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A mom sitting at the kitchen table with her two children as her husband says goodbye before leaving the house. Everyone is smiling at each other.
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What If We Put Parents First for a Change?

Do we place unrealistic expectations on parents to make children’s ministry their top priority? Or do we put parents first for a change?

It’s the end of the summer, and Monica’s already overwhelmed by the beginning of the next school year. With three kids under 10, it’s hard to believe how one person can orchestrate the insane schedule that’s underway. Her peaceful morning on her back porch is hijacked by anxiety as she looks through her schedule of kids’ dance lessons, soccer practices, and invitations to school open houses.

It never used to be like this, did it? she wonders. Am I the only one who feels this pressure? I want the best for my kids, but it seems impossible to do it all.

As she thumbs through endless paperwork from her kids’ schools, she comes across a small postcard from her church inviting her to a parent meeting…on the same evening as the school open house. She heaves a sigh—and sets aside the postcard.

Across town, Tony and Cindy sit in the local coffeehouse preparing for the coming school year in their children’s ministry. While they’re excited about their creative plans for the kids, a cloud of dejection is already settling over their time together. “How will we get parents to make the church a priority this year?” asks Tony. “You watch,” says Cindy. “They won’t even make one parent meeting a priority. If they won’t make one meeting a priority, how can we really expect them to be making faith a priority at home?”

Parents First…For a Change

How many times have you braced for a brand-new year, dreading what it’ll be like to deal with disinterested and half-committed parents? How often have you wanted to throw your hands in the air when no one attends parent training or events? When have you scanned weekly attendance charts, only to note a higher percentage of absences than attendance from families—and felt exasperated?

Don’t parents care?

Don’t they get how important their children’s faith development is?

Why do we have to work so hard trying to find creative and convenient ways to get families more involved in our ministries when they won’t show up?

And if they aren’t even participating in church, how can they be leading their children toward a relationship with Jesus?

If you get stuck asking these questions over and over, it quickly becomes a depressing, deflating cycle. You begin to wonder, Why even bother?

So let’s stop right there. Perhaps it’s time for a different perspective. And different questions.

What if parents do care?

What if parents do understand that their children’s faith development rests almost entirely on their shoulders?

Have I considered that parents are as involved as they can be in our ministries?

Parents pass on their faith and values all day, every day. Yes—even when they’re not at church. Maybe especially when they’re not at church. And maybe—just maybe—parents don’t feel as inadequate or ill-equipped in this area as we often assume.

Consider this snapshot of where parents are today.

Parents want more time with their kids.

Overall, 33 percent of parents with children under 18 say they aren’t spending enough time with their children, according to the Pew Research Center. Parents want to spend the limited time they do have with their children.

Additionally, whether parents feel they spend enough time with their kids has a big impact on how they evaluate their parenting. “Parents who think they spend the right amount of time with their children are about three times as likely as parents who say they spend too little time with their children to say they’re doing an excellent job parenting (30 percent vs. 11 percent),” according to Pew Research Center analysis.

Parents work hard to provide for their kids.

When asked how difficult it is to balance work and family responsibilities, 56 percent of working mothers and 50 percent of working fathers say it’s either very or somewhat difficult.

Parents are managing multiple child-centered responsibilities.

“What’s in store this Easter weekend?” asked one mom on Facebook. “A baseball game, a prom, and a volleyball tournament, which continues tomorrow, Easter Sunday. Makes me wonder about the people scheduling these events.”

“It used to be that Sundays had a ‘hands-off’ status for the average family,” says Phil Bell, author of Team Up! “Not today. Sundays are now just another day to pack in a sports practice or dance recital and, for many families, the only day to sleep in and not rush out of the house.”

Some figures suggest that the average church-attending family goes only twice per month. Others suggest attendance is even more sporadic.

Parents say life is often deeply complicated.

One mom, responding to why her family is rarely able to attend church, says, “I find it hard to be part of things because of my circumstances. I have two children with autism. I’m often very stressed and so tired. I used to do the toddlers coffee morning if I could, and I really enjoyed it. However, my son started refusing to go to school, and I often cancel at the last moment. I don’t feel many people really understand the pressures of being a mom to two autistic kids.”

Today, 14 percent of U.S. children have special health care needs, and 22 percent of households with children include at least one child with a special health care need, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Parents feel good about how well they’re raising their kids.

This is one point we must pay attention to. So often we assume harried, overstressed parents feel inadequate and ill-equipped. However, the opposite is often true. Today’s parents give themselves good scores overall on how well they’re doing raising their children. Among those with kids under 18, 24 percent say they’ve done an excellent job. An additional 69 percent say they’ve done a very good or good job. Just 6 percent rate their effort as parents as fair or poor.

