When we look back on people who positively influenced our lives, we inevitably find school teachers on that list. Most of us had at least one favorite teacher growing up, and as we got older, the reasons why we favored them probably had to do more with their intentional methods rather than just being the “fun teacher.”
I’ve personally had several teachers who did more than simply provide new information and test me for retention. Their individual passions shined through the routine lesson plans, and it allowed me to see the wondrous diversity and beauty of people who spend their lives investing in others. Teachers who made me appreciate the process of exploring things like literature, history, nature, and space…all while being patient with young minds that were curious and relentless with questions.
There was one teacher in particular who had a profound impact on me, and showed me how the elements of story engulf our lives. As we would read and discuss classic works like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Scarlett Letter, the class got to see our teacher light up while asking us to link concepts in the book to real world problems and perspectives. I remember one week when we were given an assignment to write a descriptive essay; she sat down with me after school to compliment my essay and asked why I wrote it. My essay was about the love we see in the world, and how it often falls short of the love we were designed for (my essay began with an excerpt from 1 Cor. 13). Keep in mind…this was a public high school. I told my teacher about how my faith was growing with new opportunities, and my plan to go into vocational ministry. She was thrilled, and the few times I saw her long after I finished her class, she would always ask me how my ministry plans were going. I will never forget her investment in me, and I am forever changed because of it.
I wanted to share this story for the sake of pointing out some things we’re all aware of, but might not usually think about:
As much as we are influenced by good teachers, coaches, or friends, we are influenced infinitely more by our parents. While it honestly does “take a village” to raise a child, it’s common sense that your parents/guardians have the lion’s share of responsibility and time with you. I realize that this perspective may be a “no duh” to many of you, but I feel like my generation quickly forgets and overlooks this reality…especially in ministry. We tend to highlight the value of those outside our family who influence us, and rightly so…it’s special when people who aren’t biologically or legally bound to us make extraordinary investments. However, we should always start with our parents. While the conversations and lessons I experienced with my high school English teacher were incredible, I’ve had a thousand conversations with my parents that were just as meaningful. Think about those 18+ years with them, and all the things you remember. For every moment or experience you remember, there are probably at least 20 more you don’t remember. Parents guide, encourage, discipline, provide you with glorious memories, and set you up for future opportunities. They are also your biggest advocates. Their influence is immeasurable.
Even with the flashiest tools and most innovative methods, those of us who invest in the next generation can’t compete with parents…nor should we try. Every May, I sit down with the parents and students who are about to enter the youth ministry. While I provide the parents with a resource notebook containing important things to remember, I verbally emphasize some of those things with them…starting with the fact that my number one job priority is to help them. Even if your youth ministry has several services, programs and calendar events throughout the year…and even if a particular student has near-perfect attendance…that student will spend a maximum of 3000-3500 hours with your ministry. That’s 4-5 months in 6 years. We simply cannot substitute for parents who have spent such huge amounts of time raising, teaching, and molding their children…but we can and certainly should help them. There will always be exceptions to this concept; at some point, you will have students whose parents will never darken the door of a church, or bother to exert any effort in discussing spiritual things with their kids. However, for the most part, our ministries have parents who are both willing and able. Ministers and volunteer leaders that spend a minuscule amount of (or zero) energy for parent connection are substantially undercutting their own impact…which brings me to my final point.
We are not responsible to lead the spiritual development of a child or teenager. Parents are.
Throughout the Old and New Testament, one cannot escape the stories, references, and commands that pertain to the power and responsibility of parents. Deuteronomy 6 and Paul’s Epistles to Ephesus and Colossae contain some of the more well-known references, and of course, the classic reference in Psalms 22: “Train up a child in the way he should go.” Over the last several years, organizations like Orange have helped provide templates and resources for this vital perspective of empowering and equipping parents. If we help guide students spiritually while also reinforcing the support they receive from their parents at home, ministers and parents can jointly help craft a safe place for students to question, wrestle, and work out important issues for their faith development. For those of you who are parents…would you be comfortable letting someone else be the primary voice and source of conversation for important life issues? You may joke and sarcastically affirm that sentiment at times, but in truth, you cherish those conversations with your children.
Parents, let ministers/volunteers help and equip you, and ask them when they are slow to provide resources. Ministers and volunteers, encourage parents in their role as the primary spiritual leaders of their children.
Next week, for part 2, I’ll lay out some practical ways to connect with parents if you aren’t already doing so. If you are connecting with parents, I’d love to hear from you. What resources and methods do you use to communicate and connect with parents?
For this week, think about these questions: How many parents do you know in your ministry? How well are you connecting with them?
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!