At one parish I know well, the church staff is looking for a new youth minister. You have no idea how hard it is for me to keep my mouth shut when I encounter such projects. Youth ministry is the graveyard of enthusiasm of so many promising ministers at both the local parish and the diocesan levels. I would wager that no two Catholic pastors or two Catholic bishops would define “youth ministry” in the same way except to say that “we should be doing more for youth” and “the youth of the Church are the future.”
If indeed the youth of the Church are our future, the demographics and trends should give us pause. The thorough and profoundly disturbing CARA study commissioned by St. Mary’s Press, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (2018), defines the drop-off of youthful connectedness to the Church in this way: “The study reveals that disaffiliation from the Church is largely a thoughtful, conscious, intentional choice made by young people in a secularized society where faith and religious practice are seen as one option among many. It’s a process that unfolds over time. Many disaffiliated youth and young adults report feeling “free” and “relieved” when they decide to no longer identify as Catholic.”
I read this work earlier in the year, and I was surprised to learn that researchers have pegged age 9 as the beginning of the process, and age 13 as the breaking point, so to speak. There is an interesting correlation here between detachment from the Church and developmental psychology, an aspect of catechetics so often overlooked. The noted developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) is famous for his stages of development, though one need not subscribe to his particulars to appreciate that the human species progressing through youth is achieving the power of survival, to grow in confidence in himself and to acquire the ego strength to make choices which correspond to his self-reasoned sense of society and the cosmos.
If I read the literature of youth ministry correctly over the past several decades, it would seem that some of our cherished strategies of youth ministry and catechesis (which overlap with such imprecision that CARA researchers had to create new categories to accommodate the full picture) run counter to what even our common sense tells us about youthful interactions, let alone the giants like Erik Erikson. At a time when teenagers and young adults are relishing a newfound power to influence their world, we as church ministers are saying, in effect, we’ve done all that work for you already in the 2800 paragraphs of the Catechism. My guess is that the replies to this (at times commandeering) imposition might include (1) simple reaction to what is heard as authoritative arrogance; (2) usurping the freedom of discovery which animates human life, and (3) the assumption that the person being “serviced” in ministry is devoid of a moral consciousness.
The biggest mistake—and it is a widely held belief—is the idea that young people are drifting about looking for purpose and meaning. From where I sit, millennials and the X’s are crafting a new public morality, one so remarkable that Pope Francis has convoked a Synod of Bishops in October for the expressed purpose of entering the youthful wisdom of the times. The pre-Synod plan states that the outcome of the Synod will be a statement by the bishops, a formal statement on youth ministry, but a type of document out of the ordinary: “It [the bishops’ statement] is neither to compose a theological treatise, nor is it to establish new Church teaching. Rather, it is a statement reflecting the specific realities, personalities, beliefs and experiences of the young people of the world.”
I recently returned from a week-long family retreat with my in-laws; we lived together in one large vacation house and shared a common kitchen. There were several small children present, aged three and under, and their parents were sensitive not to use plastic straws, exercising all manner of environmental precautions. Our rental contained a Keurig in the kitchen, and unless this is your first visit to the Catechist Café blog site, you can easily imagine how I was running through the single serving brew cups like Sherman through Georgia. I was getting embarrassed about my insensitivity to the good intentions of the younger generation and I considered sneaking my plastic detritus to a public dump site several miles down the road.
“Single use items” like plastic straws—and how fast did that happen this summer! --and their impact upon the environment are but one of many concerns of millennials and Generation Z (born after 1995). In May 2018, the giant accounting firm Deloitte released its seventh annual survey of millennials and Generation Z, and it is summarized well: “These cohorts feel business leaders have placed too high a premium on their companies’ agendas without considering their contributions to society at large. Businesses need to identify ways in which they can positively impact the communities they work in and focus on issues like diversity, inclusion and flexibility if they want to earn the trust and loyalty of millennial and Gen Z workers.” More ominously. the study goes on to highlight the distrust of younger generations of politicians and other public leaders including churchmen; only 19% believe this cohort contributes anything meaningful to public life.
So, I return to my original thoughts about hiring a youth minister. CARA could not identify a single definition of the specific parameters of parish youth ministries and for statistical purposes uses four distinct categories:
(18) Youth Ministry Director: Directs comprehensive Youth Ministry Program, including catechetics, spiritual formation, active worship, leadership training & service opportunities. May minister to young adults.
(19) Youth Ministry Coordinator: Coordinates and conducts youth ministry program including spirituality, liturgy, guidance, and social action (often without responsibility for youth catechesis). May minister to young adults.
(20) Youth Minister: Coordinates specific segment of a total youth ministry program and provides direct ministry to youth. May supervise volunteers. May be filled by those training for Youth Ministry field.
(21) Young Adult Ministry Coordinator: Coordinates the evangelical outreach, pastoral ministry, and catechesis to young adults in college and/or those in their twenties and thirties.
Just to spice up the soup, I am attaching a typical youth ministry job description floating about the ecclesiastical internet, most often understood as part time.
My sense is that parishes hire youth ministers out of good intentions rather than a clear vision of the qualifications and the targeted population, and perhaps with too much hubris about what the position has to offer youth and too little humility about what the parish community must learn from its youth and young adults. As I say, youth ministry has been the graveyard of many an aspiring servant of the Church. If we understand this, we can explain to our parishioners that the search for candidates carries a moral obligation to ask for only what is possible.