I have a little piece of paper here on my desk that reads “Wednesday-teenagers.” (Yes, this is truly a Pulitzer class operation here.) It reminds me to continue our professional development theme of last week involving the adolescent mind and faith formation. Fittingly it is not yet 8 AM and I have already gotten some helpful prompts: for starters, today is the feast of St. Martha, the only person in history to be admonished by Jesus himself to “lighten up.” Then, as I scoured my New York Times e-subscription, I came across a masterful editorial by Frank Bruni entitled “Today’s Exhausted Superkids.” Both factors weigh into the challenge of teenaged-catechetics.
Bruni lists about a half dozen books of very recent vintage—including Overloaded and Underprepared, when hit the bookstores this week—that raise serious questions about the push for highly competitive secondary school success. Bruni himself notes that a serious physical and developmental issue among many teens is sleep deprivation, citing an example of one school that employs the services of a sleep counselor to reestablish healthy rest rhythms.
In truth, the entire neurobiological make-up of the teenaged brain remains something of a mystery. I would come across this when some of my teenaged patients were placed on the SSRI-family of antidepressants, “the Prozac class,” by the overseeing psychiatrist, though the attendant literature would label such usage as “off the box” (i.e., beyond the recommended usage of the manufacturer.) Dr. Gregory Lester, the Denver-based psychiatrist and expert on the treatment of personality disorders, pointed out in a recent workshop I attended that research into the growing complexity of modern life has placed more challenge upon the developing brain, to the point that emotional maturity—once the finish line of the “teenaged era”—now extends as late as 26. The Church may be more accurate than it knows when it discusses youth ministry and young adult ministry in the same breath.
It is commonplace to hear religious educators decry the practice of Confirmation as a kind of eighth grade graduation from religious training and formation; there is frequent derision of the model of “filling up the tank” of young people with the religious knowledge they will need for a lifetime. The prevailing wisdom—with which I fully concur—is a lifelong involvement in faith formation as the baptized process through all of Erikson’s stages right through the crest of old age. But I can’t help but notice how there is a double standard where teenagers are concerned, an intensity of worry coupled with an intense search for the magic bullet to reach this population before it is too late.
Some of this formative concern may be related to research and polling which shows a large number of young adults leaving Catholicism or at least not living up to its rules and practices. I see those numbers, too, but I ask a different question: what exactly are they leaving? What is a typical eighteen year old’s experience of Catholicism? At the risk of broad generalization, teens who hang in with teenaged Church programming and/or recreational opportunities with a push from their parents experience two distinct facets: an authoritative indoctrination into what they should or should not be doing, and a string of tame G-rated gatherings that do not measure up to what they themselves concoct on a regular basis. You will notice that I have not included the teenaged experience of Mass; as only 24% of adult Catholics attend in a given weekend, according to CARA, I think it is a safe bet that teenaged attendance is considerably beneath that.
The secondary school population is a unique challenge for Catholic ministers, but as a rule there are some givens we can work from. The first is that the teenaged years are a bridge (an ever lengthening bridge at that) between childhood and adulthood. There are instances where a 16 year-old will manifest the wisdom of Solomon; the next week the irresponsibility of an eight year old. How many times have I heard, “He knows how to be good; why can’t he be good all the time?” Adolescence is that painfully long stretch of aligning appropriate behaviors with favorable outcomes.
Another complaint involves compliance: why do they question everything? Why are they so resistant? I used to joke that 90% of teenagers I knew met at least some of the criteria for Oppositional Defiance Disorder. But in truth opposition or “pushing the envelope” is an age appropriate task. This is the period when adolescents bring critical thinking to the fore. “Why?” is not a dirty word. It is communication, admittedly painful. In the religious context I think that our discomfort here is the youthful tendency to point out the elephants in the living room. I mentioned last week how a group of youth ministers could not understand how their charges supported the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage. In the adolescent world of black and white and certainties, I suspect the kids just thought it was fair, a step against discrimination. Many of the Church’s teachings demand a level of comprehension that I didn’t have at 50. And let’s face it: we adults accept a number of Church teachings as a matter of loyalty, not comprehension.
