A parent complains about a recent youth group event; how do you respond? Easiest question in youth ministry history! Seriously?
The first thing you should do is ignore the parent as long as possible.
You are taking some well-deserved time off after the world’s best overnighter in the history of the universe(TM). Here’s a handy rating scale to let you know how seriously you should take the criticism they are leveling at you:
If the complaint comes via a voicemail – Listen carefully to the voicemail, then shake it off and go back to relaxing. A voicemail tells you the person is 50-plus years old, and to help them take a technology baby step you need to delay in returning their call for at least 48 hours. Unless, of course, they namedrop a key elder, deacon or even hint they might go over your head to the senior pastor. Deduct one hour from the projected response time for each time they either cry or scream during the voicemail message.
If the complaint comes via a written letter – Don’t even open it for a few days. Snail mail, really? Did some use a Portal gun and drop me back in 1974? After a few days, simply toss the letter in the trash, then claim it must have been “lost in the mail” and when you see them across the pews, just say you are so sorry you didn’t respond earlier, but you had no idea.
If the complaint comes via text message – Quickly reply with a short apology and promise to make everything right within 24 hours. This is to honor a parent who knows how to text, and is also savvy enough to spread some serious thumbs down on social media if you don’t jump into action.
Next, make sure you accept absolutely no responsibility for what happened.
Always make sure you have a scapegoat handy (a college-age hipster volunteer will typically do) and be ready with some key non-verbal signals to indicate the situation was “out of your hands” and you “are totally disappointed in them, too.” Here are a few quick excuses to have in your back pocket if you do end up finally actually meeting with a parent (you must have run into them at the Red Box kiosk—rookie):
“I wish I was made aware of this on the night of the event” – This clever redirection places the blame on the person who is bringing you the bad news only now, more than 48 hours after the event is over. “I’m sure that kid was a bully” or, “I guess we’ll never know the truth now” are solid follow-up lines. The haze of overnighter memories after just a few days is a perfect cover to deflect responsibility.
“I’ll make sure those people are dealt immediately” – Was it your choice to play the R-rated movie on the bus? Was it your call to duct-tape her freshman son to the ceiling? Who knows … and this classic line makes sure the parent will never know either. The straw-man tactic wins more than Jeremy Lin. The parents know someone is going to get hammered for this evil the youth pastor sympathizes with. Who is that person? No one knows for sure.
Third, be sure to drive a wedge between the parent, their teenager and the ministry. Do your best to undermine the parent whenever possible. Roll your eyes when the dad isn’t looking. Exchange a knowing glance at the student to show how “out of touch” they are being right now. You know best, just pacify the parent long enough to get them off your back and you can move on to planning The Next Big Thing That Will Change the World Overnighter Extragaganza(TM)—and make sure you call it TNBTTWCTWOE for short.
Hopefully by now you get the idea … do the opposite of everything you read above and you’ll handle complaints well. They are inevitable, tough and a necessary part of your growth as a leader and part of the process of raising teenagers. Jump in quick, take responsibility and repair the damage. Blessings on the journey.