than parenting a teenager. Good grades? Check. Respectable extra-curricular activity? Check. Regular to frequent involvement with the church? Check. Keeps curfew? Check. Shows no signs of alcohol or drug use? Check. Has good manners? Check. Has respectable friends with Christian parents? Check. Reads the Bible daily? Check. On the college track with at least three really good prospects? Check. Has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Who knows, but at least we are parenting a “good” kid.
To state the obvious, parents of teenagers need much grace, even when what we deserve at times is a quick kick in the rear. We need grace-filled youth ministers in our children’s lives as much as our children need you in their lives. As St. Paul says in Acts 20:24, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Thank you so much for your testimonies, blessed Youth Ministers!!