US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The next generation of lay ministers

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As the first wave of lay parish staff members begins to retire, a fresh crop of young people are bringing new energy and new ideas to parishes across the country.

Not every teenager knows what they want to do for a living, and fewer still dream of a career in church ministry. But after getting involved in her parish’s youth ministry program during her teenage years, Emily Anderson knew that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

“My faith was always a big part of my life,” she says. “My mom was always very up front with me that ‘you belong to God.’ As I grew up, I learned to appreciate that I truly did belong to God, and it sort of all worked up to this.”

Anderson knew that, like any career path, a job in parish ministry would take training and preparation. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, Anderson went on to earn a master’s degree in theology and Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio. “I knew I couldn’t answer the questions that teenagers would have when I became a youth minister, and as much as I loved the youth ministry program I grew up in, I didn’t always get the answers I was seeking,” she says.

By the time she was 24, Anderson was already working full time as a lay minister. Now 31, she has been in her current position as director of youth ministry at St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia for five years. Although she is one of the youngest people on staff at her parish, Anderson’s youth gives her some advantages, including more time and energy to devote to her job and an instant credibility with the teens she ministers to. Still, her job has many challenges. “I’m single and I’m really throwing myself into the church,” Anderson says. “I realize I may not be able to do this forever, but I think for now it’s a good sacrifice.”

Young adults such as Anderson who are pursuing careers in lay ministry are far from the norm in the Catholic Church, but they are slowly becoming more a part of the church landscape. Although it is a growing field, lay ministry has historically attracted people looking for a second career or former stay-at-home mothers reentering the workforce. According to the 2005 report Lay Parish Ministers: A Study in Emerging Leadership from the National Pastoral Life Center, the average age of lay ministers in the United States at the time was 64.

As these positions become more prevalent, Catholic colleges and universities have developed programs specifically designed to train students for careers in lay ministry. Enrollment numbers at some colleges are showing an increase in young adult students pursuing studies in the field. Armed with energy, enthusiasm, and a passion for their faith, these young Catholics could bring fresh ideas and big changes to parishes across the country.

A changing field

Although lay ministry was first initiated with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, it was further cemented in 2005 when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released the pastoral letter “Coworkers in the Vineyard of the Lord.” In that letter the bishops write, “All of the baptized are called to work toward the transformation of the world. Most do this in the secular realm; some do this by working in the church and focusing on the building of ecclesial communion, which has among its purposes the transformation of the world.”

As older priests reach retirement age with fewer new priests to take their places, parishes across the country have learned to rely on lay ministers more than ever. A study released in 2011 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reported that the church is adding about 790 new lay ministers to parish staffs each year. As of 2014, CARA reports, 3,496 parishes in the United States were operating without a resident priest pastor; 388 parishes had been entrusted to a deacon, religious sister or brother, or layperson instead of a priest.

Jesuit Father John Whitney, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Seattle, believes much can be gained when religious and laypeople work together. “To me, the idea of a lay partnership in the church is a no-brainer,” he says. “The church is primarily laity, and in order for the church to thrive as a clerical or religious establishment, it has to be run by the people in the pews. Priests and religious bring a huge dimension of history and spirituality and hopefully focus, but it has to be run in a way that is apostolic and grounded.”

Jobs performed by lay ministers are often highly skill-based, requiring theological knowledge or counseling experience. To train these ministers, many Catholic colleges and universities have developed degree programs emphasizing ministry or pastoral studies. Although graduate degrees or certificates are not required for all lay ministry positions in the Archdiocese of Seattle, Whitney says the programs are helpful.

“It’s not a requirement to start, but it’s really a requirement for advancement,” he says. “If you’re going to make this your career, it’s highly recommended you are in some sort of degree program.”

One such program is Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, an ecumenical program where students can earn master’s degrees in pastoral studies, transformative leadership, transforming spirituality, or relationship and pastoral therapy. Over the past decade, the school’s dean, Mark S. Markuly, has noticed a large increase in the number of young adult students enrolling in these programs. Today about 25 to 30 percent of the student population is under the age of 35.

