Anonymous Parent’s Letter to a Youth Pastor

Trevin Wax is one of my favorite bloggers. Today he wrote an absolutely awesome piece called Anonymous Youth Pastor’s Letter to a Parent. It talked about some of the struggles youth pastors go through and how we as parents of youth can support our kids’ youth pastors better. I commented that the next article should come from the parent’s perspective, and that, being a parent of youth, boy, could I write that article. One of Trevin’s readers suggested I go ahead and write it, and I thought it sounded like a fun and challenging project, so here’s the result.  (The first three paragraphs are an homage to Trevin’s letter.)

CAVEAT: This is addressed to an amalgam or “everyman” youth pastor, not to any of my kids’ youth pastors/workers past or present. In fact, some of the things I mention in the letter are things my kids’ youth pastors got RIGHT that I really appreciated.

Dear Youth Pastor,

I need to get something off my chest.

When I first put my child into your youth group, you told me how excited you were to be showing my kids what it means to love Jesus, be part of His Church, and grow as a Christian. You told me you were praying for my child and that you had his back. You had high hopes for the youth ministry.

I had high hopes too. But I must confess that I am frustrated right now because I feel like you’re working against me, not with me.

My husband and I are Christian parents doing our best to pour the gospel into our children every day.  We understand that we are the ones responsible to God for the spiritual upbringing of our children, and we take that responsibility seriously. Very seriously. And that includes what he is exposed to in youth group.

“Let no one look down on your youth” notwithstanding (update: please see my remarks regarding this reference in the comments section below), you’re 25. You know nothing about parenting a teenager. I repeat: nothing. No, the fact that you and your wife have an infant or a three year old does not qualify you as a veteran parent. I have a couple of decades of life experience and parenting on you. I remember being 25. It was that glorious time of my life when I knew everything and had fresh ideas that people in their 40s just wouldn’t understand because they had passed the “cool” stage of life.

Look deep into my eyes, Bub. I am your future.

Listen to me when I explain to you that my kids don’t need another peer. They need mature, godly leadership. Not a buddy. Not an idol to be emulated with the latest clothes from Abercrombie, the hippest glasses frames, edgy tattoos and piercings, and enough product in your hair to put bouffanted church ladies to shame.

You are not a rock star.

You’re a teacher. You’re a caretaker of young souls, and you’re influencing them for eternity. One way or the other. And one day, you’ll stand in front of God and answer for the way you led my, and other parents’, children. Makes your knees knock a little, doesn’t it? Good. It should.

So, when I drop my child off at your youth Bible study or Sunday School class, here’s what I expect. When you say you want to “show my kids what it means to love Jesus, be part of His Church, and grow as a Christian,” I expect that to mean that you will teach them the Bible. Not some watered down, comic book, MTV, “What does this verse mean to you?” version of a Bible story, but the whole counsel of God. I want you to put more time and effort into prayer and studying God’s word so you can teach it properly than you put into hooking up the oh-so-fabulous light show and making inane videos that appeal only to the basest nature of eighth grade boys.

Do you know what these kids are learning in school? If they can be expected to learn Shakespeare and higher math, you can expect them to learn sound biblical doctrine.

When you’re choosing a Bible study curriculum or DVD, or you’re looking at a Christian camp or concert to take the kids to, do your homework. Just because somebody claims to be a Christian author, speaker, pastor, or worship leader doesn’t make it true. Where is this person, doctrinally? What’s his church background and training? Listen to his sermons. Examine the lyrics of her songs. Read some of his books. Does this person rightly divide the Word of truth? Does he exalt Christ and revere God’s word? Does he call sinners- my child and the other children in your youth group- to repentance and faith in Christ, or are his sermons an exercise in navel gazing and nagging about how to be a better person?

Lead my children to serve the church. And I’m not talking about getting paid to do it, either. They’re old enough to help clean up after Wednesday night supper, help in the nursery, assist with a children’s class, serve at a senior citizens’ banquet, work at a church work day, help set up chairs and tables, etc. Over the last few years, the youth group has become the entitlement community of the church, always asking for handouts and rarely giving anything back. Let’s teach them to serve. Because the youth that serve today will be the adults that serve tomorrow.

Teach my children that a mission trip is not a glorified vacation, and that missions isn’t just feeding the hungry or building houses for the homeless. Missions is proclaiming the gospel before and after and while they’re doing those things. Teach my children how to share the gospel properly and encourage them to do it often.

Lead by example:

1. Plan ahead and be organized. If you know you’re going to need to do six fundraisers for youth camp, start them in September and space them out over a few months. Don’t wait until mid-April and have one every weekend. Show up on time. Secure your parent chaperones and drivers well in advance. Follow through on what you say you’re going to do.

