I got this letter in the mail (the actual "snail mail" - old school) over a decade ago after VBS, when I was in the beginning of my children's ministry time. I was young, inexperienced, hurt, and outraged when I read it. He sent his daughter to a VBS at a church in the Bible Belt in the South . . . and was then surprised when she participated in a salvation altar call, and felt it warranted a call to his attorney (the scare tactic; it never happened)?! But as I read the letter now, a few years further in my ministry journey, and as a parent myself, I read it with different eyes .
This post isn't about whether or not altar calls for salvation are appropriate for kids (my views on that have changed over the years too), but on the mistakes I made as a children's ministry leader in engaging with parents.
I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to learn from these mistakes, and that's why I've kept this letter over the years. What have I learned?
Leave the parents out of their kids' spiritual milestones.
Whether or not your church practices altar calls for kids, and whether or not the parents are involved in your church, you can include parents and build bridges with parents when it comes to their kids' spiritual development and faith milestones. As someone who grew up with parents who weren't believers, I know what a powerful experience it was for my family when my youth pastor as a teenager built a strong relationship with my parents, and even invited them to church for my baptism! That intentionality spoke volumes to my parents as a witness for the grace and love of Christ. For parents who ARE believers, when we try to take the role away from them or take their place in spiritual development and milestones for their kids, without including them, we rob them of the opportunity and calling God has given them as spiritual leaders in their kids' lives.
The dad in this letter was rightfully upset when he noticed that we gave out candy in VBS and told the kids to wait and ask their parents before eating it, but then prayed with them for an eternal spiritual decision without even considering their parents - ouch!
Even if parents are not part of your church or are not believers, you can build relationships and build trust with them. You can include them in spiritual milestones. You can give them resources and ways to help them as parents, no matter what stage of parenting they're in.
Communicate with kids instead of parents.
After this letter, I made a new policy to only send mail to kids that is not sealed and not private (such as a postcard). I think sending kids postcards in the mail to let them know you missed them or appreciate them can be impactful, but I also think we need to carefully consider our communication families n outside of church, and include the parents whenever possible.
Don't give parents details.
The dad in this letter didn't know our church or our leaders, didn't know what our VBS program would consist of, and didn't know about the salvation opportunities that would be presented. While it's not possible to communicate every single detail with every parent, and you will likely (hopefully!) have kids attend VBS who don't go to your church, we CAN give parents an easy way to get details.
I've seen churches that send a brief email or take home each day of VBS letting parents know what their kids are learning or doing that day. I've seen churches send parents a text or a newsletter letting them know what's going on. I've used a website for VBS registration that included details about our program and our church. Especially if your church is targeting kids and families for VBS who aren't already a part of your church, make sure you have an easy way for them to get information about your church, your VBS program, and what to expect. I've seen churches include parents in an opening ceremony or closing ceremony for VBS. One year, I swapped a regular VBS and did a three night Family VBS where whole families attended together, and they loved it!
A simple explanation of safety policies and procedures (whether a poster, a one-on-one conversation, a brochure, or a blurb on your website or registration site) can let parents know what your church does to keep their kids safe.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
MAKE VBS EASY FOR PARENTS
As a mother of two toddlers, I totally understand how difficult it can be just to get out the door and get the kids to church. The best way a church can serve parents is by not making it more complicated and difficult than it needs to be. VBS registration should be easy and uncomplicated; parking should be easy to figure out (and not too far away from the church- think of the parents with two toddlers in their arms!); check-in should be fast and smooth, and not too hard to figure out. It should be easy to know where to go and how to pick your kids up. Having extra labels for kids' items is helpful. The church I'm at now is so good at making church easy for parents, and it is very appreciated!
With many VBS parents, we only get a 30 second iteration with them, and that's during pick up and drop off. That's the chance for our small group leaders and check-out volunteers to make an impression and let them know we care for their family and their child.
One time, I heard a young, well-meaning preschool volunteer say to a parents (in front of a crowded hallway with all their friends around) "Man!! Your kid was wild and bad today! He was crazy!!" I saw the look on the poor parents' faces and how their faces sank and how embarrassed they looked, and it broke my heart. Even if we have to speak with parents about behavior issues, these conversations need to happen in private, and need to be filled with grace, compassion and love. The best things to say to a parent during pick up time are words of affirmation and love for their kid, and something specific about how awesome their kid is would be even better! A friend told me today that she saw my son walking down the hallway with his class at VBS and he was being so obedient, and that made my heart soar! Train your leaders to look for opportunities to let parents know how awesome their kids and to look for specific things to share with parents.
LOVE THEIR KIDS
I know someone whose daughter has a wonderful Sunday school teacher who goes out of her way to show care for the kids in her class. The volunteer goes to the kids' performances and takes them a special treat during their school lunch time (with parents' permission). It means the world to the little girl, but it means even more to the parents that another adult cares so much for their daughter and is walking with them in helping her know the Lord. Another volunteer spent a day in the hospital sitting with a boy in his small group's family while the boy was sick. He prayed with the parents and was simply available for them. I know how special it is when my kids are excited to see their favorite leaders at church, and when those leaders are excited to see my kids, it impacts me. Parents love people who love their kids.
I'm thankful for an awesome church I get to be a part of right now, and for the leaders who pour into my kids every week. And I'm thankful to have grown in my leadership and learned from my mistakes about engaging with parents. I'm grateful for the grace from others to learn from mistakes.
Before I became a parent, I joked that the kids were the easy part of children's ministry; the parents were the difficult part! But now I understand that children's ministry and parents should be the strongest ally and partners, because we're both working toward the same goal: helping kids know Christ.