“I’ve been noticing that change for probably about 10 to 12 years,” Markuly says. “In the ’80s, a lot of 20- to 35-year-olds wanted to make it big in business, wanted to make a lot of money and get into positions of power and influence. I see an increasing number of young adults today who say, ‘I want to live a simpler life, I want my life to count.’ ”

Within the past five years, similar changes have taken place in the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, says department chair Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology and religion. “I think a lot of these young people 30 or 50 years ago would have gone into a seminary to become priests or nuns or brothers,” Groome says. “There is still a significant number of people being called to some form of ministry.”

The program had been filled with older adults pursuing second careers. Groome believes the increase in young people has given the school new energy by enabling different generations of students to connect in a unique way. “You have a mom that has teenaged kids and who has been through a divorce sitting beside someone who could be her child,” Groome says. “It’s a healthy context and a better one for the future of the church. They have lots to learn from each other.”

Job prospects

So where do these young students end up? Of the graduates that earn degrees through Seattle University’s program, Markuly estimates about 80 to 95 percent find jobs in ministry. Those students can end up working as religion teachers, directors of religious education, youth ministers, chaplains in hospitals or prisons, or diocesan employees. Many young adult students, he’s noticed, are particularly interested in entrepreneurial ministry—starting new ministries to tackle social problems.

“They’re asking questions about where the church needs to grow in reaching people and they’re kind of imagining how they might be on the cutting edge of trying to do that,” Markuly says. “In very real ways, they’re asking some of the same questions that Pope Francis is asking: How do we get out to the periphery?”

Joyce Zavarich is the director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry Education at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania, where almost the entire student population is under 35. Most of her students enter the program after a year of volunteering in the hopes of working in campus ministry, parish ministry, youth ministry, or Catholic high schools.

“Most tend to go into campus ministry because they have a lot more freedom there,” Zavarich says. “If they do go into a parish, I think it’s usually in youth ministry because that’s their experience. When they were growing up, they had youth ministers who were dynamic and life-giving, and they want to be that.”

Brian Schmisek, director of the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago, says there are about 340 students enrolled in his program, about a third of them under the age of 35. He has noticed young adults are particularly interested in social justice issues. “We find the students self-identify as being change agents,” he says. “They want to go out and change the world.”

That’s certainly the case for Jennifer Ibach, 36, who works part time at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in West Seattle as a pastoral assistant for outreach, managing advocacy, education, and social justice projects. Ibach earned her bachelor’s in psychology with a Hispanic studies minor and then spent a year and a half doing service in Santiago, Chile, where she was inspired to become a social worker. After returning to the United States, she took a job working in a housing program, but didn’t like that she couldn’t speak about her faith.

Ibach began working as a youth minister and then switched to parish outreach. After getting married, she went back to school in 2008 at Seattle University, where she earned her master’s in pastoral studies. What she loves about lay ministry is the ability to serve others while maintaining her own spirituality. “Part of what I do with people that I work with is when we serve a meal, we can pray beforehand,” she says. “I can work with them in a pastoral way, in a different dimension from what I was doing before.”

Hannah Hochkeppel, 24, a part-time graduate assistant at Seattle University, works part time as the director of elementary curriculum development at Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, Washington. After graduating, she plans on earning a post-master’s certificate in special education. She hopes to use her special education training to land a job planning parish programs for children with special needs.

Hochkeppel says lay ministry satisfies all aspects of her personality. “With ministry, I could combine two things I love—children’s ministry and mental health—and I could find a way to make churches more inclusive places for people who needed that extra bit of help,” she says.

During her time at Seattle University, Hochkeppel has met other students in her program who are becoming ordained Christian ministers or pursuing careers at nonprofits or Catholic charitable organizations. She chose to work in a parish because it fits her personality, but she knows it can be a challenging field for young adults.

“A lot of the time parish ministry can be frustrating for young adults because many of them want to get out and do something,” she says. “It’s not that parishes don’t do things, but it’s a little more difficult than if you jump into a nonprofit. With parishes, you have to build programs and build communities and find people who desire to do the same things with you.”

John DeCaro, 32, is currently pursuing his master’s degree in pastoral studies through the online program at Loyola University Chicago. Currently he works as a math teacher and campus minister at Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, D.C. After graduation, he is hoping to pursue lay ministry in a different form: as a university campus minister.

