Editor’s Note: This article is written jointly by Sara, a youth minister who was, until recently, a single mom to two young boys, and Jason, a veteran youth minister who has 20 years of experience ministering to all kinds of families.
by Sara Galyon and Jason Sansbury
One of the current realities that any youth worker is going to deal with is that the old idea of a nuclear family (dad, mom, two kids, and a dog) is an increasingly rare phenomenon in our churches. Families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. For example, just this year, we’ve encountered:

  • a family in which the kids are primarily with one parent and step-parent and are with the other parent on the weekends
  • a family in which the custody is shared and the divorced parents are both active in the church
  • a family in which the incoming youth come to the church because their grandparents bring them
  • a family with three kids and both parents in the home
  • a family with divorced parents who both left the church but the children continue to come without parental support
  • a family whose non-custodial parent lives out of state (meaning they are gone all summer and all three day weekends and all school breaks)

So in that reality of changing family structures, we need to be prepared to think about how to do ministry in these different situations. Here are some ideas to think about as you minister to all the different families in your church and community.

Different Families, Different Ministry

Currently, in my (Jason’s) church, there is a family in which the kids live with their working mother and she has limited family support in our immediate community. So with that in mind, I offer to help that family in a variety of ways. Sometimes that involves helping provide rides. Sometimes it involves getting the kids to or from church. I am even the second contact for them at their schools in case of an emergency. As I live my life with this family, I offer to be involved as much as helps this family. And regardless, if you’re going to offer your help, you need to be consistent and faithful in fulfilling that role. Nothing would be worse than a family that needs the help that you have offered and that you fail to be able to make happen.

On the Volunteer Front

Think about the amount of time an average parent has to volunteer and cut that in half to find that of a single parent. Single parents rarely have help they don’t have to pay for. If a single parent doesn’t live around family then any help they get is hired, meaning that if you want a single parent to volunteer for something, then he or she will have to pay for a sitter to be able to do it. So how can you help? You can offer child care, help find a sitter who is willing to volunteer time, or let the parent bring the younger children along (which can be a disaster, but it is sometimes the only option).
In that same vein, don’t assume that when the kids are with their other parent that single parents have “free time” to volunteer for youth activities. When my (Sara’s) kids go to their dad’s, that’s about the only time I have to catch up on any number of things, from paperwork and house cleaning to a social life or even just a nap. Just because I don’t have my kids with me doesn’t mean I am free to add extra things to my plate.
This also can be tough time for single parents whose lives are wrapped up in their kids. Consider asking if they’d like to go out to lunch, or go get some coffee. It can be hard to be home alone as a single parent.

Be Mindful of Financial Implications

Never assume that single parents have money to pay for anything. If you don’t know a single parent’s situation regarding child support (maybe they get a substantial amount and maybe they receive none at all), then you need to assume they are supporting kids on one salary. This might be fine, but in many cases single parents are working two or three jobs just to keep bills paid. Please don’t assume they have money for snacks on a Wednesday night, let alone $200 for the beach trip. Consider asking generous congregation members to set up scholarships for kids whose parents can’t afford those fees, or fundraising opportunities for kids to be able to raise their own money. As with any financial situation please approach this gently. Don’t say things like, “Do you have enough money to buy snacks this week?” or “Can you afford the beach trip?” Be creative and find ways for parents to either make installment payments or turn their child’s name in anonymously for a scholarship to not hurt people’s pride.
The reality is that most of us as youth workers don’t pay our way on trips. And because of that, it is easy for us to lose sight of the financial responsibility of a year of being fully involved in our ministries, and how that could be a burden for our families. A single parent with two children and no support from other sources may need us to offer and even insist on financial aid. At my (Jason’s) current church, there is an older couple that has taken on helping provide funds to a specific family that otherwise might have had to limit their involvement in our ministry.

Honoring Boundaries

Occasionally, in our desire to be helpful, a family in need might feel less like we are trying to be in ministry with them and more like we are treating them like a charity case. We all need to learn how to tactfully and helpfully offer our gifts in ways that could help but also can be really easily turned away if the family isn’t comfortable.
Consider asking if there is any way you can offer help. Parenting is hard, even when there are two parents in a home, but as a single parent it is very difficult. You can’t “get away” when things get hard, when you are at your wits end you can’t go for a drive until you calm down, because there is no one to stay with your kids. Consider finding people who can offer to watch a single parent’s kids for an hour or two a week. Or if their kids are older (youth group age), offer to take them out for dinner, even if it’s just McDonalds, and give mom or dad a break. That break might be used to catch up on cleaning, go for a run, or even go to the grocery store alone, but that time can mean the world to a single parent.

Communication Channels

When time comes to add new students to the roles, communicate with everyone possible as well as you possibly can. Maybe this means that in cases of divorce, you want to add both parents to the mailing list. In the case of grandparents being the ones bringing grandkids to church, add both the grandparents and the parents to your communication channels. It would simply be too easy to communicate with the primary caregiver and in doing so, you can unintentionally dishonor the other adults who are involved in the lives of young people. So work as hard as you can early on to get everyone in the communication lists!
If you’re a single parent, how can youth ministers help you? What did we miss? If you’re a youth minister, how do you minister to the various family structures within your youth group?
Sara Galyon is a third year CYMT graduate resident and serves as the youth minister at FUMC Covington outside Memphis.
Jason Sansbury is the youth minister at Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.  Previously, Jason has served churches in Franklin, Tenn. and Georgia and has been on staff with YoungLife.  Additionally, Jason was one of the founding partners of Crossed-Up Ministries, a ministry specializing in putting together large worship events for youth groups.  He has a heart for helping young people find their call into ministry and succeeding early in their ministry and careers. For fun, Jason loves movies, music, and television. He is a fount of useless pop culture trivia and dreams of being a winner on the TV show Jeopardy.