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Parents: Problems or Solutions in Christian Community Development?

By David Bunker

What’s the role of neighborhood parents in our ministries to children? Are they at the center or on the margins? Do our ministries sometimes work around the shortcomings of parents, trying to make up for their deficiencies? If so, is that strategy well considered? Are the perceived deficiencies of families mythological or accurate?

Sometimes we’re oblivious to the obvious

We were leading a Christian Community Development Association national conference workshop, touting a successful Fresno neighborhood transformation ministry. Halfway through the workshop, a heckler stood up and challenged our approach.

What did he say?

“What part of honoring father and mother do you not understand? You’re undermining parents by ignoring their leadership.”

We were completely thrown off, but heard his words as the words of God. However, suddenly our definition of a successful ministry was shredded.

Immediately we realized we had been oblivious to the obvious imperative of building mentoring relationships with parents, not around them. We had listened to the mythology about parents’ deficiencies, swelling our self-importance. But was that mythology true? We decided to test it.

We tested the question, “Are parents the problem, or the solution?” on Motel Drive in Fresno’s Addams neighborhood, with the city’s highest concentration of homeless families and with its most dire transiency rate.

We started meeting with parents and creating leadership teams. We equipped the teams to provide parenting skills and leadership training, using asset-based workshops that would become known as Parenting Partners. The training was led by neighborhood parents teaming with school and ministry leaders.

What’s the result of partnering with parents?

As those parents experienced the training and groups, they stepped up to a new level of confidence, skill and leadership. Conflict in families was transformed into positive structure and peace. A significant percentage of their children started reaching appropriate reading levels. Homeless families found homes and jobs for their families. Parents took leadership and multiplied into a movement.

Parents were in fact the solution! The biblical priority of family created the best road map for community transformation. Further, we learned that community development initiatives can be sustainable only when built on parents.

The model we used involved a small group of ten or twenty parents at a time that experienced the training, and then became trainers for the next group of parents.

Teams spread to other neighborhoods, then around the state, then nationally. Ten parent graduates became 100, then 1000. Now more than 10,000 parents graduate from Parenting Partners each year, swelling the ranks of confident, visionary leaders.

We recently gathered leaders using this model from cities nationally at Point Loma University. Leaders from a South Carolina town started with three teams four summers ago, and now have more than 500 parents trained. They have teams in every school in their district, and now the district is partnering with churches to start their own teams.

In this 97% African American community, the leaders have brought this transforming movement into schools, churches and barbershops.
Parents now have a greater capacity to build their children’s character, spiritual formation and school success. This district has partnered with a local university to train throughout their state, and Johns Hopkins University has published articles on their results.

Leaders in more than 50 cities are seeing the results of parent leadership to improve student reading and performance, and to bring empowered parents into leadership for school improvement, restorative justice and church leadership. Most teams connect with newcomer families, leading these teams in numerous languages.

What’s the ministry model behind those results?

What are the practical and biblical dimensions of what we are learning?

Leadership is the secret sauce of successful parenting. Parents advance their skills when we empower them as leaders. Parents within our high child poverty communities believe that “all kids are our kids.” They want to holistically advance their children’s future in tandem with helping all the children and parents in their community.

But when we apply middle class models and label them as “consumers” or “clients,” they feel frustrated. The label should be “contributors” and “leaders.” Do you learn more when you sit in a class or when you teach the class? We empower parents to lead 100% of our teams and teach 100% of our content. They are the experts!

A Stanford University Hospital doctor was examining David during the time Parenting Partners was starting. He said, “You’ve had this disease longer than anyone. Therefore I want you to be the expert in this disease. I’ll teach you what I know and you will teach my residents. I’ll sign the prescription and you fill in the treatment after you debate it with them.” Clearly we need to empower parents like that!

Parents don’t view themselves as clients needing classes and services. Our parents are trained by fellow parents, and then become trainers themselves. Parenting and leadership are like chocolate and peanut butter: they go better together. In 17 years of Parenting Partners, we’ve never been disappointed by trusting parents to be reliable leaders.

In John 15:15 Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

How do we apply that? Clearly the Jesus’ love language is friendship. So task focused relationships are out. We can’t pull people out of poverty with programs and services. We can’t work around parents. What are the implications of friendship? It’s the full embrace of trusting parents to lead their families and communities.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he delivered key leadership for rebuilding the city. But most of the resources for rebuilding the city were already there. They were just mislabeled. Material labeled “rubble” was actually the right material for rebuilding walls. The wall builders were also already living there.

About the training ministry

Family Leadership is the ministry that trains communities in the team model called Parenting Partners This Fresno based ministry serves in more than fifty cities nationally, with more teams internationally.

To start a team in your church, school, or ministry contact our staff at 559-222-2300:

David Bunker:
Carlos Huerta:

Questions Leaders can use in their Church or Agency Context

Is our community a bottomless well in need of resources – money from foundations, etc.? Or are we an asset-rich community with resources already here that are necessary for rebuilding the city?

Do we, as community, see parents as a problem to restoring our communities, or are they part of the solution? How do you see parents?

What kind of leadership will best facilitate rebuilding?

Parenting Partners works with thousands of newcomers to the U.S. each year. Is it easier to equip newcomer families or long time American families? What approaches are best?

How does acculturation and assimilation factor into developing more successful children?

How do you feel when a “heckler” challenges your programs and models? Have you seen someone who challenges you as a prophet speaking God’s word to you? Can you share that experience now and reflect on that lesson learned?

Special consideration — Do we need a different approach to ministry in California?

While visiting CCDA affiliated ministries in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Denver, our Fresno delegations reveled in their life changing mentoring relationships. We noticed how many extended through ten or more years, taking the young person through high school graduation, and even into college.

When our California ministries mentored kids, we realized how different our playing field was. David worked with Faithful Central Church’s neighborhood ministry center in Englewood for years. It served a historically African American neighborhood, but then within a year’s time it became a majority Guatemalan neighborhood. The ministry staff started learning Spanish and continued serving. A year later is was a majority Salvadorian neighborhood.

So while families in Chicago may stay long-term in a community, in California families bounce around like pin balls. That’s certainly true in Fresno, with many of our schools and neighborhoods experiencing 50% plus turnover rates within in a year.

How does that impact mentoring ministries which are at the heart of CCDA strategies?

It makes all the difference! If the longevity of our mentoring relationships is interrupted, what additional strategies should we consider to bring young people out of poverty?

How does this solve the dilemma of high transiency?

Children may move away from their mentors, but most children and parents stay together. The solution to combat high transiency is to build the capacity of parents to raise children who will succeed in school and become great leaders in their communities.

Do you agree that parents are the solution? Parents are indispensable to positive educational outcomes. They are the key to transforming schools and communities.

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