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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Pastor's Kids and Church Youth Groups

Dear Matriarchs,

I have a different kind of youth group issue.  My son is youth-group aged and I am wrestling a bit with where he should go to youth group.  In a perfect world, he would go to my congregation's youth group - which is what we have done for the past year.

However, it is not a perfect world, and after a year, the parent in me is thinking about allowing/encouraging him to attend another church's youth group (same denomination).  Here's the reasoning in order):

1.)  The other congregation is in the town where he attends school.  He has friends in this youth group.

2.)  My congregation's youth group members are entirely from that town's school (with the exception of my son).  It's been that way for years uncounted, hence it's a 'closed' group.  He doesn't really fit in and hasn't really been able to make friends in the group.

3.)  The group meets once a month, for a meal and fellowship and to plan fundraising for summer mission trips.  The only observable faith component of most meetings is the grace before the meal.

The pastor in my knows that he should attend our group.  He needs to participate in the fundraising activities to prepare for next summer's mission trip.  And there's the spectre of how it would look if the pastor's kid goes somewhere else to youth group.

There are issues with the youth leaders which don't really allow me to do much in the way of making the group more inclusive and open.  The current leaders are stepping down in 3 years when their last child graduates - but that doesn't help my son.  I'm doing what I can to expand the group to 'outsiders', but it's a delicate situation.  It doesn't help that I'm new and the youth leaders have been doing this for 26 years.  There's a lot of re-organizing and re-building to do in this group, but it's going to be VERY slow process as we allow the current HS kids to age out and the current youth leaders to retire.

In the meantime, my son is caught in the middle.

The parent in me wants my son to be able to go to a youth group where he is actively included and not grudgingly welcomed.  I want him to be in a youth group where he feels comfortable and where there is a faith component of some sort (beyond grace before the meal) at every meeting.  

What do you think?  Can I get away with sending my son to the other youth group?

Thanks for your advice!

Muthah+ writes:

Dear Pastor-Mom,

I don't have kids and never had to worry about part of ministry, but I would suggest that you ask your son which group he would rather hang out with.  I think that is an important thing that PKs need to have -- some control over their own faith lives.

It is all too easy for us preacher types to allow the ministry we are called to become the ministry our whole family must subscribe to.  Before I was ordained, I heard many women bemoan the fact that they were living out their husband's vocation even when it was not theirs.  And in my tradition there was even a phrase in the ordination service that the ordained would submit the behavior of the whole family to the Church.

Please God, we have come to the place where we are beginning to understand that kids often need to be able to practice their faith differently than their parents in order to deepen their relationship with God.  You can explain to your son your concerns but let him make the choice.  It will be healthier for your kid and for your youth group.

Crimson Rambler notes:

I hear that this is a conundrum for you.  Some circumstances aren't spelled out -- what about his transportation needs, for example?  (Is he old enough to drive, that is).
I think I would be fairly hard-nosed about allowing him his choice of which group to attend -- this may be an area where he sees that his mother stands between him and congregational criticism, which is inappropriate and intrusive.  And people who are looking for reasons to find fault with you will not be placated by your son's suffering in a closed and unwelcoming youth group, after all.

That said, it might be an opportunity for you to promote some combined activities between the two groups?  perhaps an occasional swap of venues and activities?

what does HE want to do?

blessings on you both, and all the young'uns and their leaders.

Kathryn offers these thoughts:

I think not only should you let your son go to the other youth group, but you should also step away from this youth group until those youth leaders do, in fact, retire. There is no reward in you continuing to try to interact with them. You name it as a delicate situation, but it sounds like it is delicate for you, not them. They have nothing to lose, they are the ones who have been willing to do youth group for over 20 years! You are the newbie = no win.

Back to your son, if anyone asks you why your son is not attending youth group there just keep it simple, "His friends from school are in the other youth group." Every parent gets that. As for the fundraising piece, if he wants to go to the mission trip, then offer to pay the full rate or have him participate in the fundraisers. OR, he could just not go and stick with the other youth group's activities. I can tell from your email that your gut is telling you to allow/encourage him to go to the other youth group, and that's ok.

You don't owe the church your son or your son's faith journey. I encourage you to ignore the voice in your head and those that may be in the congregation, and do what you think is right for your son.

From Martha, blogging at Reflectionary

Dear Mom of Teen,

That's a lot of change you're hoping to lead in an established group.  