There is another inconsistency here: in much of the faith formative process we actively encourage participants to tell their stories of their journeys to faith as a matter of course. By contrast, teen ministry often runs the risk of our imposing our template of where teens ought to be instead of listening and responding to their lives at this juncture. Teenagers do not despise adults or even our advice, but they do want to be treated as adults with the same respect for their experiences and their insight.
Youth ministry in particular calls for an interdisciplinary approach: input from those who deal with this population on a regular basis, such as high school guidance counselors, and those with a handle on the multi-dimensional aspects of adolescent development. Perhaps with luck your charges will not require a sleep counselor. Nor will you.
I was told many times over the past few weeks that Ireland is the “Celtic Tiger” when it comes to communications, and indeed I was never out of range during my entire visit. It is no exaggeration to say that I received emails from my credit card carrier posting my pub charge before I got home from the pubs. This is more impressive when you consider that for one week I was staying across the street from the pub in Knightstown. Such smooth communications kept me in touch with happenings from my diocese, and I learned that a new diocesan youth ministry coordinator had been hired. She hosted a reception to meet our diocese’s youth ministry leaders yesterday afternoon; I checked in to see if I could attend, which the new director graciously arranged.
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.)
I have not written a lot about professional development in the past few weeks, primarily because I have been on the road for much of June and July. And, while on the road I have been attempting to juice up my own catechetical skills and theological interests.
The last two stops of my Irish trip have been Dublin and Galway. I wrote some observations on Monday, I believe, about Dublin, but I'd like to add a few more here. Our last visit to a Dublin site was late Monday afternoon when my wife and I walked over to St. Patrick's Cathedral, literally within view of our accommodations. It may come as a surprise that a cathedral named after Patrick himself is not Roman Catholic, but rather Irish/Anglican/Episcopal. This is one of many cases where worship spaces of the Roman Catholic Church constructed in early and high medieval times were subsumed by English domination in all realms of Irish life, including religion. Recall the old adage, "cuius regio, cuius religio;" whoever is king picks the religion.
The history of religion in Ireland since the Reformation is thus quite confusing, particularly in view of English treatment of the Irish. We walked this morning from Salt Hill into Galway proper and passed a public park dedicated to a little girl who died of starvation in 1847. Most of us would associate this kind of death with the Potato Blight, but in historical fact the multi-year malnutrition of the Irish was due primarily to fiscal and allocation policies adopted by the British Crown. Elderly Irish with whom I spoke do not talk of that era as a "Famine;" rather, it is remembered as something of a genocidal plot.
St. Patrick's Cathedral itself reflects today the twisted history of the past five centuries. The structure and size of the building speaks to its Roman Catholic roots, but its contents are monuments to a strange hybrid between Anglicanism and colonial status. My recollections of Monday are filled with plaques, busts and burial sites of bishops, war heroes and royal politicians. I can recall only a few notable memorials to saints. The literature and video for guests make no mention of the religious hijacking of the facility from the Roman Catholic Church by the English national church.
The one notable impact of the building upon me was the burial site of Jonathan Swift. Yes, this is the same Swift of "Gulliver's Travels" fame, who served as the Cathedral's bishop for 32 years. Swift must have been a remarkable individual, for he is remembered fondly by the Irish for his sympathies with their plight, while holding his episcopal office by the favor of the crown. Swift was an eighteenth century apostle of "social justice," one might say, though he had a rather ghastly way of making his point. While bishop he wrote one of the most scathing social commentaries about his time, an essay entitled "A Modest Proposal." I am presently not set up to link, but I do encourage you to Google this essay if you dare. That Swift ministered in this church for over three decades and today rests beneath its floors is one of the few saving graces of the Cathedral.
I know that when I left Dublin I was determined to find the best recent biography of Swift for summer study. Happy thought: today is Amazon Prime Day.