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Intersection of Life and Faith

Getting Practical: ‘Community Parents’ Can Turn Family Ministry Theory into Practice

  • Jim Candy Pastor, Family Life Ministries, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, San Francisco Bay Area.
  • 2010 5 Jan
Getting Practical: ‘Community Parents’ Can Turn Family Ministry Theory into Practice

Family ministry reminds me of the Whac-A-Mole carnival game.

Just when you think you've nailed it, it disappears. Family ministry can be frustrating because it is a target that is constantly moving. While there is consensus about the importance of ministering to families, there are few practical ideas about how to engage in it with consistency.

Our church was haunted for years trying to work with families until we bumped into an idea that we call Community Parents. While this idea doesn't solve the family ministry problem, it is a practical, effective way to minister to families.

The story of how we developed Community Parents is helpful for understanding its value.

A Surprising Discovery
I was in my sixth year as director of middle school ministries in a large church, and I was feeling quite smug. Kids were showing up; we had many volunteers; and my senior pastor thought highly of me. Life was good. Then I had a surprising conversation.

"Your volunteer leaders aren't actually making much of a difference in kids' lives," said a mom who was notorious for telling me the truth, even if it was painful. "How do you know your leaders are actually spending time with kids, getting past the surface-level and moving them toward Christ?"

"I'm sure they are," I replied defensively, but with confidence. "We've got great leaders."

"How do you really know?" she countered. "They are good people, but that doesn't mean they are actually pursuing kids and families well."

She challenged me to spend a few weeks interviewing parents to see if our leaders were providing meaningful support for their families. Did our volunteers really know kids and families, or were they just chaperones at church programs? I was confident my interviews would show that we were strong in this area—knowing people and walking alongside them toward Christ was the emphasis of our ministry.

I was wrong.

Almost every parent reported that not only were our leaders not connecting with kids outside of our programmed time but the parents never had met them or received a phone call. The kids enjoyed coming to our programs, but they weren't really connecting at a deep level with leaders.

Hearing that from our parents stung. I started questioning my own leadership. Was I just running an entertaining sideshow program that kids merely attended?
I asked our volunteer leaders about it. I had made our hopes and expectations clear. Why were they not really getting to know our kids? Some leaders reported they were intimidated to talk to parents; others admitted to laziness; most said they lacked time. Everyone wants to spend time meaningful time with kids; but in practice, they couldn't find time to do it.

Sound familiar?

Our team started wrestling with this. How can we help our volunteer leaders become incarnational ministers of Jesus Christ, not just program chaperones? We needed something practical that could help them and not make them feel defeated.

Then one day I went on a walk with Joe.

Joe was a 19-year-old college student who loved Jesus and his small group of seventh graders. He had great potential to make an impact on kids and families, but Joe had a problem. Like many young guys I know, Joe was so disorganized he could hardly coordinate combing his hair in the morning let alone call his kids, talk to their parents, arrange times to get together and develop a vision for how he could minister to them. I have to admit, I was stumped on how to help him.

"I'll help Joe," volunteered a mom named Ingrid, whose son was in Joe's group. "I wouldn't make a great small-group leader myself, but I'm great at arranging things and can encourage Joe."

Within the next week, Joe found himself at a local homeless shelter serving alongside eight kids from his group—all arranged by Ingrid. After that, a funny thing happened. Ingrid had helped break the ice for Joe, and now he could communicate with families in a better way. He just needed a little push.

I was excited. Wow. I wish every small group could have an "Ingrid." Then it hit me. Why couldn't they?

The idea of Community Parents was born. I wrote up a job description and started asking parents in each of our small groups if they could support our volunteers as Ingrid had helped Joe. I was amazed at how quickly parents were eager to be engaged and help. Like many youth ministries, we really had no significant roles for parents to play. I discovered that parents are hungry for important and meaningful roles.

Soon, we had a parent for every small group who was helping the volunteer leader connect outside of our program time with the kids in their small groups. It was a great win, but it was just the beginning.

When I arrived in the Silicon Valley at my current church, some entrepreneurial moms took the idea and vastly improved upon it. Helping the volunteer is a great idea, but why stop there?

What if parents could minister not only to the volunteer leader but to other families in the small group, as well? The idea was simple but brilliant: Find a parent in each small group who would care for the volunteer and minister to the families of kids in that small group by helping create meaningful connections between the families.

It was an intriguing idea but, I have to admit, it made me a little nervous. I don't have time to manage one more "program."  Fortunately, our parents were so passionate about the idea that two moms volunteered to recruit, help train and communicate with all of our community parents.

How It Looks
The Community Parent has a simple but key job description:

• Work with the leader to help facilitate the relationship between kids and volunteer leaders.
• Help communicate with all the families of the small group about what is going on in the ministry and with their groups.
• Help call and welcome the families of new kids who join the small group.
• Create community among the families of kids in the small group by arranging gathering times and fostering meaningful relationships.

The beauty is that we are just now discovering what a great ministry Community Parents can be. Like any ministry volunteer, Community Parents need vision and training about ministry philosophy, kids and their culture, and the goal of youth ministry.

Great stories are emerging of friendships created, volunteer leaders supported and families being reached. Our volunteer small group leaders absolutely love it—now they have a connection to all the families of the group who can help them navigate those relationships and connect with their kids.

For me, Community Parents has been one practical expression of family ministry where that "Mole" sticks its head up, and I actually feel like I hit it in a way that means something for our kids and families.

A full job description for Community Parents is available here