As a mom, I've been in a similar position, while working as an Interim. The youth group was a very closed system. The kids were nice, and the adult leaders were *very* welcoming to my child, but the group had no way of making space for her. So I let her off the hook. It was probably easier for me as an Interim, although I was disappointed that she wouldn't have the chance to make church connections with other young people while we were there, and we had no other available group for her to join. 

I think it's okay to have your son go somewhere else to youth group. Here's my suggestion for handling passing the word to the leaders: make it a family thing. Say, "It's better for him to be in youth group where his mom is not the pastor." That buys you the time to get to know them better before addressing the issues around the closed system and the content of the meetings. You need to establish trust with the leaders and be their pastor. 

The more prickly question is the mission trip. Does your son really need to go? Does the benefit of his participation (for him or for you or for the project in question) outweigh your other concerns about the closed group and the content of the meetings? If he needs to go, then you're right, he also needs to go to the meetings and be part of the fund-raising. But if you can let the trip go, then let him go to youth group with kids he knows, and take the long view where the youth ministry in your own church is concerned.
My 2 cents worth,

And from Sharon, blogging at Comfort and Joy:

You are both Mom and Pastor.   That's a fact.  Take both of those roles seriously, separately.

To you, Mom:  Of course, if he wants to go there, you will let your son go to the other youth group.  You seem clear that the other youth group will meet his needs better.  You will also have the opportunity to be "mom" to him there.  At the same time, he has the chance to relate to another pastor and a faith community where his mom is not the pastor.  At a critical time, he can grow his faith without having to be a PK all the time.  This is golden.  You already know that.

To you, Pastor:  If a mom came to you with this dilemma, I hope you would help her to figure out what was best for her son and support her to do that. As a pastor, you don't owe your congregation your son's presence if God's Spirit is calling him to another community and inspiring you to make that happen.  As for how it "looks": You can help people "see" how not being his pastor is good for your son, for you, and even for your own faith community.  In other words, take this decision out of apology / guilt mode and put it in a cute frame.

A loose thread perhaps: Please make it clear to your son and to your church's youth group leaders that he will not be going on your congregation's mission trip or other activities with them, even if / when you go.

You are not "getting away" with anything.  You are leading and teaching and loving, PastorMom.  Be bold!

Thanks to all our matriarchs who have responded with words of grace and experience.  Now, readers, it's your turn.  Join the conversation by posting your comments below.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Great GREAT question. I've lived it as well.

    In our case, Older Child was an introvert and NOT interested in the "rah-rah" carnival type of youth group where basically grace was said for the snack and then they played games. He loved the contemplative prayer group my husband attended (which met on the same night). Since I was on staff, it was awkward. But I simply said, "he has a standing activity on Tuesday nights" and let him choose.

    For Younger Child, the busy, active, "Christian hang out" kind of youth group was perfect and she thrived. She occasionally missed because of orchestra rehearsals and no one batted an eye. Since she and Older Child were 18 months apart, it as obvious when only one attended.

    I got some flack for it. I finally said, "you Called me. Not my husband. Not my kids." Since we had elders whose children did not attend (and someone else graciously pointed this out in a meeting) I felt excused.

    When there was a large event (i.e. a regional meeting) I would ask both kids to go fi they were not otherwise occupied. It turned out to be fun for both of them. But had there been resistance, I would not have made them.

    Now our kids are in college and they are not affiliated with our denomination's campus ministry where they go (2 different colleges). I haven't expected that they would. Instead, I encourage them to find their places of spiritual growth and community.

    It's a ticklish thing. But they have the right to develop and grow as God wants. Not how the church where Mom works wants.

  2. Between my parish and my husband's, we serve 7 churches. And our oldest attends activities at the church where most of the Protestant kids from her small school go, which is not one of ours. She loves it, and when people ask, that's what I tell them. She loves it, she's thriving there, and we're so glad for her. No apologies, just positive affirmation.

  3. There weren't any other options when my son was youth group aged, but I do know several clergy whose spouses and/or children are active in parishes other than their own--either in choirs or in youth groups. As Anon says above, they called YOU not your family. So do what is best for your son.

  4. When I was in high school my mom was the youth pastor at our church and I ended up visiting around and attending youth group with friends for awhile because things were just weird with my mom as the youth leader. I don't know how that was from my mom's stand point, but I appreciated the freedom to explore.

  5. Not quite the same, but I'm our youth work coordinator. My kids have chosen to attend a youth group in another church (different denomination), partly because its in English but a lot because its a bigger group and more fun than what we are able to run in the church we're part of. But as it is on a different evening they mostly also go to our church's group as well. We encourage but don't force this. Anyway, might it be possible for your son to go to the other group while maintaining a connection with your church's group ?

