What do dogs, Indian food and parents have in common? They can all be your best friend, until they turn around and bite you. Managing your relationship with the parents of the children and young people in your group can be one of the trickiest tasks involved in ministry. Yet it’s also one of the areas we probably least prepare youth and children’s leaders for, whether they’re employed or volunteers. Parents can be your most important partners, particularly in the nurture of young people’s faith; parents can also be the most powerful obstruction to the success of your work. Investing time in them is an important part of your job which simply can’t be deprioritised or overlooked.
We’ll come to the answer to the initial question later on, but in truth your objective is to never let things get to that point. Instead, you should have a considered strategy for building and maintaining a relationship with parents where everyone is aware of the boundaries of their respective roles, where information is shared, and even in some cases where parents themselves are drawn into a wider Christian community. Here are some simple thoughts about how that can work in practice:
A parental email database is a must for any group. You can use it to let parents know that you’re offering a considered, safe and planned programme, and to simplify the process of consent forms. Perhaps most significantly though, it gives you a regular mechanism through which to share vision, and to receive feedback.
Invite them in
When I was 14, my own parents were deeply suspicious of these strange people who wanted to take me to Laser Quest (yes Dad, I’m still bitter). In the end the barrier was cleared when they were given a chance to meet the youth leaders and see where we met. So do the same thing for your parents: don’t let this thing their kids disappear off to each week feel weird or secretive.
It’s also good to set aside at least one evening a year where the parents get a chance to come together. On the surface this is a social gathering with a bit of time for the youth team to share, but it also creates a safe environment for individuals to raise questions or concerns that they might have. In the context of good, regular communication, it’s unlikely this will turn into an angry ‘town hall meeting’. Instead, you’ll have a chance to deal with sapling problems before they take full root.
Of course this approach isn’t foolproof, nor does it inoculate you against the possibility that one or more parents might take issue with you or your approach. However, making sure these simple ideas are part of your wider youth strategy does set you on a surer footing should problems arise.
Too many employments end because a youth worker suddenly finds themselves alienated against what feels like an entire church and its leadership
So to return to the original question: what should you do if the parents decide you’re not the right person for the job? Let’s be brutally honest at this point: however wrong they might be, their personal and (in many cases) financial stake in your employment does mean they feel a right to comment. As a result, all but the most unswervingly visionary leaders will also be minded to take their concerns seriously, and it’s often here that the real fault-lines emerge between the indicted youth worker and the minister worrying that the congregation’s monthly giving might plummet.
For that, and for better reasons, you do need to take parental concerns seriously. Again, the steps outlined above are the key to any attempted solution, along with a commitment from you to take seriously any issues they raise, and to implement change where it’s needed. At the same time, they should be prepared to give you time to allow you to implement your solution, and pragmatically this is where you need your leader and line manager to be on your side. Too many employments end because a youth worker suddenly finds themselves alienated against what feels like an entire church and its leadership.
This is just one of many reasons why it’s important to invest in your line management relationship, and to ensure that again, the lines of communication are clear and open. If you and your manager trust each other, and talk early about problems rather than burying your heads in the sand, you’re much better prepared to address and solve an issue with parents together. If you enjoy a good, accountable relationship with this person, you’ve also got someone who can tell you honestly if you’re in the wrong.
In some cases however, a rising mob of parents who want you out will use unpleasant tactics and can simply make life feel toxic. And if your role becomes abusive, you shouldn’t feel chained to it because of your calling to ministry; your skills will be valued in lots of other great youth or children’s work jobs elsewhere. It’s not the perfect scenario, but if facing up to bullies doesn’t work, it’s sometimes best to walk away.