DeCaro says he was inspired to work in campus ministry rather than parish ministry because of his undergraduate experience at Boston College. “There was a lot of passion there and a lot going on in terms of retreats and stewardship and, for me, that was really what sparked my faith the most,” he says. “I really want to give back and be in that atmosphere, surrounded by other young adults interested in their faith background.”

Learning on the job

Working in a parish can have its challenges, particularly when you are the youngest person in the staff meeting. As Anderson remembers, one of the biggest challenges for her was earning the respect of coworkers who were decades her senior.

“To be a young adult working in the church, people don’t take you seriously, even if you have a master’s degree,” she says. “At this point I feel like I’m an older young adult because I’m 31 and I’ve done this for seven years. I have that experience and people are more willing to take me seriously.”

Hochkeppel has also felt hesitation from coworkers because of her age. She has learned to remain humble when suggesting new ideas and to ask for input whenever possible. “I definitely try to approach things with a very open attitude, ‘I’m in charge of this, but I may not have all the answers,’ ” she says. “They’ve given me respect and it’s really encouraged people to bring their own special talents into the ministries we’re working on.”

Whitney has worked with several young adults in lay ministry and believes they are valuable additions to ministry teams because of their energy and optimism. Still, just because ideas are good doesn’t mean others are willing to listen to them. He thinks there needs to be an openness from more experienced staff members to give up total control and to trust new ideas, especially when it comes to new technology and social media.

“It’s very hard for people my age—I’m 57—to be able to say, ‘I don’t understand this world. I may not completely understand it, but I support it.’ ” Whitney says. “I think the reason [more young adults] are not working in ministries is because parishes have not given them a place to minister.”

Another benefit of having young people on a parish staff is that it serves as a way to invite more young people into the church. Anna Dudek, 29, is a student in the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago who works in the Office for Mission Education of the New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Chicago, serving the Polish community. She believes young adults in lay ministry set a great example for other young Catholics who are not as strong in their faith.

“There are lots of youth groups in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and they are looking for good leaders who can show them and encourage them to do good for others,” she says. “If we are afraid of our ministry, we will never reach the young people who need our help and advice.

“[Young adults] can bring faith. They can bring their generous hearts for others, and they can be an example with what they do for others to encourage those who are far away from the church.”

Joe Cotton, 35, earned his master’s degree in pastoral studies from Seattle University in 2012 and now works as the director of youth ministry at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. He believes young adults bring a lot of gifts to ministry, including enthusiasm and fearlessness when it comes to social justice. Those traits can backfire, however. In his early days in ministry, Cotton remembers having a hard time separating his work from his personal life.

“For young adults, most of us haven’t started families yet or taken on those commitments, so how do you not let ministry take over your life?” he says. “I had to learn that self-care is just as important as the care you provide for others.”

Finances can be another challenge for young adults in lay ministry. “When the rubber hits the road, if you have kids and a family and a house to pay for, it’s very challenging,” Ibach says. “You have to really feel called to it and you have to have it nurtured by other people.”

Even for a single person, lay ministry can require a level of sacrifice that young adults may not be willing to give, Anderson says. “We’re in the business of souls, so you’re never going to make as much in the Catholic Church as you would in the secular business world,” she says. “I am working for the glory of God and to lead young people to heaven, and that doesn’t always pay the mortgage.”

Still, Anderson loves her job and says she can’t imagine doing anything else. “I love that there’s a place for me in the church even though I’m not a religious,” she says. “I think it’s a beautiful thing that the church offers this way for me to participate in the very lifeblood of our faith.”

She believes young adults provide a special kind of witness as lay ministers, one that can even help priests and other religious understand the challenges of being young and faithful. “Here’s an example of a person living that sacramental life that obviously has sacrifices, but that can be useful and joyful. I really feel like lay ministers are out there living this universal call to holiness by being able to serve as a bridge between the world of the religious and the secular.”

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 9, pages 27-31).

Image: Photos courtesy of Anna Dudek, Joe Cotton, and Emily Anderson