There are few jobs in life more exciting, goofy, heart-wrenching and exhausting than being a student ministry pastor. During my years as a youth pastor I:
-drank a small bottle of Tabasco in one sitting (that did not end well)
-counseled a teenage girl who discovered she was pregnant
-tried (and failed) to sleep on the floor of a bus traveling through the night for summer camp
-prayed with students to accept Christ for the first time
-watched students who grew up in the church walk away from it
Often the incredible highs and soul-shaking lows of student ministry would happen in the same week, and just thinking about it now makes me want to take a nap. But the most rewarding element of student ministry was working with parents. There were few things better than being in lockstep with the mom and dad of a teen, and seeing God use that to transform that student’s life. There were times, though, when I wish I could have spoken freely to parents, without fear of offending them in an irreconcilable way. So, after having a few years of reflection, here are my thoughts on what I would have like to have said, but never allowed myself to say:
I am a pastor, not a babysitter
When I was in my early days of youth pastoring I would be asked by well-meaning adults “do you think you’ll ever want to be a pastor?” and I would look at them with an expression ranging from “what do you think I do all day?” to “I wonder if I can get away with tackling you right here in the foyer?”
I get that a lot of people grew up in church traditions that had a rigid pipeline for pastoring, but even if your youth pastor just went to Bible college (or, like me, was a journalism major!) that doesn’t mean they’re not a pastor. As a 24-year-old babyfaced rookie I sat in my car with a teen as he told me about his abusive, bipolar dad and I had to learn on the fly how to help him. I preached through the book of Jonah, verse by verse. And, yes, I also left whipped cream stains in the multipurpose room, but there was some real pastoral ministry happening around that!
Basically parents, your youth pastor just needs to know that YOU know that he or she is working hard for your kids and that they take the role of spiritual mentor seriously. There were few moments more encouraging to me than when a parent would pull me aside or write me a note letting me know that what I was doing for their student mattered.
Please be on time (most of the time)
Most parents I know beat themselves up trying to drop off and pick up their kids on time, and everyone has moments when they run late; however, in my time in ministry, there were always those parents who viewed a program’s end time as a suggestion. It … wasn’t.
The amount of energy it takes to pull off a student event—and then make sure those students aren’t making out in a dark corner—is immense, and often by the event’s end we’re counting down the seconds until it’s over, when we will have to clean everything up, usually by ourselves, to avoid our facilities team having to pick up after all of us. So please, as best as you can, be on time.
Please Don’t “Undo” My Work
The most devastating part of student ministry for me was feeling like I was a teenager’s biggest, or sometimes only, cheerleader. I would spend time pouring every ounce of belief, passion, and encouragement I had into a student’s life, trying to lift the cloud of depression or aimlessness that surrounded him or her, only to watch their parent’s first words be critical, demeaning, or bitter. This happened so many times, far more than I ever would have thought. Sometimes I would compliment a student in front of his or her parent only to watch the parent undercut the compliment right in front of me.
I’m a parent now as well, so I get how challenging kids are, and how even if you would never physically harm them, you sometimes wish you could just “I Dream of Jeanie” them out of existence for, like, a day. We all have moments when we say or do something we regret and thank God there is grace for that. But I also know this: The words we say to our kids will either speak life or death into their souls. So, whenever you can, be a speaker of life.
I could always tell when I was working with a student whose parent was spiritually and emotionally encouraging to them. I always wondered if those parents realized how much they were a source of joy to their kid. So if you are a parent who is intentional on encouragement, I want you to know: good job. It matters.
I’m not nearly as influential as you are
The youth pastor is not a kid’s primary spiritual role model, the parent is. After over a decade of student ministry experience, I can count on one hand the students who had spiritually apathetic home lives but were lit on fire for Christ in our student ministry. On the other hand, there were dozens of students with spiritually-invested parents who to this day passionately bring the Gospel to the world around them.
A student pastor is a spark plug: without fuel in the tank, a spark plug is just sparking flames over an empty tank. However, when a student’s spiritual tank is filled to the brim by their parents, the Holy Spirit transforms that fuel into spiritual momentum, and oftentimes this happens through the church.
It’s then that the dynamic between a student pastor and a parent becomes a powerful, energizing partnership God uses to transform a teen’s life for eternity. So if you have a veteran youth pastor who knows what they are doing, make sure they know you support them. If the kid is a newbie who looks like he or she is barely 19, make sure they know you support them. Because the truth is, they’re on your side.
Your job is so hard. Let me know how I can help.
At the end of the day parenting—especially during the teenage years—is like trying to hit a moving target blindfolded. Youth pastors don’t have all the answers to that, but we can discuss what a teen’s life looks like in our world. I remember being honored when a parent came to me to discuss how we could partner together to pastor their child.
In my experience when a pastor and parent unite to help steer a teen toward Christ, God’s power explodes in that kid’s life. And more than anything, that’s what I want for every teen who comes to church.