Why I HATE (and love) Letters from Parents on Retreats

Paul Masek's picture

ImageWhen we include letters from parents as part of a retreat or other ministry event, we have the best intentions. We love to see teens touched by love, especially the love of their parents. It is powerful when teens cry, and there are always some tears when we hand out these letters. Some who work with teens even believe that teen’s tears are a sign God’s presence – and a sign that we have done our job well.

It’s supposed to be a love letter and an affirmation letter. Many good people involved in youth ministry believe that it’s an essential part of retreats. In some places, it is a sacred tradition.

So why do I hate letters from parents on retreats more than I love them? Because of what I have seen, heard and experienced:

  1. They are an organizational nightmare. No matter how many letters, emails, texts, and phone calls are put out there to get letters from parents in on time, the organizers of this activity are almost always scrambling at the last minute to ensure that every kid has a letter.
  2. Sometimes not every kid gets a letter. I have seen this happen and it is heartbreaking when everyone else gets a letter from at least one parent and there is a kid who gets a letter from a teacher or youth minister or campus minister instead; this causes more hurt than we can imagine. It is just not the same if you don’t get a letter from a parent when that is the goal of the activity.
  3. Sometimes they don’t get a letter from the right person. One time on a retreat, a student received a huge stack of letters from her loving family and was still crying tears of pain after reading them - because she wanted a letter from her dad, and he is the only one who didn’t send one. This issue can be exacerbated by how many hurting families there are in our world.
  4. The quantities of letters are often variable. I have seen students from large families receive stacks of letters that would take hours to read, and some students only receive one or two that can be read in a minute; this reality can make some students feel inferior or less loved, even if that’s not the case.
  5. There is rarely any quality control, and what is in these letters can devastate teens. I once spoke to a teenage boy who told me (with tears in his eyes) that one of his letters was a tirade from his dad about all of the ways that he needed to improve his life – the letter lacked any loving affirmation. Another time a kid simply received a Hallmark card that was signed by his parents. Just because we tell parents that these letters should be affirming doesn’t mean that they will be, since some parents are quite dysfunctional in their interactions with their teens.

I have to be honest, though. There can be a good side to these letters from parents:

  1. Some organizers do a great job of ensuring that every kid gets a letter from at least one parent.
  2. I have had teens tell me on numerous occasions that the letters from parents was the most touching, powerful, and memorable part of their retreat.
  3. It is a great thing for parents; if they clearly know what such a letter should include, the overwhelming majority will rise to the occasion and express incredible love to their kids through these letters.
  4. It puts a spotlight on parenting. Though we in youth ministry know that parents are the primary educators of their kids in matters of faith, this is easily forgotten in practice.
  5. These letters can be a powerful reminder to teens about how much God loves them through their parents.

In order for this activity to work well, then, I believe that we must count the cost before doing it and be willing to invest plenty of time and energy into making sure that it works well. If we follow a few practical guidelines, we can protect teens from potential hurt and pain, while ensuring - to the best of our ability - that this experience is incredibly positive. If you ever want to include letters from parents on future retreats or ministry events, I suggest that you hold a mandatory parent meeting where you discuss the importance of these letters (The problem with such a meeting, is, of course, that those who need the most guidance rarely show up. This adds another layer to the organizational nightmare, requiring sign-in sheets and following up with those who were absent). Here are some things to seriously consider including in such a meeting:

  1. Let parents know that if you do not receive their letters by a certain deadline, you will not distribute letters to anyone on the retreat. This rule must be uncompromising; the quality of the retreat experience cannot be diminished because of disorganized parents.
  2. Give a serious deadline. I suggest two weeks in advance of the retreat, in light of what you will read in #5 below.
  3. Give the parents some sample letters, both good and bad, so they will know clearly what to do and what not to do. If possible, you might want to have an older student attend the meeting and read a sample of a positive letter they received at a past retreat, highlighting what touched them and why.
  4. Rather than general guidance like “write a love/affirmation letter” you might want to give more specific guidance like “write a letter about a specific time or moment that you were especially proud of your kid” or “write about your hopes for you child’s future”.
  5. Tell parents that you will read every letter as soon as it is turned in and that you will check all letters for appropriateness – not only because of how poorly written letters can be hurtful to teens, but to ensure that the experience is as powerful as it can be. This may sound crazy and controversial and might meet some resistance, but I have a friend who instituted this practice several years ago. Though there was an initial negative reaction from parents - as there often is when you do something new - over the years the negativity has decreased and it is now just a normative part of the experience. By the way, my friend has rarely called parents to modify their letters; just the knowledge that letters will be scrutinized has insured that they are generally well-written. Let parents know that if any letter does not meet clear standards of excellence, it will be sent back to them with suggestions for revisions. If you ever need to send a letter back, affirm what is good but be very specific about anything that could be problematic and what exactly needs to be changed.
  6. Again, if every student does not have an approved letter by a reasonable deadline, no letters will be distributed to anyone. No exceptions. Ever.

I know that integrating these suggestions will require a serious commitment of time & energy from you and your staff, but anything worthwhile should be done well – not for our glory, but for God’s, and for the good of His kids.

Finally, if you do distribute letters from parents on a ministry event, having the right environment can greatly enhance the experience. I would suggest:

  1. Make sure that your venue has adequate space so that teens have privacy when reading these letters.
  2. Play some quiet instrumental background music while letters are distributed and while they are reading.
  3. Since some teens might cry, have leaders armed with plenty of tissues to distribute if needed; I call this ‘Kleenex ministry’.
  4. Have several trusted adults available if any teen needs to talk, since some may need to process what they’ve read.
  5. If you allocate a specific time frame for this activity, know that some teens will need more time, and some teens will need less than the allotted time. Therefore, you might want to distribute letters during a time that precedes a break, so that those who need more time can have it, and those who don’t aren’t sitting around bored and distracting others.

I believe that letters from parents have great potential to be a powerful experience for the teens we reach in youth ministry, but this exercise must not be done flippantly. If we are going to include this activity, we need to devote plenty of time and energy to ensure that the experience is everything teens need it to be.

ATTACHMENT: A SAMPLE OF A LETTER YOU COULD SEND TO PARENTS EXPLAINING WHAT YOU WANT FROM THEM

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Sample Letter to Parents.doc27.5 KB

Paul Masek is the coordinator of the REAP Team, a Catholic youth retreat ministry of the Catholic Youth Apostolate of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is married to Lisa, and they have four kids - Jacob, Audrey, Kyle, and Dominic. You can follow Paul on Twitter: @clasekmasek, and you can contact Paul via email: paul@reapteam.org