Presently I am not directly involved in youth ministry per se except that a number of youth ministers register for the theological certification courses I currently teach. But I was curious to see “what’s going on” presently in the parishes of my diocese, given the pleasant surprise I encountered in little Saliverry, Peru, last December where the parish’s young people were distributing Christmas food and doing a form of street ministry, greeting us and inviting us to their church. As soon as I got to yesterday’s reception, one of my questions was immediately answered. Attendance was light, perhaps ten of our parishes, mostly those around metro Orlando, were represented. Thirty years ago when I was an Orlando Diocese pastor, nobody wanted to drive downtown to the chancery, and in those days the diocese was bigger than it is today, territorially speaking. In recent years I have advocated a “boots on the ground” policy to anyone who will listen of having the downtown formation folks hit the roads to the hinterlands like we teachers do and develop personal working relationships eyeball to eyeball with youth ministers, DRE’s, faith formation personnel, etc.
I was happy to hear the new youth director state clearly that she welcomed opportunities to go out into parishes and undertake programs, which is probably a good step forward for us, though I don’t think she needs to ‘sing for her supper,” so to speak, to visit our parishes. She should have a standing invitation. Before she addressed the meeting, we were welcomed by the Diocesan Director of Faith Formation, the gentleman who hired her, and he talked about the screening process for applicants prior to the hiring of our own new youth minister. He himself looked a little shell-shocked by the experience, which confirmed another suspicion of mine: the labor pool for youth ministers is quite thin, and some genuinely bizarre folks are applying for parish and diocesan positions. I think there are several reasons why good youth ministers are hard to find; (1) there is no standard job description, certainly not at the parish level, that I have ever seen (I will elaborate below); (2) youth ministry does not pay well—anywhere; National Catholic Reporter ran an in-depth story on this very subject while I was away; and (3) there is little national discussion I am aware of regarding the professional training of youth ministers. I am old fashioned enough that my heart is still warmed to meet a degreed minister from Boston College, Catholic University, Notre Dame, or the University of Dayton, but the cost of a high end degree versus the typical parish/diocesan remuneration makes such encounters highly unusual.
I had an opportunity to talk at some length to the other participants, and I was surprised and a bit confused at the various tasks assigned to parish youth ministers. Specifically, a number of those wearing a youth minister title are in reality educators, either coordinating or actually teaching programs from middle school on up through high school. Others are conducting Christian Initiation programs for minors or the parish’s Confirmation program. This is a somewhat different model from the Teens Encounter Christ programs I worked with in the early 1970’s, where youth ministry augmented the learning experience. The TEC program—now fifty years old--was (and may still be) quite popular with Catholic high schools, where the learning experience may, of its nature, dwarf the experiential dimension of Catholic formation. In any case, if youth ministers are in actuality educators, then the training and skill sets need clearer focus. In truth, if I had a college-aged child inclined toward parochial work, particularly with youth, I’m not sure how I would advise him or her, and in the present day marketplace of ideas I have little doubt that there would be a proliferation of (conflicting?) advice from many quarters.
I checked the CARA research site at Georgetown University to see what kinds of research has been done in recent years in the area of youth ministry, and while some studies and papers are available, it is curious that much of the available is frankly dated, with much of the work undertaken in the 1990’s or early 2000’s. On the other hand, research on church life and young adults of college age tends to be much more recent.
Youth ministers at the parish and diocesan levels carry high levels of expectations, too much so in my opinion. Turnover in the field is very high, and again it would be helpful to know if the ministers themselves are burning out and leaving the field (or job sites) of their own volition, or whether pastors are dismissing them at frequent levels. If the latter is the case, what kinds of task accomplishment and job standards are administrators using? I don’t think anybody really knows.
(I will return to the subject of professional youth ministry next Wednesday; those of you with “boots on the ground,” let me know what’s happening in your neck of the woods.)