I’m a father and I’m learning. I’m learning that signing my son up for baseball means I get to sit outside in the freezing cold March nights. I’m learning that my daughter will talk about her favorite songs for hours on end. I’m learning that what my kids hear at church isn’t necessarily easy for them to do right away. I’m learning that my children are a much greater challenge to me than my job as a leader of children’s ministries.
I’m also a pastor and I’m learning. I’m learning that setting things on fire in a building with sensitive smoke detectors is not a great idea. I’m learning that glitter is the archenemy of our custodial staff. I’m more importantly learning the best of intentions does not guarantee a real connection with my families. I’m learning that children are the most important people in the lives of their parents. I’m learning that what I teach kids at church is second in importance to what parents teach their children at home.
We’ve all been there. We start working with kids, because we love the kids. We love teaching them new things about God. We love hearing them discover new ways of understanding God’s plan for their lives. Then, we realize that it’s much more fruitful to pour equal amounts of energy into the people these kids we love so much live with. That’s when we hit the proverbial family ministry wall. All that work you’ve been doing to connect families to your church could be for naught. The parents aren’t doing it at home. Your materials are top notch, they’re shiny, and they’re perfectly designed for parents … you think.
I’m a pastor who works with kids and students and I’ve struggled with the balance of how much time to allot to ministering directly to children versus the time and energy it takes to engage parents in a truly meaningful conversation with those same children. I’m becoming increasingly aware that most parents know they should be leading at home, yet don’t always know where to begin. When I take the time to listen to parents, I’ve discovered that they are fully aware of their responsibility, but get stuck in a place of inactivity. They want to see their children succeed and grow closer to the Lord, but they want more for them to avoid life’s struggles and failures. They take their eyes off the goal and begin to play it safe in their interactions with their children.
I think the issue is more about what we expect. Most of our materials, vision, and ideology for reaching parents is created in a vacuum where every parent will do everything we create. We don’t take near enough time running what we expect of parents through the filter of what is realistic. I’m not advocating lowering the standard; I’m advocating a realistic approach that helps every parent succeed at home with his/her children. The key words there were “every parent”, because most of what we create for parents has only the super, amazing, fantastical, dreamy, do-everything-we-send-home parent in mind.
There are three different ways that I’ve learned to keep the vision for spiritually leading families within actual reach of our parents. They are questions that guide us along the path of connecting church and family.
What could a single mother who works a full-time job do with what our church gives her? I’d go as far as to say that this single mother has the greatest parenting challenge. She, through whatever circumstances, is providing, nurturing, and leading her children all by herself. Yet, most of what we expect parents to do at home is directing parents into something this single mother simply doesn’t have the time to work into her busy day. We’d be better served to help this single mother feel comfortable doing some small steps, maybe once a week. If there is a parent who can do more, then they will naturally do more and we can reward and help them take the more ambitious steps.
Are we moving away from ideology into practicality? There are many things we give parents that cast vision (and that has its place), but do little to provide the action steps that parents so desperately need. Parents know they should be reading at home to their kids, but it’s often only when schools send books home with kids that parents make the time to do it. There are tools we could put in our parents’ hands that move beyond the idealistic; we just have to think more practically.
Will I do this with my own children? Conviction alert, conviction alert … this is often the step that I fail to take. I create great home-based action steps that are so difficult to find the time to make happen, that I don’t even do them with my own kids. I don’t feel I’m being too strong when I say that it’s hypocritical of me to expect others to do what I’m unwilling to do myself.
One thing we’ve done to stimulate parents out of this inactivity and into achievable action steps is to be fully present with them about everything being taught, presented, or discussed in front of their children. We’ve pressed pause on the large task of recreating a parent education program or model, and instead looked to communicate our interest in their continuing the conversation at home. There is merit in the times of concentrated effort with parents during strategic growth times in their student’s life, and we work to connect with parents in that way. However, all of the programs, models, and outreaches begin with simple communication.
It begins for us by answering the following questions:
- Do parents know what we are talking about?
- Do parents feel equipped to easily talk about what we are talking about?
- Is there an open door for parents to engage their students in conversation?
- Are we communicating to parents that we want and need their voice in the conversation?
These are just questions we process through, knowing that on their own they don’t completely bridge the gap between church and parents. Our hope is that these open doors provide the beginning of a relationship where parents trust us to always keep them in the conversation.
So how do we make it easy for the conversation to happen at home? We use everything to communicate the same message. You’ve heard of them: take-home pages, Twitter updates, parent emails, Facebook stories, tattoos on the kids’ foreheads, weekly texts sent directly to parents’ phones, and the old standby … the weekly bulletin. All of these things (except for the forehead tattoos) are great ideas, but none of them stand on their own as great communication pieces. However, together communicating the same message, “Here is what to ask your kid today about church …”, they become pillars in our efforts to open the door to parents.
Much of this is echoed by Reggie Joiner in his book Think Orange when he says, “As a church you establish environments or resources that serve as catalysts so the home can be reenergized as often as it needs to be.” I love it when he says “as often as it needs to be,” because it clearly makes the distinction that it’s different in everyone’s home. That could be a home with a disabled child, or a home with children who share weekends with divorced parents, or even a home where the parents are completely disengaged spiritually. We aren’t called to make parents do anything, but we are called to make it as easy as possible for them to engage with us over this all-important Gospel.
Jonathan Cliff is the Director of Family Ministries at Athens Church in Athens, GA. He leads a great team of leaders ministering to preschoolers, children, and students. With his wife Starr, they have 3 children and have been actively involved in foster care with many other children over the years. jonathancliff.com