Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.
by Steve Argue
Bill and Jane were every youth worker’s dream. They registered their daughter, Sarah, for the freshman camp before the deadline. They actually came to the parent meetings. Eventually they started volunteering as small group leaders, filling the empty spots I had hoped and prayed for. As the year progressed, Bill and Jane proved to be faithful volunteers who showed up consistently, prepared diligently for their freshman small groups, and even recruited another couple to be volunteers.

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Come December, I had my winter retreat all planned. Some of the church’s college students were back from break and, based on their history with the church and their winter break availability, I arranged for them to be leaders for the winter retreat. Due to limited space and budget, I emailed Bill and Jane to let them know I did not need them to be leaders on the trip, though they had volunteered to go. A day after I sent the email, Jane called. She explained that she and Bill had hoped to go on the retreat to be with Sarah. They explained that they believed in doing things as a family and wanted to experience the winter retreat with Sarah, as well as serve the ministry. I thanked Jane for her enthusiasm, but told her that I had already contacted leaders and that I was all set. Jane said that she understood, but that she and Bill were “very disappointed.”
I’m not sure exactly when it hit me, but I noticed Jane and Bill’s small comments and feedback seemed to grow with more intensity over the second semester. Just after the retreat, Jane called asking why the conversation of sex came up in Sarah’s cabin and wanted to know the cabin leader’s position on “how far was too far.” Bill was more vocal each week about the boys getting “out of control.” I could count on emails showing up in my inbox after each youth talk offering “friendly feedback” about my performance based on whether Sarah “liked it” or “got anything out of evening.”
By spring, I was reviewing student applications for the mission trip I was taking that summer. Typically this trip was reserved for upper classmen, but the last few years, I did take upcoming sophomores, if there was space and if I felt the student was ready. In front of me was Sarah’s application. Sarah was a good kid, but I could tell that her parents heavily orchestrated her involvement in youth group. I knew enough of Sarah to know that she wasn’t ready for the trip and chose another underclassman for the remaining spot. After the communication went out to those accepted and those not, I received an email from Jane, asking to have a meeting with me immediately.
The next day I met with Bill and Jane. They were very upset that Sarah did not get picked for the mission team explaining that Sarah was likely more mature than most the students going on the trip. Further, they explained that Sarah had to go on a mission trip this summer, as the next summer would be filled with visiting colleges. While I empathized with Bill and Jane, they were not willing let the issue rest. Bill reminded me that they have been faithful members of this church for more than five years. They had served in my ministry and were consistent financial contributors to the church. Further, Bill reminded me that he was friends with most of the people on the elder board, and if Sarah did not go, they felt like they would have to “pass along their concerns.”
Surprised by where this was going, I told Bill and Jane that I’d have to think about it. “Thank you,” they said. “Think and pray about it. I’m sure you’ll know what to do.” They left. And I sat there stunned. What should I do?

What Happened?

The truth is that the above story has run its course more than once—in my ministry and in the youth ministries of many of my colleagues. Chances are, plenty of other youth ministers will run into a similar situation where, what initially seems like God’s answer to your ministry needs, or hope that you’re making progress in connecting with parents, takes a wrong turn along the way. Since youth ministry is an intentional effort to enter the lives of adolescents and their families, youth ministers experience the opportunities and risks of entering into the family dynamic—experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this case, something goes wrong. How can eager, giving parents who desire to be involved in their child’s life become people who are challenging your ministry?
In these cases, there have been times where I, and other youth ministers I have worked with, have bowed to the pressure, while other times I/we have fought it. The stakes can get rather high as the choices we make with parents often affect our ministry philosophy. Some youth ministers end up bowing to parental, political pressure. Others distance themselves from parents. Both are unhealthy and can affect one’s ministry trajectory, and it has made me realize that there are parental dynamics and warning signs that youth ministers much catch early on.

Reflecting Further

The term “helicopter parent” has often been used to define parents like Bill and Jane. Helicopter parents have been defined as “always hovering, ultraprotective, unwilling to let go, and enlisting ‘the team’ (parent, physician, lawyer, other counselors) to assert a variety of special needs and interests” (Howe & Strauss, Millennials Go to College, 2007). Part of enlisting “the team” includes the youth minister in ensuring that a parent’s child is set up to succeed in every aspect of life, including his spiritual life. While there are usually negative connotations associated with overly involved parents, let’s take a step back and reflect on this phenomenon from a few angles in order to appreciate the parental dilemma and the important role youth ministers play.