2. Obey those in authority over you. Whether that means following the pastor’s instructions or obeying the speed limit and not putting 20 people in a 15 passenger van, when you flout the rules, you’re tacitly teaching my kids to do the same.

3. Be a man, not an overgrown adolescent. Boys, especially, need to see strong examples of what it means to be a godly man, and these are becoming rarer and rarer in the church. They already know how to be adolescents. Show them how to be men.

4. Prioritize safety and chaperonage. Do you know how many horror stories I’ve heard about children dying in church van wrecks on the way back from youth camp, and youth sneaking off and having sex during a lock in? I don’t want that to be my kid. I love him far more than you could ever think about loving him. Don’t be lax about keeping him safe and monitoring his whereabouts and behavior.

And, finally, my dear youth pastor, know that I love you and want to come alongside you and help in any way I can. You see, my husband used to be a youth pastor, so I know it’s a tough and often thankless job. I’m praying for you as you seek to disciple that band of crazed teenagers in the youth room.

Go with God, dear youth pastor. Go with God.

About Michelle Lesley

Michelle Lesley has always used writing as a creative outlet. As a child, she wrote poems and short stories. Later, she drew upon her experience in music ministry and ventured into songwriting. Journaling during her quiet time led Michelle into a deeper and more intimate relationship with God, and it is out of these journals that her first book, a women’s Bible study on the life of Jacob, grew. As an army brat, Michelle has lived in some interesting places such as Alaska and New Mexico, but returned to her native Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1989. Here, she graduated from LSU with a degree in child and adolescent psychology, and did her master’s work in family counseling. She remains a die-hard Tiger fan. Michelle and her husband have been blessed by the six wonderful children God has brought into their lives. Passionate about prayer, Michelle serves as the Associational Prayer Coordinator for the greater Baton Rouge area, working with over 100 churches and pastors to increase corporate prayer. She also sings on the praise team, assists her husband with his duties as minister of music at their church, and home schools her three youngest children.
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9 Responses to Anonymous Parent’s Letter to a Youth Pastor

  1. apswain07 says:

    Saw your link in the comments of the Gospel Coalition website. Great article!

  2. Pingback: Dear Parent….Dear Youth Pastor // Anonymous Letters You Should Read | Aaron P. Swain

  3. Anon says:

    I agree with the principles that you lay out here, and the concept of youth ministry needs to change. Like radically change. However, I have to take issue with you on a couple of things, and i say this as a minister, and someone who has some experience with dealing with youth in a ministerial setting (no I am not a youth minister).

    ““Let no one look down on your youth” notwithstanding, you’re 25. You know nothing about parenting a teenager. I repeat: nothing. No, the fact that you and your wife have an infant or a three year old does not qualify you as a veteran parent. I have a couple of decades of life experience and parenting on you. I remember being 25. It was that glorious time of my life when I knew everything and had fresh ideas that people in their 40s just wouldn’t understand because they had passed the “cool” stage of life.”

    I do not have teenage children, you are right. But to say that I know nothing about parenting a teen is nonsense. You could legitimately say that I have no knowledge gleaned from my own parenting. That would be a true statement. But I know plenty of things about parenting a teen, knowledge gleaned from scripture, from observing good and bad parenting, from my own experiences being parented as a teen, from reading, from contemplation, etc. I know why you said what you said, no 25 year old has the right to dismiss out of hand the wisdom and insight gleaned by another through years of experience. Some young guys in youth ministry do, and that is rude. However, the fact that they are rude to do so does not give you the right to be rude yourself by “looking down on your (their) youth”. And that is exactly what your statement conveys. I would remind you of the scripture, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Your years of experience do not give you the right to dismiss the insights and concerns of someone with less experience than yourself. Their inexperienced, un-jaded viewpoint might just perceive something you are blind to. Keep that in mind.

    “and youth sneaking off and having sex during a lock in?”

    That would be at least as much the fault of the parent of the teen as it would be the youth minister. You want your youth minister to be a teacher right? Training up children in the things of God, illuminating doctrine, etc? Good, that is what I want them to do as well. But they cannot do that and babysit at the same time. So I have a couple of recommendations for you: Teach your own kid that sexual promiscuity is wrong (as a minister I will back this up with what I teach) and warn them that if you ever discover they are doing this, then you will put them in a chastity belt until they turn 21 years old. Secondly, you want good chaperonage at youth functions? Volunteer. All too often it is like pulling teeth to get enough adults around for youth events (I would say a ratio of 4 or 5-1 is necessary). Do this, and free up that youth minister to do what you say you want him to do.