    In any case I agree with others about letting your son choose then supporting his choice. If he chooses the other group, a simple "he prefers the other group because his school friends are there" or "he prefers to go to a group where is mom is not the pastor" seem to me to more than cover the situation - you have nothing to apologise for !

  6. It doesn't sound like this is an issue in this question, but it might be for others: If the youth staff are paid and/or ordained colleagues, it is important to find a way for your child to thrive (in the other group) AND to make clear that you support the ministry your colleagues do. It is extremely difficult to weather the criticism as an ordained colleague when the senior pastor's kids do not participate in youth ministry, and it can easily undermine the ministry of your colleague ("you must be really terrible because even our new pastor's kid doesn't want to come").
    of course it's also easier to deal with concerns about the direction/focus of youth ministry when the people running it are your paid colleagues, not 20+ year volunteers.

    1. I don't think that this comment applies only to ordained and/or paid people.

      However, I think that part of the questioners problem is that she doesn't really support the ministry of the volunteers in question. Separating that out from her own kid's participation is understandably complicated.

  7. We are a small UCC congregation in a smallish town. We know have 3 middle scool aged youth, including my older son. I am hoping to start a youth program but do worry about what we can do with a small group, how not to be insular if others would come with the kids and, mostly, how to make it a possible activity for my son without making it mandatory. These three are doing confirmation together, which might make getting a group easier but also more closed. The girl goes to the PCUSA congregation's youth group sometimes because they are large enough to have one. My challenge with my congregation has been more along the line of forming these groups when it is obvious that it is sometimes only my child that is the obvious target. I am learning much reading these posts. I am only 2 years into my first call and am grateful for the actual insights that people share on this site. I discovered this group in seminary but still haven't learned to blog!

    1. Is there another small church locally with a similar situation that you can partner with to make a viable group ? We did this when our HS group dropped to 3 potential members and it worked. (The other church wasn't the same denomination.) Leaders were drawn from both congregations and both premises were used. It gave us one group of 6 instead of two groups of 3.

  8. Why not do both? While I affirm the fact that the congregation called you, not your son, I also think its okay to teach children and youth that there are certain obligations that we attend to because we are part of the community of faith, even it is not our favorite event. We ask members to come to things even if they don't feel like it, because their presence benefits the whole community. The youth group at your congregation benefits from your son's presence there.

  9. Mid-Life Rookie here. My first local church appointment came as my son entered his senior year in high school. His entire life (from the pastor reading our Dear Birthmother letter to the congregation 3 weeks before he came to us)had been in our home church. He made the choice not only to not join our youth group, but to retain his membership at the home church. A choice I fully supported. Now here's where we had some advantages. He was already about to be out of our home making his own faith (or lack there of)decisions. He had his own transportation.

    I support letting your son chose where he finds the best youth group for himself.

  10. As a pk and a pastor, I let my son make his decisions about how much or little to be involved with the church. Ask your son what he wants to do and deal with the fallout for him.

    So with my son he is required to do worship and its his choice about any other activities, which sometimes he attends and sometimes doesn't. He has unfortunately been the wrong age in the churches I have served (either older or younger than all the other kids, sometimes the only kid.) Part of my reasoning is I know too many pks who only worship when they are visiting their parents.

    As a pk the option of going to another youth group would have been a desirable option in some of the different ministry settings my father served. It would have freed me from the expectations and judgement of having my father's faith rubbed onto me.

    So I go back to ask your child and then deal with any consequences from their decision.

  11. If your son prefers to go elsewhere, you cannot sacrifice a significant component of his spiritual growth to the desires of your youth leaders. This may be an opportunity to make a point about how our calling is certainly not to fight over those, young or old, who are already churched. Maybe the youth groups can share some activities. Maybe as he gets to know the local kids better, he'll want to participate more — or maybe not. The bottom line in this is your son's faith journey.

    If your youth leaders question you, it also may be an opportunity to promote some gentle discussion about how your youth group could feel more welcoming to young people. Is it possible for you to say, "He had a hard time finding his way into this group"? He has an in — you — that other newcomers won't. It's SO hard to be the new kid, let alone to be the PK, and yet in small congregations, all the kids do know each other quite well. Where's the line between cohesive and insular?

  12. As a former Youth Director who saw many youth come and go no matter HOW welcoming we worked at being, my suggestion would be to listen to your son. If he is finding God through the ministry of another church, that is where he needs to go at this time. That doesn't mean that it won't change a year or two (or three!) down the road. He can, as previously suggested, be a part of the worship services at the church you serve and still have a presence there. Let's be honest, while the "call" is usually only made to the Pastor, the expectation is that the family will participate in the church to a certain extent.

