An easy way to score huge points with parents!

orange

I started youth ministry back when mailing flyers with clip art out of a book was the best and most effective way to communicate with parents.  As I grew in skills I began to make calendars on Microsoft Publisher and would occasionally send out letters to parents to promote special events like a trip to Mexico or a parent meeting. Because this was the time that formed my communication world view, I came late to embracing all the technology available to me to communicate to parents and to students.  This is my excuse.  What is yours?

I am shocked at how many of my youth worker friends do not have regular communication with parents.  In an age of technology, email, databases, etc, communicating regularly with parents is the number one way to score big points for you and your ministry.

Perception is Reality

The biggest gripe I hear from parents is that they don’t know what is going on.  As a youth worker who is a great planner, this excuse chafed on me big time.  All the information for events would be in the bulletin, on the quarterly calendar, on the website, and sent home on flyers.  But with all of these outlets, parents still managed to miss what was going on in our ministry and the details about events.   And the biggest bummer is that perception is reality.  So if it was perceived that the information was unclear, then it was.

How parents perceive your organizational and communication skills is the true test of how you are doing in these two categories.  We cannot be scared of this feedback.  Instead, we must embrace it and address it.  Here is how my team did it.

Email Parents Once A Week

Like I said at the start, this is easy.  It is not rocket science  If you already do this, then good job, quit reading, and check out one of my fellow Orange bloggers.  If you aren’t, SHAME ON YOU!!  This is a must, and a huge win for you and your ministry.

In our weekly emails we :

·      Get to share the vision and purpose of our group.

·      Encourage parents to love their kids.

·      Encourage parents to pray for me and for our ministry.

·      Empower parents to take away excuses for their kids to miss youth group or events.

·      Share resources that they may find helpful.

·      Share stories of how God is at work in our ministry.

·      Communicate upcoming lessons for both follow-up and open dialogue in case it gets a little spicy.

·      Highlight upcoming events and communicate details.

·      Remind parents of RSVP dates and links so they can sign up right there on the spot.

·      Provide an easy way for parents to get a hold of me, because my email is always in their inbox somewhere.

·      Give the impression that I am easily accessible.

·      Become a weekly reminder that their church has a youth pastor and a youth program that is worthy of their consideration.

Logistically, this can be a challenge.  This is how we did it:

We spent a lot of hours contacting every parent in our youth ministry’s database and added a field for parents’ email.  This is a long and awful task.  But once this is done, the maintenance is super easy.

Now, whenever a new person comes to youth group we collect their contact information.  But we added a step where we mail home a letter to their parents explaining what their kid showed up at, explaining our youth ministry, who I am, and how to contact me.  We also invite the parents to share their contact information with us so they can stay in the loop with our weekly emails.

We have been going at this strong for several years now and the response has been amazing.  I have not heard one complaint about communication or about the lack of information regarding an event.  Parents can simply look in their inbox to find everything they need to know.  The only down side is that all of our parents know I am a horrible speller and have no sense of grammar.  (Just like my fellow blog readers.)  And like I said before, if you already send out these emails, you should have stopped reading 300 words ago.

Why is this post part of Orange week?

The Orange philosophy has solidified my conviction that parents must be partners in student ministry.  I have spent many years being scared and intimidated by parents.  Truthfully, I still am.  But by keeping them in the loop, respecting their rightful place in the lives of their own kids, and inviting a partnership with them has opened up conversation, deepened trust, and made for some of the most fruitful seasons of ministry ever.

If you are unfamiliar with Orange, I would encourage you to check it out.  They are an amazing resource for youth workers and for families.  I can not wait to get out to Atlanta for the annual convention.  I hope you consider coming along.   Sign up this week and save some money.  No matter if you are an Orange Kool-Aid drinker like me or not, communicating with parents is a no-brainer and a must.

This is how a technological newbie does his communication.  How do you do it?  What templates, software or programs do you use?

wired but dis-connected: helping kids establish genuine relationships in a networked world

This post was originally posted at youthworkerjournal.com and in their january / february print journal. A couple of weeks ago, I experienced the "Twilight Zone" in Sunday School. Even though the room was full of students, there was this strange silence. At first, I couldn't tell what was happening. I know Sunday School is early, but as I looked around at the group, I could tell it wasn't that everyone was tired or bored. Friends were sitting next to friends and everyone seemed fine, except for me. As I looked around the room again, I realized everyone had his or her phone out and was texting away, many of them texting each other!

I experienced a similar phenomenon while I was with some family friends for their daughter's wedding. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college, had all her bridesmaids together at the house to hangout before the rehearsal. This group of girls had been great friends throughout college and loved being with each other. Now that these girls were together, reunited, instead of laughing and telling stories, the room was quiet with just the soft sound of typing while they updated their Facebook pages with their laptops and phones in front of them.

These are just two antidotal encounters of groups of friends who are together, and instead of relating in human-to-human contact, they chose to connect through texting and Facebook. Technology always changes how we communicate, but this new development is changing the ways in which we communicate and connect, as well as changing the definition of friend.

is the sky falling?

