the difficult shift from control to facilitation

about 18 months ago, i was sitting in dr. robert epstein’s living room with a group of youth workers from my youth ministry coaching program, talking about his ideas about the cultural construct of adolescence. at one point, his children came home from school and trotted through the house — elementary-aged kids. he had previously mentioned to us that he had two older son (about 28 and 30) from his first marriage, and how a grip of young kids from his second marriage. trying to understand some of what he was talking about, i asked him, “how has your parenting changed from when you parented your older sons to how you parent the children in your home now?”

i remember his response verbatim, because it has impacted my parenting (and other thinking) in significant ways. he said, “i’ve shifted from parenting by control to parenting by facilitation. and by ‘facilitation’, i mean identifying and nurturing competencies.”

he unpacked that thought a bit more, but the damage was done. i instantly saw the truth in what he was saying. and i could see that, while not a super-high control parent, i hadn’t thought of it in these terms before. since then, jeannie and i have tried over and over again to remember this idea when faced with parenting issues.

an illustration:

my amazing 14 year-old son max recently said to me something like, “i want to do something!”
i think he’d said something prior to that, but i hadn’t been paying enough attention. i didn’t know what he meant.
“what do you mean?”
“i want to do something to make a difference. and i’ve tried a few times to start something, but it hasn’t worked”
(i started to realize he was talking about doing something to make a difference in the world, and his “it hasn’t worked” was an attempt to explain the combination of his own lack of follow-through and others.)
he continued, “so, i want to get rubber bracelets made to raise money for haiti, and i want to sell them.”

i was at a control or facilitation junction, baby. i love my son, and i want him to impact the world, and i want him to succeed. and the best way i know to ensure this is to exert my control, to take over the details and tell him what to do, overseeing and prescribing each step. i knew, in that moment, that if i encouraged him and served him, helping only when he asked, it would be a more fruitful growth opportunity for him (get this:) even if he failed.

i said, “that’s great, max! tell me if you need anything from me.”
he said, “well, is there anyone i should talk to?”
i suggested he talk to the guy at our church who oversees our church partnership with haiti. that was it.

max found that adult’s phone number and called him. he also called the pastor on staff who oversees that ministry area. he gathered info all on his own. he found a website that makes rubber bracelets and priced the whole thing out. he asked me for input on what to have inscribed on the bracelets, and i suggested something like “remember haiti” might be cool.

a few days later, max asked me if he could use my credit card to place the online order. i asked, “are you asking for me to pay for the bracelets?” “no, i’ll pay you right now, i just need your credit card to order them.” i had absolutely nothing to do with him placing the order, choosing the quantity, color, shipping method, or anything else. he covered the cost out of his own bank account; and a week later, i paid him $5 for one of his bracelets.

max still has a bag full of bracelets, sometimes remembering to bring them to school and church to sell them, and sometimes forgetting. it’s still unclear whether or not he will make back his investment and raise enough to make a nice donation to our church’s haiti ministry. but this is clear: whether he “succeeds” or “fails”, the experience will be better for him than if i had controlled it.

and here’s where my thinking goes on this…

replace “parenting” with “youth ministry” in that epstein line:
we need a shift from youth ministry by control to youth ministry by facilitation, where facilitation means identifying and nurturing competencies.

heck, replace “parenting” with “leadership”:
we need a shift from leadership by control to leadership by facilitation, where facilitation means identifying and nurturing competencies.

these aren’t easy shifts (especially if you’re steeped in parenting, or youth ministry, or leadership by control). but the implications are massive.

16 thoughts on “the difficult shift from control to facilitation”

  1. Really good stuff! For me the tension in almost all of the new conversation (which is much need, by the way) is the “both/and” vs. the “either/or” approach:

    Both Missional AND Attractional youth ministry instead of one or the other.
    Both Purposeful AND Organic youth ministry (welcome to my personal tension!)
    Both Intergenerational AND Age-specific ministry instead of one or the other.
    Both Control AND Facilitation in parenting, leadership and youth ministry instead of one or the other.

    I wonder why we so often find it necessary to draw lines in the sand, to force ourselves into one camp or the other….instead of embracing nuance. I freaking loved the introduction to Brian’s book you wrote and posted yesterday, and wonder if that type of thinking can’t also be part of how approach the current conversations in youth ministry.

  2. KJ, the question is the movement, more than a ‘drawing a line in the sand.’ when your 4 year-old toddles into the middle of the road, there’s a good reason to exercise some control. and, while even at that age, a pure control approach doesn’t seem the most productive, the point is that we need to SHIFT, particularly during the teen years.

    as for youth ministry or organizational leadership: you could argue that i’m parsing words, and that everyone (even those most committed to facilitation) still controls some things; and that would be fair. but the question here is one of priority. when it comes to the PEOPLE in your ministry or organization, are you primarily trying to develop them by controlling them? or by identifying and nurturing competencies?

    i know you like you “have my cake and eat it too” both/and ways; but pick a lane, man! :)

  3. Thanks Marko for widening this understanding beyond parenting and into others spheres of leadership.
    I have to admit, as much as I cringe at control as far as parenting is concerned, I have come to understand the motives of the controlling mom or dad and they aren’t entirely evil. I have begun to see genuine Christ like motivations that have become a bit buried by the need to control.
    Can young youthworkers help parents make this shift? Or should this only be tackled by seasoned parents?

  4. I like cake, pie, cookies, shakes…..don’t limit me to only eating cake!
    I agree we in most areas of life (parenting style, theology, methodology, leadership, etc) we need to pick a lane that feels most comfortable to us.

    But for me (and I’m sure for others, and yourself…so I am likely guilty of creating a straw man, here) the lane serves not so much as a camp/theology/methodology/paradigm/style I have to stay in, but rather the place I return to, reference, etc while I jump from lane to lane on the journey.

    Currently I am about to hop in the fast lane cuz I’m late to a meeting!

  5. Great article. I loved your wonderful example with your son. How would you see this being applied to youth ministry? I think that is quite the challenge since there is always pressure on the leaders to “make students” disciples, do right, etc.

  6. Loving this example of youth participation in action. Like you’ve alluded to in your comment above, there’s a tension between youth being in control and adults (whether parents or youth workers) being in control.

    My wife and I are big fans of youth participation, but also feel like there’s a balance. We want youth to make choices, but that will sometimes include helping them so that they’re informed choices.

    Youth – like all of us – need boundaries, so other times youth participation will involve giving youth different options and allowing them to make a choice from that selection. That enables youth workers to set some guidelines, but the youth then have free rein to choose within that.

    I’m loving that you give your son freedom to fail though as it’s those kinds of experiences where we learn far more, rather than having someone prescribe a way of doing things (that may not even be right either).

  7. I love this idea that you’ve put forth. It’s one that I can’t stop thinking about. I am, however, a little intrigued by one specific thought. While it’s easy to see how this can play out when our kids want to do something good(i.e. Max and the bracelets), how does this affect the way we discipline our kids? In other words, how does this facilitation change the way we react when our kids want to do something that’s bad for them? Does it change our behavior in that regard at all?

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