    Again, I agree with the principles that you lay out here, they are true and good. But this whole thing comes off with just a touch of arrogance. It kinda feels like a shot across the bow at the guy who posted the other anonymous letter you say inspired you. Kinda like getting back at him for pointing out faults in parents. But you would know that better than I.

    • Hi “Anon”-

      First, thank you so much for taking the time to read my article and then taking even more of your time to comment on it so thoughtfully.

      Regarding your first point about my “don’t let anyone look down on your youth” comment- I think you’re right. First, I used God’s word in a cavalier way, not giving it the reverence it is due. I shouldn’t have done that. Second, I used it somewhat out of context and certainly not very clearly. The entire verse says:

      “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

      When we look at the verse in its entirety and in context, we can see that Paul is instructing Timothy to show the people by his behavior that despite his young age, he is mature and able to handle the job. That way, they will be able to evaluate him on whether or not he is doing a good job, not just their first impression that he is young and must not know what he’s doing. I probably should have come at my point more from that angle than the angle I used.

      Since you were probably thinking about this verse in context and I didn’t fully flesh out the context in my comment, it may have seemed that I was referring to a youth pastor about whom all I knew was that he was young and therefore assumed he knew nothing about parenting a teen by experience. I think it’s a fair assumption to make that a 25 year old knows nothing –by experience- about parenting a teen, and I thought the context of what I was saying implied that I was talking about personal experience, not what can be learned from Scripture, observation, etc. But I should have made that clearer, so thanks for pointing that out. I’ll try to do better in the future.

      But I was not referring to a youth pastor about whom all I knew was that he was young. I was referring to a youth pastor that I had worked with enough to know his level of inexperience and the fact that he would not accept the wise counsel of those older and more experienced than he. This is what I was trying to convey. Not that 25 year olds don’t have some great ideas or that they’re completely incompetent (and certainly not that we should ever dismiss someone’s thoughts or ideas simply because he’s young) but that, because of their lack of experience and the wisdom that comes with age, they should be even more diligent to seek out the counsel and help of parents and elders who live with and raise these teenagers every day. Again, I apologize for my lack of clarity.

      “’and youth sneaking off and having sex during a lock in?’
      That would be at least as much the fault of the parent of the teen as it would be the youth minister….Teach your own kid that sexual promiscuity is wrong (as a minister I will back this up with what I teach) and warn them that if you ever discover they are doing this, then you will put them in a chastity belt until they turn 21 years old.”

      I thought I made it pretty clear in my opening paragraphs that my husband and I are Christian parents who take very seriously our responsibility to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. That does not preclude a hormone crazed teenager from succumbing to temptation when there’s nothing standing in his way.
      If you’re a minister, I’m sure you’re familiar with the general story line of the Old Testament. Israel falls into idolatry. God punishes them. They repent. God forgives them. They do fine for a while, and then they fall into idolatry again. Now, I’m sure neither of us would say that God didn’t do everything He could to keep them out of idolatry. He told them right up front in the first couple of Commandments as well as giving them repeated reminders. He made their punishments harsh. And yet, they still sinned.

      Paul himself said, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

      So here we’ve got God’s people being instructed by the mouth of God Himself, and Paul, whom many consider the greatest Christian who ever lived, and both, despite knowing what’s right and godly, still sin.

      Can you see how much more a teenager, who at the very least is a young Christian, if not an unbeliever, is going to fall into sin if there’s nothing to stand in his way despite the best teaching, threats, and punishments of his parents?

      I’m not holding a youth pastor responsible for being the primary person to train my child, spiritually. I made that clear in my opening. That’s my husband’s and my job. What I am holding a youth pastor responsible for is doing his dead level best to chaperon kids at activities such as lock-ins, fellowships, youth camp, etc., rather than getting so immersed in the movie or video games or concert that’s going on that he loses track of some of the kids. I’ve known youth pastors who are very diligent about this as well as those who shouldn’t be allowed to chaperon a hamster. What I want them to do is to try their best to stand in the way of any opportunity for sin. Do a head count 2 or 3 times an hour. Having a lock in? Lock all the doors in the church to rooms that the kids aren’t supposed to be in. A group of girls at the concert has been in the restroom too long? Send a chaperone after them. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

      As to volunteering, what makes you think I don’t? My husband and I recently joined a new church, but at our previous church we were both on the youth parent council, helped chaperon lock-ins, served as drivers for various events, helped with fundraisers, and served in other capacities as well. How do you think I know about a lot of this stuff, besides being a parent of former and current youth, as well as the wife of a former youth pastor?

      Hope I’ve been able to clear up some things. Again, I genuinely thank you for your input and your time, and I appreciate your thoughtful insight.

