Written by Natalie Frisk

If I could offer my younger self wisdom about starting in youth ministry, I would grab my younger self by the face with both hands and say, “Parents are the primary disciplers of their kids. We are meant to be their support, encouragement, and aid. You need to build the ministry with that in mind!”

Maybe my future self would seem intense to my past self, but I think this is an incredibly important premise to build our ministries around: parents are key.

I imagine my past self would have mostly ignored the advice, she was so stubborn. Don’t be like my past self. Have ears to hear this: parents are key.

I know what some of you are thinking, “But I have x-number of students who are from unchurched or never-churched homes, what about them?” I hear you. I think the vital act there is helping them find a family from the church to connect with as their “spiritual family.”

Let’s be honest, even if you are running one or two youth programs a week, that student still only has a few hours with you every week. And even with the best of small group leaders and all your pastor-y skills, your attention and discipleship focus won’t fully be on that one student.

If we help this student connect with a spiritual family, we are opening the door for them to see how a family who follows Jesus interacts with each other, leans on their faith in Jesus, shares the love of Jesus, and patterns themselves in their weekly lives as they follow Christ. And that student will also have the benefit of being grafted into a family where they can ask meaningful questions.

Then, hopefully that student will feel supported in their spiritual journey if or when their own family doesn’t fully understand.

We need to remember that spiritual families can offer a level of support and interaction to individual students that we as leaders are unable to provide. Does that mean the work of your ministry isn’t important? Not at all. It is incredibly important.

Students need others outside their family unit to be able to express new thoughts and ideas and discover new things.

It’s their testing ground. Your students need you to be a safe third space where they can speak freely and without judgment.

And their parents also need you. Big time. Their parents need you to help reinforce what it looks like to follow Jesus in real life. It’s most likely that you, as a youth leader, are at a different stage in life than a student’s parents. That allows the student to see what following Jesus can look like at different stages. Parents also need you to encourage their child/teen. Let’s be honest, many kids can hear the same thing a thousand times from their parents, but when another respected adult says the same thing, it is like they’ve heard it for the very first time. What a beautiful thing!

I realize all of this may sound nice, but how do we strategically make partnering with parents effective in our ministry settings? (I know that question was right on the tip of your tongue.)

I think this begins with getting parents on board. Many parents—probably too many parents, in truth—have been made to believe that youth ministry takes care of discipling their kids. Because of the professionalization of children and youth ministry and the wonderful programs and strategies that have been developed, parents have been convinced that the discipleship of their kids has been outsourced. *Wipes dust off of both hands.* Done.

With this perception, the role of the parent is to make sure their kids get to church or youth group. Discipleship achieved! But this has been an unfortunate lie that, over the last few decades, many parents have bought into. Parents take a back seat to youth pastors, youth leaders, and whomever else has been involved in the programs that, chances are, they know little about.

But not on your watch. (Cue yourself swiftly removing the sunglasses you most likely got at a conference.) Not on your watch.

Early in my youth ministry experience, I sought out the wisdom of parents. I had a couple of different parents be my “parent lens.” They offered me wisdom from a parental viewpoint. When I planned an event, activity, or experience that might be questionable in any way, I’d run it by them first. If they had concerns, I guessed other parents would share those concerns. I trusted their lens.

But that’s as far as I went.

I wish I had built a small team of parents who provided this kind of wisdom. I wish that team also shared what they were struggling with in their relationships with their children and where they perceived their children needed guidance or encouragement. I wish I could have leveraged this team to share the experiences of other parents so I could be aware of the gaps in the ministry from many perspectives. I would have asked these parents to pray with and for other parents.

A little later in my ministry, I started doing a parent night about once per month during youth group. I would bring in a content expert to share with parents about some topic of interest. In truth, attendance at these evenings was sparse. I cannot tell you if repeat parents attended because they enjoyed the content or simply because they felt bad that I went through the effort to make the nights a priority.

I wish I had utilized the aforementioned team-that-didn’t-exist to discern how often this kind of parent equipping night would have been beneficial and the topics that parents actually wanted to learn about and discuss. I would have created space for parents to ask questions and learn best practices from one another as they disciple their kids in the way of Jesus.

At some point in my ministry experience, I had small group leaders write letters to their students’ parents to introduce themselves, give them their contact information, and so on. I wanted to garner this connection, but I didn’t go much further than this.

I wish I had organized an event early in the ministry year where parents were invited to dinner, barbeque, or dessert night with their kid’s small group leaders. Would there have been some awkward get to know you moments? Yes, absolutely, and it would have been amazing. It would have been the first step towards relationships between parents and youth leaders, but certainly not the last.

I would also encourage youth leaders to send messages or cards of encouragement to parents, simply to say, “You’ve got a great kid. Thanks for doing such a great job.” These messages can share highlights of getting to know their child without violating any trust between leader and student. This would be such a gift to many parents.

I would also encourage parents to feel free to thank and appreciate what youth leaders do for their kids. I’d encourage the connection. I’d do whatever else I could to boost the quantity and quality of interaction between parents and small group leaders.

All of these connections, I believe, really help each relationship grow. They create space for parents to feel they can genuinely trust the small group leaders. They also allow small group leaders to develop in their understanding of where their students are coming from and how leaders can best support the family structure.

In this little trip down memory lane, I also recognize I had many parents request resources for helping with a conversation between them and their kid. For example, “What’s the best book you have on talking to your kid about sex?” Or, “What are the best resources to help kids facing online bullying, anxiety, or cutting?” I would often scramble to ask another youth pastor friend for a recommendation and try to send a title or two to that parent.

I wish I had sought the wisdom of as many youth/children’s pastors as I could find and request their “best of” resources. I would have attempted to create a solid list of these resources covering as many topics as I could crowdsource. Then, in being more strategic and seeking to help parents, I would have advocated for a larger book budget so that I could order many of the books on the resource list, and when parents requested a resource, instead of simply naming a title, I could physically hand them a book.

Hindsight is wonderful. While I have been able to implement many of these things as my ministry evolved, being able to set up a ministry with these strategies much sooner would have, I believe, built a stronger, more effective setting for students to grow and small group leaders to flourish.