I will have been in full time youth ministry for fifteen years this coming April. It’s gone by fast. When I arrived at my first church, Heather and I had just married half a year before and were a few months into her pregnancy with our first son. I was young, inexperienced, and in some ways over confident. Fifteen years later, I have two of my own children in the student ministry I lead. My perspective in many areas of ministry has grown and changed over the years.
One area that has always struck me is how my perspective on parents of adolescents has dramatically changed over the years. As a new youth pastor, I was often times frustrated by them. In many ways, I avoided having too much connection with them, and often times found myself questioning or wondering at their decisions regarding the youth ministry, reactions to my leadership, or how they responded to their children.
Then I had my own.
Fifteen years ago I had no idea how unnerving, confusing, overwhelming it is to parent teenagers. I am considered a professional youth worker. In youth ministry circles, I’m a veteran. I have read more books on adolescence than most people, I’ve gone to school for it, I’ve attended conferences, gotten further training, had countless hours of experience, walked with students and their families through just about every adolescent scenario you can imagine, I’ve written articles, spoken at training events, the list goes on. And apparently almost none of that translates to parenting my own teenagers!
Talking to countless teenagers about sex does not make it one bit easier to view my own children as sexual beings and have those conversations with them. Coaching parents on dealing with hormonal children and all of the associated mood swings does not somehow magically translate to me always being understanding with the adolescents I live with.
Last year, I actually punished one of my sons by not allowing them to go to a youth group fun event (that I was leading!). After more than a decade of being frustrated with parents for using youth group as a consequence, I did it.
Last week I had one of those moments where one of my children clearly thought I was clueless. That somehow in their handful of years of experience they had more knowledge and wisdom to bear on the topic than I could possibly have. And it hit me … perhaps the biggest reason I had a bad perception of parents fifteen years ago was that I was more friend to the students in my ministry than I was pastor. Yes, I discipled teens. I taught the scriptures. I led small groups, challenged them to go deeper, and saw tremendous fruit. But in many ways I tried to be cool, to build friendships, to identify with them. When I was a teen I thought my parents were idiots, completely clueless. It was not until my early twenties that I really started to change that opinion! My primary source of information about parents was from teenagers! Of course my opinion began to mirror theirs.
I am the parent I was so irritated with fifteen years ago. I will complain if someone springs an event on me with little notice, just as I used to do to parents. I am the youth pastor and I don’t treat youth group as the most important thing for my kids. Yes, they are involved – and love it – but it is one small piece in a much bigger picture that is their life. I don’t bother keeping up on current trends anymore; it’s too much work, and I’m never going to be ‘cool.’ I’m a forty year old man with kids. Cool went out the window a long time ago. Turns out teens aren’t as impressed with adults who know the latest bands, movies, and books as I thought they were fifteen years ago – but they are desperate for caring adults who will love them and see their potential. And as much as it may bother them in the moment, it is quietly reassuring to young people when the adults in their lives communicate with, and support, their parents. It brings stability. I think recognizing that paves the way to transition from being a friend to a pastor.