    I do, however, wonder why your son would be expected to go on a Mission Trip with the youth group, if he chooses not to attend the youth group? Is that your own expectation? While I believe that Mission Trips shouldn't be completely comfortable for everyone, I have had many an experience where someone doesn't fit with the group and it's a miserable time for them and takes away from the trip itself. Those are my 2 cents!

  13. When I was a PK high schooler, my parents encouraged me to stick it out in the youth group at our church even though the programming (a lot of silly games) didn't really appeal to me and I only had one good friend in the group, because by my involvement I could provide encouragement and a role model to the younger students in the group. My parents did not demand that I go, but I found their argument convincing, so I chose to stay in that youth group, and now treasure life-long friendships with several of those younger students. (Three years seems like a huge age difference when you're 17; not so much when you're in your 30s.)

    Then, the summer between high school and college, I attended youth group at another church in our town. Several of my friends from school where in that group, and it had a greater focus on worship and Bible study than the one in my home church. My parents fully supported my choice to attend that group at that time. It was an enriching experience for me -- both to be in a group that was a better match for my temperament and interests, and to be in a group where my primary identity was not the "pastor's kid."

  14. I would allow my child to attend the other youth group and I echo the person who said to tell people that it is good for your son to be part of a group where his mom is not the pastor. That said, I would try to help my child become involved in my congregation in some way - playing handbells, volunteering at some annual community event, playing on the softball team - something that will allow him to know some adults who will welcome him home when he returns to visit in the future (because most likely the "youth" will not be there anymore.) Your church can be your child's church even if he doesn't participate in the youth group.

  15. I have struggled with a similar decision - so thank you for sharing this question. What a blessing to be reminded that the issues I face in ministry are not mine alone!

    My children attend a different church and are active members - engaged in youth group, ss, various ministries. I take heart in that I am allowing them to live into their own faith and they are in a place where they are loved and valued for who they are not who their mom is. There is also the benefit of letting them have a way to differentiate during a time when they are going to (ideally) do so anyway.

    There are times when they attend where I am serving but most times they engage in their own church community. This is not the vision I had for my family but I thank God that my children are learning that their faith is theirs - they (along with us) are responsible for tending to it.

    At the end of the day, my children would tell you that they go to the church of their choice because of their friends. They have a sense of belonging and community in that space. They know they are loved and accepted. We should all be so lucky!

    Thanks again for the wonderful question - prayers for God's Peace to you...

  16. I think it would be wonderful for your child to experience another church youth group. It would give him a sense of identity apart from being the "pastor's kid" and also allow him the possibility of feeling included in a faith group that intertwines with his school. We ran into this with my children, in which they were made to feel on the "outside" by not only the kids, but also a few adults. As you said, it was a cycle that needed worked on, but ended up hurting my children's opportunity to connect to a group that not only included them, but loved them unconditionally (which is what youth group is supposed to do).

    I wouldn't worry about what others in your church feel, this is your child and he has to be your priority, not a political prisoner of his pastor parent (so to speak). I think it would be nice if he did attend the mission trip and support fund raisers as a rising member of that congregation, but only to the extent that he is willing and not forced to do it.

    Regarding your involvement with the youth group in your church in which I assume you are the solo pastor of, I would stay on the fringes of the group. I agree with Kathryn to a slight degree in that your involvement in your church youth group is a delicate situation, but I wouldn't go so far as to step away from it completely. It is your church afterall and there are many reasons why it will be important for you to have a pulse on the goings on there.

    Beyond the inclusive factor, you also may want to watch that the theology/ideology they lean towards won't confuse the youth. Also, once they do retire, if you haven't built a relationship with those who are involved beyond the current leaders, you won't be able to disciple new leadership to grow into the program with ease and it could become disjointed or even dismantled.

    Perhaps you could ask the current leaders if you could lead an brief activity once a month so that the youth connect with their pastor. Perhaps this could be done as the leaders are laying out the food and so it wouldn't conflict with their schedule. You could also ask them if you could begin to help with planning a youth service that you would like the kids to run before or after their mission trip (or both). Then, you could keep the "pulse" of the group, connect with parents or others in the church who could help you with your "parts" and this would help you find leaders that could easily step in once the others retire...

    Back to your son, he is lucky to have a parent who puts such thought into what is beneficial for their own faith journey as compared to their own ministry. Way to go!


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