Of all the constants in life, we can count on death, taxes, and a new youth minister in our parishes. I should not single out youth ministers, though. My direct work and regular contact is with faith formation directors of individual parishes, and with a few notable exceptions, I am always meeting a new administrator. I have not seen research into the reasons lay and even religious personnel turn over so quickly. I posted last Wednesday that the lack of legal protection and the whims of pastors are major considerations, and I still think that the respect for the office of youth minister, for example, would increase significantly if elevated to civil/legal status through a binding contract like those signed by Catholic school teachers where required. (Don’t we describe God’s relationship with Israel a “covenant?” We, of all people, should be comfortable with the concept!)
But this is not the full story of the revolving door status of parish ministers, most notably in the field of youth ministry, where the problem seems to be greatest. Here are some possible considerations.
The long-held and rarely challenged assumption that youth ministers must be young. The first theologian who made me question this truism was the late Father Regis Duffy, O.F.M. Around 1972 I took an elective, “Charism, Sexuality, and Sacramental Encounter,” from Regis, which laid out the principles of human encounter in worship and ministry. He observed that ministry, at its heart, is empowering all baptized persons to save one another through their charisms or gifts of the Holy Spirit. I recall his focusing on teenagers, on the impact they have upon each other, and he suggested that youth ministry is the creation of circumstances by which this interactive ministry can happen. The youth minister, in other words, is a facilitator for youth in saving interaction in both a human and divine sense.
Regis’ model assumes a good many things about a youth minister: an understanding of the stages of human development, an ability to understand the psychodynamics of group interaction, and knowledge of the useful metaphors of Scripture correlating to adolescent experience, to name some. Moreover, the minister must possess the maturity of having lived and interpreted his or her own adolescent experience, and possess the stability to understand transference or the various projections through which teens view their ministers. (These characteristics are appropriate to all ministers, allowing for age and ministerial concentration.) In short, perhaps too many youth ministers were recruited without the requisite skill sets or who were still processing their own passage into adulthood.
The existence of an established template for the parish responsibilities of a youth minister. Last Wednesday I mentioned “whim hiring” and the lack of specific information from those doing the hiring. I might have been a little hard on pastors, because no hard and fast job template exists. Yes, I have read Renewing the Vision from the USCCB (1997), and yes, I have read a number of parish hiring statements that cut and paste from that document. The problem is the style of RTV, which reads like a Vatican II document. The Council’s statements, one might recall, were to be taken back by conferences of bishops for reworking to the needs and capacities of local churches. RTV lays out the principles and hopes; the youth minister who strives to engage every point in a job description will burn out in six months to a year. The culling remains to be done; two decades later I see little progress in that direction.
Youth Ministers have strong national support organizations. I searched for a national Catholic youth ministers’ professional association, something along the lines of the NCEA for Catholic school personnel or the NCCL for religious education personnel. Not having particularly good success on Bing, I called our diocesan director, who pointed me in the right direction.
She introduced me to the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) in Washington, D.C., which sponsors a biennial convention. She explained that computer on-line difficulties are currently hampering public communications, but the NFCYM vision “commits to advancing the field of pastoral ministry to young people by: Forming, equipping, and supporting pastoral leaders in their ministry to young people and their families. Modeling and fostering a ministry of acompañamiento among young people of all cultures, languages, socioeconomic and geographic realities. Partnering with parents and equipping families of young people as they witness to Jesus Christ in their daily lives.” Hopefully this organization will eventually form workable templates for individual youth ministry job negotiations.
The professional preparation of youth ministers. Since I had her on the phone, I raised my question about my perception of undefined boundaries between religious education/faith formation ministry and youth ministry per se. She explained that as a rule a youth minister is the faith formation director for the high school years, conducting the educational, social, and hands-on aspects of youth ministry. The youth minister, consequently, must have a theological/catechetical educational base. Ideally, this would be a Masters in Theology or its equivalent, though we were of one mind that such a candidate, so well equipped, would be rare. A bachelor’s degree from a Catholic college with some sort of field experience would be suitable. It would seem that an individual seeking employment in the ministry of the Church is wise to consult locally, perhaps with a diocesan director, about schooling. If you live near a Catholic college such as Boston College or Seton Hall, you can speak to a campus advisor in the department of your interests.
I have mentioned two nationally known private Catholic schools which, as you might expect, are quite expensive. How do local ministers, parishes, and dioceses afford to provide top-notch education for future ministers and Church leaders? Time permitting, I will discuss this difficulty next week.