I was at a youth conference in middle school when I heard a question that was genuine gold to my tiny little smelly eardrums. It was a question that was asked to me while in a small group setting: “Do you fold or crinkle your toilet paper?” I laughed. A lot. Middle school boy, don’t judge me. I thought whoever came up with that question was so incredibly brilliant and creative to get people talking.
I found out this is one of the most common questions asked in youth groups, churches, businesses, schools, etc. Years later as a youth pastor, I put the question into one of our small group guides as an ice breaker. Then it hit the fan. A parent pulled me aside and gave me a very stern lecture on how inappropriate it was to include that question.
The lecture eventually started to make me want to laugh. Because I now had the parent answering the question and saying “poop” over and over again. But nonetheless, they were angry and I was getting the brunt of it so much so that I was getting the impression that I should just quit and find a different job that will put up with my immaturity.
This was not the first complaining parent that’s crossed my path, and definitely not my last. At times I felt like something was seriously wrong with me and other times I wanted to frame the complaints like I would a college diploma.
If you haven’t received a parent complaint yet, buckle up, ’cause you will. That may sound wrong of me as you are more than likely more mature than I am, but I know you will hear from a dissatisfied parent at some point in your youth ministry career based on this: I am now a parent and have found my complaining voice. I have always been someone who just goes with the flow and quickly gets over anything that bothers me. I hate drama and more often just simply don’t care enough to voice my opinions.
However, when it involves my babies, the mama bear in me comes out. Even though I am not a mama. But I do want the best for my kids and have occasionally voiced my concerns (lovingly of course). But I would argue that you would be naive to think that it couldn’t happen to you. Messed up people leading messed up people leads to messy situations.
Here are some tips on how to deal with a complaining parent:
Give grace and listen. Trust that they do want the best for their kid(s) and will do whatever it takes to ensure the best is given. Perspective is key. You may disagree with what is best, but remember that most of the time (hopefully every time) the parent really does love their child more than you do. If only we could be like Christ and love everyone the same with every fiber of our being all the time, but unfortunately we can only strive to get there.
Accept their feedback and listen. Pause and think about what they are saying and if they may have a point. Sometimes they do and it takes a wise leader to humble him/herself to accept the fact that you are not perfect and may screw up sometimes.
Talk to your boss and/or team and listen. What does your team make of the complaint? Was it warranted? Do you need to change anything? Is this a hill worth dying on?
Ensure you’ve heard, apologize, and listen. Sometimes a complaining parent just wants to be heard. Maybe something is going on behind-the-scenes that you don’t know about. Maybe it’s their kid. Maybe at home. Maybe at work. Maybe baggage from their own childhood. But listen and love them regardless of who is right and who is wrong. I learned from a friend once, Sometimes you can be right and win, sometimes you can be right and lose. It takes wisdom to know how effective leadership sometimes needs to lose. But apologize for what is appropriate to apologize for. Apologize for any hurt or offense they may have.
Listen and then listen some more. I know, it can be so incredibly difficult. But do it anyways.
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (James 1:19).
David has been working in youth ministry for over a decade and is convinced that students aren’t just the future church, but they’re the current church. And they matter now. He and his wife, Elise, have two young boys, Judah and Levi, that are energetic and insane. They live in Detroit, MI and spend most of their time pursuing shenanigans outdoors and collecting vinyl records.