[This post continues in a series of interviews with various leaders that are passionate about middle school ministry]
This past fall I had the chance to meet Marko at the Middle School Ministry Campference. In addition to working as the President of Youth Specialties and starting the Youth Cartel, Marko has spent a significant amount of time pursuing his calling to youth ministry by working with junior high students. Make sure to read part one of the interview.
How has having kids influenced the way you view middle school ministry?
There’s no question that my experience in middle school ministry has made me a better dad. Not that I’m perfect, by any means; but my years of studying early adolescence and spending time with countless young teens has given me a perspective and understanding that has been a great resource in my own attempts at parenting.
At the same time, parenting teenagers (and parenting young teens in particular) has reminded me how little I know. Or, more accurately, parenting teenagers has reminded me how true it is that every teenager is unique, and they each have their own journey to travel. This has, in a wonderful way, had a humbling affect on me. As a result, it’s easier for me, today, to see myself as a “tour guide to the middle school world” than as the answer guy who knows exactly what every young teen needs. The third implication that springs to mind is more about parents. I have SO much more sympathy for parents than I used to have. I now understand that most parents are afraid on one level or another (afraid they’re screwing up, doing it wrong, not good enough; or afraid that all their good intentions will be devoured by all the other inputs and influences in the lives of their children). I understand the motivation of overprotective parents. I live with the cultural pressure, every day, that wants to tell me I’m a bad parent if I give my kids meaningful responsibility, or if I allow them to fail or experience natural consequences, or if I don’t “protect” them.
You recently wrote Understanding Your Young Teen; what are some ways that youth workers can partner with parents during adolescence?
Again, the answer could be a book, right? A few thoughts (none of which will be groundbreaking):
- Exercise curiosity. I’ve found this to be a critical life skill in the past ten years (in other words, it’s newer for me); but it has big implications for youth workers and parents. Anytime a parent says or does or asks something that’s either slightly annoying, or fully pushes your buttons, learn to be curious about what their positive intent might be. Ask yourself, Why might they be saying that, or doing that, or asking that? What might they be hoping to gain?
- Educate parents. You might not be a true peer (assuming you don’t have middle schoolers living in your home); but you’re still a student of students in a way most of them aren’t able to be. Admit that you don’t fully know their experience, but that you’d love to partner with them by sharing what you’re learning about young teen development, youth culture, and the world of middle schoolers.
- Communicate your values. To any outsider (parent or other), middle school ministry could easily look like a parade of chaos. Articulate your values, and find ways to slip them into conversations and communication. Parents will always be more on your side if they have a sense that your middle school ministry boat has a rudder.
- Finally, keep them informed. The uniformed parent is a potentially dangerous animal, prone to assumption, false expectations, and accusation. Try to get them the details they want and need before they start wondering if you’ll be providing them; then provide them again, for good measure.
If you could share one thing with a middle school ministry newbie that you wished you knew when you started, what would it be?
When doing ministry with young teens, the immediate feedback loops constantly provide you with false information. You’ll experience resistance from parents (and often the church) that could lead you to believe that they see you as a threat, when it’s really only their fear and care coloring their responses and behavior. Middle schoolers seem like they’re not paying attention. Middle Schoolers flip-flop on commitment regularly. Middle schoolers could easily lead you to believe they just want to fart and giggle. But none of that is true. The real story is that you are doing ministry in an extremely unique and small window of time when the semi-clean slate offered by puberty combines with massively formative years in terms of identity, faith formation, and other major issues that will implicate young teens for the rest of their lives. So, don’t base your “success” on immediate feedback; rather, stay anchored in your unique calling that comes from God (who is very pleased with you).