1. We live in a competitive and threatening world.

In our western culture we have witnessed the escalating pressures and fears associated with adolescents growing up in our society. More expectation is placed on them to “make it” in society, and increasingly more fear stems from the increase of global and school violence. Youth ministers should remember that these factors place a tremendous amount of stress on adolescents and their parents, often causing parents to pay closer attention to their children’s success and safety.

2. We live in a society where few advocate for adolescents.

Further, parents are finding that few advocate for their own children. If parents do not address educational, social, and health issues, the systems currently in place will often fail to respond to the particular needs of their kids. Parents often feel alone in their desire to help their child grow into adulthood. Their tactics, while coming off as strong at times, often are attempts to stem the tide of society that does not share support for their child with them.

3. We have youth ministries that need parents, volunteers, and sometimes, parent-volunteers.

For youth ministry to truly be effective, youth ministries need parental support, connection, and investment. Failure to appreciate this dynamic fails to see the broader context of which a student is part. Youth ministers often do not take into consideration what it means to have parents involved. Lack of a clear vision for parents in your ministry will often result in two things: 1) the absence of parents in your ministry, or 2) parents playing roles that knowingly or unknowingly undermine your ministry.
Therefore, I offer a few parameters that I’ve developed through some trial and error:

  • A diverse leadership is my goal. Inviting parents into my ministry ensures a more diverse, intergenerational approach that provides a variety of perspectives that can inform and clarify our ministry practices. The more diverse our leadership team, the better.
  • Before inviting parents into volunteer roles, I like to ask them if they have received permission from their child. This may seem odd, but I have found it very valuable to ensure adolescents are comfortable with having their parents that close to one of their social domains. Remember that each adolescent is at a different place on his or her journey of differentiating (becoming independent) from parents. This conversation respects the young people and slows overzealous parents from forcing their way in. I recommend requiring this conversation with parent and teenager, and following up with your own conversation, as well.
  • If parents get the green light from their teenager, I have had better results when I established clear boundaries about what it means to be a volunteer in your ministry. Parents must learn to wear their “volunteer hat” when they serve and not their “parent hat.” When talking with parent-volunteers about certain topics, it doesn’t hurt to ask the parent, “Which hat are you wearing right now—your parenting hat or your volunteer hat?” Keeping the boundaries clear helps avoid blurred lines of authority, power struggles, or favoritism.
  • Revisiting the parent-volunteer experience after each ministry year allows me to address any issues that point toward role-confusion. I am convinced more than ever that keeping a confused parent-volunteer just because I need people to run the ministry is a bad idea.

4. We must have youth ministers who know how to pastor both adolescents and their parents.

Finally, we should remember that our volunteers and we are not merely ensuring the spiritual growth of our students. Volunteers and parents are being challenged by their own faith journeys, which means youth ministers must be committed to shepherding students and their parents during this period of life. This means courageously confronting some parents’ unhealthy, helicopter tendencies. For others, it means asking them to be more involved. For all, it requires time and attention and provides a necessary voice to teenagers and parents who need to hear the good news that God is faithfully guiding them through the challenging yet exciting time of adolescence.

Questions to Consider

What are the primary recurring helicopter parent issues in my youth ministry currently? What are the principles that we are violating, and what are we upholding?
Who are the high-maintenance parents right now, and in what ways have my actions been unhelpful to the situation? What fences need mending soon?
Since parents are ultimately more accountable for their kids’ spiritual development than I, how much of my frustration is about my own inconvenience, and how much is truly related to stifling the spiritual growth of their kids?
Since God is ultimately interested in reconciliation for all, how can I “speak the truth in love” in ways that do not alienate but rather build bridges?
Steve Argue is the life development director at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has been involved in youth ministry for the past 17 years as a youth pastor, instructor, speaker, consultant, and writer. In addition to his role at Mars Hill, he teaches seminary courses on youth ministry and is a doctoral student at Michigan State University, studying emerging adulthood, teaching and learning, and spirituality. More about Steve at marshill.org.