  4. Thank you for writing this! I think you are a good writer and I am glad you are out here writing. However in this case I feel like this letter has much more personal attack and anger in it than Trevin’s, and while I agree with many of your points, I think you make them too strongly and with too much vehemence. I dislike the way you seemingly negated 1 Tim 4:12 by mentioning it and then contradicting it in the same sentence. Personal comments about clothes/hair are out of place (though the rock star/peer comment is spot on.) The dialogue would be much better served if you had simply made the points without making it seem like an attack. “Look at me Bub, I am your future” is simultaneously aggressive and condescending and makes you look defensive and just mean. I guess the tone of this letter is just much more harsh than I think it needs to be.

    I would however like to thank you for contributing and for the effort that went in to it. Please take this more as a constructive criticism (as I do agree with your aim and your points) mainly dealing with style and tone. God Bless!

    • Thanks, LT!

      I agree that I mishandled the 1 Timothy reference (see my response to “Anon” above), and I have edited in a parenthetical instruction in the article directing people to the comments section for my apology about this.

      When I’m writing an article like this -not directed at a particular person, but at an amalgam or an idea- I do tend to be pretty blunt. Blunt is what captures people’s attention, and gets them thinking about where they stand and how they’re going to respond. Kind of like a wake up call. Which, in my experience, is needed among a lot, but certainly not all, youth pastors. There are those out there who are indeed more concerned with dressing cool than they are with rightly dividing God’s word, and they need to knock it off and get serious about the fact that there are kids under their care who will spend an eternity in hell if they don’t get the gospel.

      However, I appreciate your bringing to my attention that blunt, in this case, came across as mean and harsh. That was certainly not my intention. I will definitely keep what you said in mind in the future and try to craft things better. I want to be a better writer, and will take all the help I can get :0) Also, please know that if I were dealing personally with a particular youth pastor, I would certainly be (and have been in these situations) softer, more patient, and more understanding. But still firm.

      I wonder if I might get your opinion on something. I’ve been doing a little informal research on something and would greatly appreciate some feedback. Do you think this article, and others like it that could be considered blunt or harsh, would be easier for readers, particularly men, to accept if it had been written by a man instead of a woman? I’m genuinely interested to know what you, and anyone else who would like to respond, think about that.

      Again, thanks! I really appreciate your comment, and I do think it was constructive. Definitely some great things for me to think about!

  5. Peter says:

    Hi Michelle,

    In response to your question about whether this would be easier to read if written by a man, I don’t believe this would be the case in this instance. I say that mainly because I misread your name as Michael and didn’t realise my mistake until I was reading the comments. I have to say that reading it in that context, I still shared the thoughts of LT.

    I’ve been involved in youth work for several years, first as a teenager benefitting from it, and more recently as a member of the youth team at my church (I’m not a paid youth worker, but a volunteer). I have to say that the youth workers I’ve encountered have been incredibly Godly people whose hearts are on fire for the things you ask; teaching the young people under their stewardship far more about the Gospel than about the latest Xbox game (although appropriate computer games do form part of our outreach as a useful tool to get not-yet Christians comfortable in an environment where the Gospel can be shared).

    I’ve no doubt that that makes me fortunate and I’m sure your concerns are valid with some youth leaders (as you say, you have experience). My concern is that, by writing to a generic youth leader, you are bringing down the great youth leaders of my experience alongside those who need to need to step up. I know that you wrote this in response to Trevin’s letter and my concern would be the same there, some parents need that advice but by no means all parents, or even the majority of parents. I also know that you caveated this at the start of your letter, saying your kids’ youth leaders got a lot of things right. However, for me, the letter format serves to level all of the challenges in the letter at the perceived generic youth leader. In the same way, I believe Trevin’s letter does the many parents for whom it isn’t applicable a disservice, although, as LT suggests, it has a more conciliatory tone.

    Thank you for writing this, I’ve found it helpful in challenging my thinking, and also in highlighting how blessed I have been by the youth leaders I have known. I also believe the points you make around striving for excellence in the practical running of youth work, as well as the spiritual aspect, are important ones.

    It’s always good to be reminded that our goal in youth work should be equipping young people to live their lives as those fully committed to the work of The Lord.

  6. Peter- Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I agree that there are MANY youth pastors/directors/volunteers out there who genuinely have a burden for reaching lost youth and discipling saved youth. I have had the privilege of knowing several and having my kids in some of their youth groups. This article was not written to take away from the excellent job any of them do in any way. You know the old expression “If the shoe fits, wear it”? Well, the “shoe” of this article doesn’t fit them, so they don’t need to try to “wear” it.

    Thanks also for your input about the male/female perspective of this article. As I mentioned, I’m doing a little preliminary research on this topic, and am hoping to write on it in the future.

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