Outwit, Outplay and Outlast Parent Criticism
After 14 relatively painless years in youth ministry, I got blindsided by a mob of “concerned” parents who were upset over a retreat gone bad. I know, “youth ministry” and “smooth” don’t belong in the same sentence—no one escapes without scars. And it’s truly a miracle that my own ministry crisis took so long to show up at my front door. For some who’ve been hurt in ministry, the wound is a job-ender. For others, it’s a vocation-changer. In my case, I stumbled my way toward a better youth ministry on the other side of my cataclysm. I offer up my story in the hope that you might benefit from my experience…
I launched into the Fall of 2009 sure that we were about to have the best ministry season of my three-year tenure at a church in Richmond, Virginia. I finally felt established, and had just started to feel confident about our ministry’s direction. The incoming sixth-graders were from a large, active class that had a reputation for close relationships and really kind hearts. I was excited about the future. The present, however, was a different story.
Our incoming eighth-grade class had always had a notorious reputation for out-of-hand behavior since they were in preschool. And, suddenly, that reckless history was about to derail my ministry. With 14 adult leaders along for the trip, I took the eighth-grade confirmation class on a retreat—even with all that adult firepower, the 20 middle-schoolers (12 of them boys) were too much for us to handle.
* They locked everyone, including themselves, out of the sleeping cabin as a prank.
* They decided to make life hell for one guy in the group, hassling him relentlessly despite our best attempts to intervene.
* They ransacked the girls’ room in a botched attempt to toilet-paper it, and the girls responded in kind.
* They “Axe-bombed” (sprayed body spray) everything and everyone they could ambush.
They were out of control. And so was I—even with my many years of youth ministry experience to draw on, every strategy I tried faltered. The other adult leaders seemed so flabbergasted by the experience that they failed to intervene, and I didn’t have time to run the programming and address all the behavior issues. The retreat collapsed into chaos.
Within a day after we returned my email inbox started filling up. One parent launched the first shot: “We have to do something about those boys.” Of course, the “we” was really me. That parent spent several days lobbying other parents, and together they came up with a plan to police the kids’ behavior, with stiff consequences for messing up.
Now, I believe in consequences. I also believe in grace-filled discipline. But the language these parents had come up with was harsh and punishing—nothing about teaching and modeling right behavior. It was clear that the parent-mob was leaning toward banning certain teenagers from youth group, a “nuclear option” that I think is necessary only in rare circumstances. These were boys with sincere hearts, from families who are active disciples who were serving in the church. They just had no sense of boundary—they pushed certain behaviors “too far.” They needed guidance and discipline (the root word is translated “learning”) from the church, not to be cut off from it.
The emails continued to pour in, filling in the gaps between many long phone calls. It’s amazing how an upset mob can feed off of each other—“those boys” had to be dealt with, their parents needed to “take responsibility,” and I needed to “fix this.” Now that the cork was out, some parents decided to pour it on, adding every historical complaint about our church and youth ministry they could conjure. I feared for my job, and for our boys.
But somehow, by God’s grace, I managed to muddle my way through this quagmire. Here’s what I learned that helped me emerge with a healthier, more effective ministry…
1. Listen without responding defensively. I did not enjoy hearing that I should’ve stepped in more forcefully to prevent the bullying (I should have—I don’t deny that). I did not enjoy the constant flow of complaints that slammed me whenever I opened my email inbox or the dread when I answered the phone. However, I heard the parents out, attempted to correct misinformation, and assured them we were working on a plan. I held back my inclination to be defensive and spent more time listening than talking.
2. Make it a team effort. When parents began telling me they had a plan for curtailing kids’ behaviors that included implementing harsh consequences for those who didn’t abide by the plan, my first instinct was to email our volunteer leader team and tell them about the feedback I was receiving.
We set a team meeting for the following Sunday. They agreed with me that the language parents were using was potentially going to cause more problems than it solved. This convinced me I was not merely reacting on a personal level, or being defensive. They helped me frame the behavior concerns within a broader context. They also know our teenagers, some better than I do, so we developed a strategy that would both honor the parents’ goals and respect our approach to ministry.
3. Keep your senior pastor and other leadership staffers informed about the conversation. I regularly reported to other leaders about our ongoing response to the situation. This prevented my senior pastor and others from being sucked into a hard situation with no knowledge of the back-story. Triangulated communication is deadly for everyone, and incredibly tempting. Direct communication kills that temptation.
4. Buy yourself some time. It was accidental, but it took several weeks to organize and publicize a parents meeting for everyone to air their concerns. Yes, it meant two or three weeks of hard-to-handle emails and phone calls, and a good bit of lost sleep, but that time gave our parents a chance to cool off and think through the real issues, not merely react. It also gave our youth ministry team time to develop our response.
5. Set the agenda. To prevent the parent meeting from devolving into a gripe session, we scheduled it for a time when there was no more than 45 minutes available (on a Sunday evening an hour before youth group began). We created an agenda that invited feedback from the parents, but with time limits. We funneled their feedback into a process that would ultimately involve the youth group, giving them some ownership over the outcome.