I don't want to be an alarmist, proclaiming the sky is falling. I know we never are going to get back to the days of handwritten letters. In fact, we might never get back to the days of email; but this continued evolution in communication and social networking brings with it some pitfalls of which those of us who love and work with students should be aware. In doing so, we can help them navigate their world and develop socially in a way that reflects their God-given nature.

The 1990s were amazing in the advancement of electronic communication. Car phones and email first showed up on the radar in the early 90s; the World Wide Web became a viable tool by the mid-90s; and by the end of the decade, email, websites and cell phones had become part of our everyday experience. In August 2003, MySpace entered the scene and the social networking phenomenon was underway. MySpace rose in prominence through the 2000s until Facebook took over in 2008. For the past two years, Facebook has been the number one place for students to connect, share life and communicate the large and small parts of their lives with each other.

This incredible rise of social networking is an astonishing thing all by itself, but alongside this development is the rise and proliferation of cell phones. When I talked to the students I work with, many of them have had cell phones since middle school (around 2006) and our middle schoolers have had cell phones since fourth or fifth grade. From the moment they got their cell phones, they have been texting—and at an amazing rate. Many students are texting in the 3,000- to 5000-per-month range and some much higher. When I asked some of them about how many cell phone minutes they use, the overwhelming response was "hardly any."

it is a new world:

Gone are the days of sitting on the phone and talking for hours, staying up late and talking with friends about anything and everything. Now everything is communicated is snippets, 140-180 characters at a time, disconnected from real face time or contact. The big question is, "What does this sort of disconnected contact and lack of conversation do to social development?"

The upside is that students have all the space in the world to try on new personas. They can expand their friend base with many people as they have time to request. This allows potentially hundreds more in their lives then their predecessors had even a decade before. Another positive is that students can find people with similar interests and values with just a click of a button.

The downside is that all of this communication is happening with very little connection. All of these interactions are done in isolation, separate from human contact. At the very moment adolescents need community and connection to work out their identities and help develop social cues, they are becoming increasingly isolated.

our students are developing their social skills in complete isolation:

Our students are having so many experiences, yet processing them in compete isolation. When bullying happens; when depression is overwhelming them; when they engage in risky behavior; when they try to figure out romantic relationships, feelings and expressions…all of this is done in seclusion from the adult world and often without the knowledge of their peers around them.

This isolation at such a vital time in their social, emotional and spiritual development is dangerous. The ways in which experiences are shaped or not shaped are vital for healthy development. As adults who love students, we must be aware of the hidden life where students are communicating and help them connect in healthy and genuine ways.

In the very fabric of who God is, the Trinity, there is community and connectedness. God is community; God created humans to be in community with each other and with Him. In Christ we are connected; we are family; we are one body. It is in our very core to be connected with other humans and God. When we provide space and opportunities for this to happen, transformation occurs.

It is similar to taking a group of students, who have lived only in an urban context, camping for the weekend. Away from their normal environment, these students are surprised and amazed by the new sights of brilliant stars, towering mountains or the powerful ocean. When these students experience the awesome power and richness of creation, they get a taste of who they were created to be by interacting with nature and reality in a different way than what technology allows. In a similar way, when students experience true connection in human-to-human contact, there is a realization that there is a superficiality to the typical connections they know.

some simple tools to help connect our students:

There are many simple things one can do to accomplish the goal of genuine connection, and many of us are already doing them. If we can get our heads around some of the added benefits of these activities and use them more purposefully for connection, students will develop a taste for community and crave more and more of it.

Youth group games and mixers, sports, and board games are all designed for fun. But on a very basic level these games are tools of social development. These games and mixers teach students appropriate ways of interaction and how to communicate with one another. And the best part is that none of this is done in private. All this interaction and awkwardness happens in plain sight where other students and adults can help give shape and define social cues so that we actually get to walk alongside students to help them love and connect in ways that honor God.

Many student ministries have some form of small groups. And these small groups are our ministries’ bread and butter when it comes to helping students actually connect. There is space in these groups for students to share their stories to get support and prayer. And while most of the time we are content with students sharing their stories and the rest of the group listening and waiting for their turn to share, we can give our small group a larger purpose. We can make these groups a place of true connection. We can help our students learn how to really listen, how to ask follow up questions, and how to remember details and check in later. As adult leaders we have the privilege of hearing these stories, and we also have the responsibility to help shape these experiences. Instead of working these experiences and issues out in isolation, we can walk alongside them encouraging them to work it out using the wisdom and care of their community and scripture.

It is true that texting and Facebook are here to stay and for the foreseeable future will be the norm in communication. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can use our piece of the pie, our place of influence, to draw students out of isolation and a false sense of connection and into a warm community with true connection. We have the opportunity to take these students out of the city and into the forest and give them a taste of true community. And once you have experienced true connection with other humans and even more with God, texting and Facebook will become just the tools they were created to be, avenues for connecting, but not replacements for true connection.