(I have not written on the blog in a while mainly because I have been working on an exciting new book that I will tell you more about in the coming weeks. While there has been blog silence I have had some time to observe youth ministry around the country as well as in my own context and have decided to write an open letter about what I have observed. This letter is not from all youth ministers and it is not to all parents, but I think it speaks to most)
We love your kids.
We love them enough to send you this letter.
Your youth are in a bad place. We have never seen a generation of teenagers who are more stressed, full of anxiety, depressed, suicidal, over committed, over medicated, over worked and over extra-curriculared, and it is killing them, sometimes literally. We know you want the best for them, the best grades, the best college, the best teams, performances, standardized scores, friend groups etc. We all want the best for them. But they are not the best at everything and they will never be the best at everything. I was not, you were not and they will not stand atop the podium in every area they compete. As I watch the Olympics I have thought a lot about what it takes to get to the Olympics, let alone what it takes to get to the top of that podium. It takes incredible amounts of raw talent, dedication, work, and single-mindedness about that discipline. Unfortunately we see many parents pushing these standards and unrealistic expectations of every area of their kids lives. They cannot do it all, they cannot handle the stress and are being crushed under the weight of the expectation. Now, please hear me, it is not just your expectation, it is the expectation of their coaches, teachers, administrators, colleges and the expectations of each other. Expectations are good, they cause us to rise above where we, alone, would usually strive. But they must be realistic expectations based on each student.
Your kids are probably not going to Harvard, and that is ok.
Your kids are probably not going to play a professional sport, and that is ok.
But your kids can be amazing, productive, courageous and wonderful human beings, who love, have passions and dreams; should we really want more than that?
Our culture is moving to a place where parents are told that they are not allowed to be the ones who determined the limits, balances and expectations of their kids.
When kids come home with 3+ hours of homework every night, you should not accept that, it is not reasonable.
When kids have to practice a sport all summer, every week so that you cannot take a family vacation or send them on a mission trip because the coach threatens them that they will not play, that is not acceptable.
When you have to beg your kids to get off the computer or video game, or to see their phone, you should remember there should never be any begging involved.
You should set the priorities for your children, you are the ones who determine their schedules, you are the ones who are ultimately responsible for balance in their lives while they are under your roof. This is not only your right it is your calling and your responsibility as a parent.
You are not powerless in ANY of these situations. Get enough parents together to talk to the administration about the amounts of homework.
Pull enough stars from the football team.
Disconnect their phone.
I guarantee you that will bring all parties to the table.
Now, I am a youth minister. I have been in youth ministry for 16 years. It has not always been this way, trust me. Also know when I talk about a balanced life, I am not excluding their spirituality. There was an article written a few months back that compared youth ministry and church to an elective or extra-curricular. I think that is generous at best.
Most parents and students take electives and extra-curriculars much more seriously than they do regular involvement in a faith community.
Now, do not get me wrong the lip service is there. “I want to be at youth on Sunday night but I have too much homework” “I wish my child could go on the mission trip but they have football” “I really want them to be in church but they just have too many things going on right now”
Lets stop playing the game.
If you really want them there, you can make it happen. If a student really wants to be at church or youth group homework will not get in their way, it doesn’t get in the way of basketball, show choir or act prep classes.
Because we value those things, we love those things and we are committed to those things.
I will argue you that we are over investing in each of these things and are under investing in the long term spirituality of our youth. If it is a priority, them make it one, if not that is ok but do not make excuses about it. We will respect you a lot more if you do not apologize about your priorities and often try to make us feel bad that your student cannot find 1 hour a week to come to one of the 10 things we offer.
Balance also means not creating kids who spend every waking moment at church. We are not asking you to have them there 5 times a week. They need other communities, activities and things that balance their life. Sports, academics, the arts etc. are all wonderful things as long as they are balanced.
We want you and your student to commit to 1 or 2 things a week that will feed them spiritually and give them the opportunity to engage in a community of faith, the way their faith calls them to. Youth group junkies are not what we are trying to create, and is not why this article is written.
Finally, we want to tell you that we know it is hard. We know these decisions are not easy and you have the enormous weight of cultural and societal expectation bearing down on you. But know this..
We as youth ministers and clergy are here to help you. To support you. To join with you as we push back against this culture of excess and strive to bring sanity back to our kids and our families lives. We want this, for us, for our communities and for you. We want families and students and parents to have sabbath, not so you can refuel but so you can rest. We want balance, not so you can add church on to your list of to do’s but so you can have time and bandwidth to live out your faith. We want this, not to make you feel guilty, but to help you reclaim your kids lives, their schedule and your calendar. Ultimately we want this because we love you, we see you suffering and we want to help.
Let’s do this together.
Stephen Ingram (and a lot of other youth ministers who care)