The meeting agenda focused on producing results—a recommendation for appropriate behaviors and consequences that the youth group would then respond to. Some parents wanted final decisions to come out of this meeting, but we insisted that our teenagers be integral to the plan going forward and therefore accountable to it.
6. Include the youth in the process. Once the parents offered their recommendations—a basic three-strikes-and-you’re-out system—we scheduled two consecutive youth groups for discussing the factors that derailed the retreat. The goal was to collaborate to produce a covenant of expected behaviors, and consequences for failing to live up to the standards.
At the first meeting we invited them (before they received any input from the parents’ meeting) to process their own feelings about the dynamics of the youth group. We talked about how certain behaviors made them feel, and what they wished could be different. We wrote those responses on the board, and talked about ways to create a more inclusive, loving environment. We created a list of consequences. Then we talked about their parents’ concerns and how they coincided with the list the youth came up with.
As we continued the conversation, we discovered that our teenagers had many of the same concerns their parents had. Of course, even the most obvious offenders said they wanted to feel loved and respected and wanted others to feel loved and respected. They recommended consequences that were remarkably similar to those their parents had proposed, without knowing ahead of time what the parents had said. In some cases they proposed harsher alternatives. (One eighth grader suggested that the adults pull the person aside and scream at him or her—we vetoed that one.)
At the second meeting we presented a version of the covenant. We walked through the behaviors and expectations and consequences. Everyone signed copies, which I’ve kept on file.
7. Communicate and follow through. With the covenants written, we created poster-sized versions and hung them in the middle and high school rooms. I also emailed the covenant home to parents and invited them to have a family discussion about it.
We trained our adult volunteers on the policy—from youth group leaders to choir assistants and confirmation mentors—and instructed them to follow the three-strikes rule consistently and explicitly: “Cletus, this is your first warning. Please stop throwing your pen at Sharon.” No adult who had any formal relationship with our youth, and no active teenager in our ministry, could claim ignorance on the policy and its implications.
8. Follow up in person. Some of our teenagers attracted more attention from the concerned parents than others, mostly because they were more visible leaders, and therefore louder, and therefore more likely to get caught. They often were not the initiators, simply the ones who got caught. I spent time with them and their families, talking through specific behaviors and how they made others feel.
My goal was to help them understand what others were feeling and saying about their behavior. Each of them was surprised, embarrassed, and hurt that others viewed them as cruel or offensive. They perceived themselves as funny, clever, and inclusive. I affirmed them as people, and told them I did not view them as hurtful or cruel—they were, instead, simply unaware of their negative impact. I affirmed their leadership and invited them to step up to model Christian leadership. “Do you genuinely believe you should say something like that at church?” I asked one teenager. His head dropped: “No, I know I shouldn’t. I just get carried away.” Just by asking them to consider their behavior from another’s point of view helped them reevaluate their choices.
The covenant we produced together slowly took root in the group. Of course, the issues didn’t disappear overnight, but they dissipated steadily. Parents felt we were addressing their concerns, teenagers felt we were including them in the process, and volunteer leaders felt fully included in the conversation and empowered to intervene in concrete ways. The covenant was not the “fix,” but the process that led to it sure helped. It shifted ownership and accountability to our teenagers and their parents.
Now, almost a year later, I still have my job. Our boys are still wild sometimes, but they have a much greater respect for one another (the girls do too!). And they have a much greater appreciation for their time at church and for their responsibility as role models of Christ’s love.
A Behavioral Covenant
After parent input, followed by youth ownership, our collaborative efforts produced a covenant that everyone connected to our ministry now embraces.
Because we want to…Therefore we will…
1. Be listened to–listen to others and not interrupt when they are sharing.
2. Be treated fairly–treat others fairly.
3. Be included–include everyone and not separate into cliques.
4. Be accepted by everyone–not ignore, exclude, or insult anyone.
5. Have fun–not be disruptive so others can’t have fun.
6. Feel like we fit in–see the good in everyone and not make fun of anyone because they are different from us.
7. Know we won’t be judged unfairly–not make fast judgments about people or gossip about others
8. Feel beautiful inside and out–see the beauty in each other and affirm one another.
Everyone makes mistakes. But when any of us fails to live up to this covenant, we will expect the following consequences:
1st Offense: A verbal warning.
2nd Offense: Be taken from the room for a one-on-one with an adult.
3rd Offense: The teenager and an adult will call the teenager’s parents immediately and the teenager will explain what behavior led to the call. In most cases the parents will be asked to pick the teenager up from the event. Further consequences for the behavior will be left to the parents.
Dwayne Simpson is a longtime youth minister in Richmond, Virginia.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”
This article “Outwit, Outplay and Outlast Parent Criticism” by D. Simpson was excerpted from: www.simplyyouth.com web site. October 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.