A Changing View

So, yes, you’ve seen it in your church community: Parents are stressed, stretched, and barely treading water with the huge expectations from our culture—and themselves.

But it’s all too easy to “tsk-tsk” at the secular-rather-than-sacred things that take families’ attention on Sunday.

What if—rather than condemning the reality we face—we embraced that God is part of all life, and even in the non-church events, faith development can be happening?

We know faith growth happens in relationships. Perhaps one of the best ways we can minister to families is to find ways to help them strengthen their relationships—whether they’re participating at a church program or on the road to a weekend sports event.

“Spending time in everyday family leisure activities is associated with greater emotional bonding within the family,” note researchers in A Wise Investment: Benefits From Families Spending Time Together. This study also found that a family’s “core” leisure activities—everyday, low-cost, home-based activities such as playing board games, playing in the yard, gardening, and watching television together—correlated to the family’s cohesion (“the emotional bonding of family members”). Likewise, more involved activities that require more investment of time, energy, and money positively impacted a family’s cohesion.

The same study found that children in families that participate in religious activities together are more likely to report seeing expressions of love and affection between their parents.

From “Family” to “Parent”

“God uniquely positioned parents to be the primary equippers of their child’s faith,” says Bell, who is a strong proponent of ministries working side by side with parents. “When we partner with parents, we’re ultimately helping their children grow in their faith journey. We can’t continue to focus solely on our Sunday-morning ministries while forgetting countless opportunities parents have at home.”

Greater investment in a family ministry approach is part of the answer, but in the past decade, there’s been a debate about what family ministry actually is. It looks different in every church, and it’s all too easy to overwhelm families with a huge menu of offerings.

It’s not time to add more; it’s time to focus more.

“As I talk to experienced children’s leaders and in-the-trenches teachers and volunteers, it’s clear we face an urgent need to partner with parents,” says Bell. “A take-home sheet is not enough. But on the other hand, packing their schedules with a plethora of family events will drown them in an ocean of overcommitment. Our goal can’t be to get parents to commit more to church attendance.”

Partnering with parents is really about teamwork, according to Bell. It’s not about setting an impossible expectation to make church attendance the number-one priority in their lives, which will inevitably lead to a divide. “We’re on the same team as parents, not opposing teams. We’ll be far more effective working together, and that’s what God intends. We’re a team, and we’re in this together.”

We do this by strengthening the foundations we have with parents in how we communicate, the content and resources we provide, and the community we build. Here are ways you can strengthen your partnership with parents—regardless of whether they’re at church every week.

Communicate well.

Partnership happens best when partners trust one another. Listen first. Trust happens when we listen to parents first. Whether you’re doing a survey or having a conversation, it’s imperative that parents know you’re listening to them. While the rest of the world is trying to tell or sell them something, it’s up to us to hear what they have to say. Sometimes it’s as simple as a survey built on asking parents to outline their needs.

Communicate support.

Part of our role is to support parents in the exciting role of spiritual heroes in their kids’ lives. How do you support parents as they invest in their child’s faith journey in every aspect of life? How do you ensure this role feels like a natural fit in everyday life rather than another commitment for parents to sign up for? So often we communicate that it’s the latter.

Make content and resources matter.

Here’s a tough truth: Much of what we communicate to parents is all about us. In essence, it’s often centered around getting parents to commit to something we want them to do. Instead, we must communicate content and resources that are helpful, practical, and meet their felt needs. In other words, it’s centered on parents and what’s truly helpful and valuable to them. In their busy lives, they’re looking for practical answers and ideas they can implement at home quickly. This is where something like a take-home page with relevant, bite-sized information and encouragement is helpful.

Create community.

Many parents feel alone in their parenting journey. Provide community. Parents need to know they’re not alone. They need other parents who are on the same journey as they are. While you and I can’t provide all the answers to a parent’s challenges, we often miss the greatest resource for parents: other parents. Anytime we provide an event or program for children, also make it an opportunity to connect parents together intentionally. Who are the “been-there” parents with a heart for younger parents? Do you have empty nesters who can become part of your welcome team with the primary goal to invest in parents and connect them with other parents? Recruiting “been-there” parents can be pivotal in helping parents find community, support, and ideas for parenting.

It’s a hard truth: Our ministries may not be the number-one priority for parents. But here’s a great truth: Their children are number one. We have tremendous opportunities to minister to children in new ways that extend beyond our ministry programs into the home. If we set aside misguided, unrealistic expectations, we can dig into how to best minister to parents in supportive ways. That’s ministry that impacts the entire family for the kingdom of God.

Looking for more ideas for families? Check out these articles!

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What If We Put Parents First for a Ch...

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