Does the church put faith in our youth?

By Lisa Calderone-Stewart| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Young Adults

Our churches are filled with potential youth leaders. They might sit a few pews over from you at Sunday Mass. They might live in your neighborhood. You might know their parents.

But to Marie, a high school senior, it seems that you just don't care: "I don't think my parish values teenagers at all. Some do, and that's really encouraging. But the majority of adults don't really care what teenagers do. They probably think we're all bad." This perception is fairly widespread among young people.

Parishes offer a rare opportunity for adults to affirm the gifts of teenagers. How many other intergenerational gatherings do most teenagers attend? Who else is telling them "You are important to us, and we need you here"? But most parishes have a long way to go.

"I wish I could say that I've been in many parishes with great youth ministry that is inclusive and empowering, but I can't," says Peg Bishop of the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project, who travels the country helping parishes assess their ministries. "Most parishes don't know what a full, holistic youth ministry looks like. They hang all the responsibility on the youth minister. They hire him or her and then expect this new staff member to be their magic."

Like Marie, most teenagers will simply think that adults who like them are the exception to the rule. What a terrible message to send the people we want to become our future church leaders.

We must tell them that we need and want them to be our church leaders now. This is a stretch for many parishes that often overlook the leadership potential of the young people in their midst. But students in grades 6 to 12 are learning and using leadership skills in school activities and on student councils, in sports teams, scout troops, and other youth groups. Why does the church ignore this precious reservoir of talent?

Perhaps it's because many parishes don't even have a full-time director of youth ministry. And if they do, often that person is overwhelmed by the expectations of the job.

Between Confirmation preparation, service activities, religious education classes, and retreats—and keeping up with the latest trends, perils, and pitfalls of teenagers—youth ministers are already stretched too thin to also focus on imparting leadership skills and opportunities. Besides, it's hard to find catechists and youth ministry volunteers. And getting teenagers to come to programs is like pulling teeth.

Leadership challenge 

In a church where priests older than 90 outnumber those under 30 and where the only lay ministers with an average age below 40 are youth ministers, how can we keep church relevant for our young people?

Research indicates that unless people imagine a future as a priest, religious, or lay minister by the time they're teenagers, the idea will not seriously cross their minds later.

So where will the next generation of church leaders come from? They ought to come from this present generation of leaders—young people being groomed for service in the church. But in most parishes the idea that teens might be considered leaders in the future, let alone right now, is not even on the radar screen.

Where can young people learn about serving the church if they never see youth leaders or are never invited to see what faith-inspired leadership in the church and in the world is all about?

That challenge was the focus of "Tomorrow's Present," a three-year project in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, funded by a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Together with the vocations office of St. Francis Seminary we created a series of workshops and training events to develop youth leaders. The program reached hundreds of young people, and we learned valuable lessons about how to effectively invite young people into leadership roles in the church, to develop their skills, and to lead them toward a future of involvement in church life.

Core relationships

The Tomorrow's Present program trained teenagers to present workshops on one of three topics—liturgy, youth ministry, or peacemaking. The teams presented 45 workshops to hundreds of teens across the archdiocese. The participants came from eight different "home groups"—two Catholic high schools, three parish clusters, and a community center.

All the teens reported gaining valuable experience from the project. But three groups—from a high school, a rural parish, and a suburban parish—scored consistently higher than the rest. What they shared was this: They were the only groups who had both one adult who worked with them throughout the entire three-year period as well as a peer leadership team. Their core relationships back home and in their Tomorrow's Present workshop team made the difference.

Strong relationships with mentors and peers are essential in leadership development. Research shows that any lesson, skill building, or program will have a greater impact when mentoring adults and peers consistently reinforce the learning and application.

Creating effective youth leadership teams is a first step that can offer a small group of teenagers the adult mentoring they need. It also provides a caring network of other youth-friends who plan events, attend retreats, and do service work together. LaShandra, a seventh grader, sums it up: "When God is involved with a friendship, it's better. Those friendships stay stronger and last longer."

That's why developing leadership teams of young people is such an effective strategy. It takes core relationships rooted in the faith community and allowed to grow. Says Kyle, "This whole experience—being on the team and that one week at the Tomorrow's Present institute—did so much more for my spiritual life and my faith than anything ever has."

Core experiences

What should a parish wanting to foster leadership in its young people focus on? We identified four core experiences that are essential in transforming youth into active and committed leaders.

1. Learning

To be a leader, a person has to be knowledgeable. Rather than lecture, we got our participants actively involved in learning.

Lots of things motivate young people to learn. A video about a homeless teenager can create curiosity about the minimum wage, white privilege, and Catholic social teaching. A news story about violence targeted at a local Islamic center can create curiosity about the differences and similarities among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. A newspaper article about the controversy surrounding the renovation of a nearby church can create curiosity about how space affects worship.

Once teens are curious, it's easy to challenge them with the task of teaching. Teaching is the best way to master a subject. We divided each group into two teams and asked each team to research its topic. This might involve visiting Web sites, interviewing community leaders, reading books and magazines, viewing videos, or seeking out other resources. Then the teams taught each other what they learned.

Sometimes after teaching each other, they put together a workshop for another group of teenagers. Next they might teach a class to younger children using skits, activities, or games. Then they might make a presentation to the parish council or a group of parents.

When learning happens this way, young people get excited. They become self-directed and work cooperatively. And different young people with different gifts learn to work together to create a quality product they are proud of. One youth minister commented, "We have six different cultures represented in our parish. It did my heart good to see kids from each culture working together so well."

Ron, a Catholic school student, says, "Youth being able to teach youth.Youth being able to teach adults! It meant a lot to me to be able to be part of that. I didn't think it was going to be such a big deal, but when I was done, I realized that this has been a really cool thing."

2. Prayer

Church leadership without prayer is empty. We encouraged students to pray, but not with rote players or stale prayer services.

"I don't hate the church. The church is a good thing," says Jim, a high-school freshman from a small town parish. "You feed the poor, and you tell us how to live so the whole world doesn't become totally bad and evil and everything. But the church has a major problem. You don't know how to pray on Sunday. And if you don't figure out how, we're not going to keep coming. We have better things to do with our time."

Jim challenged adults and teens alike to rethink the way we pray with youth. To appeal to young people, prayer needs to involve faith sharing that makes clear connections to their real-life situations.

Teens on our liturgy workshop team asked to discuss with their parish priest ways to help young people connect better with the Sunday liturgy. They told him, "We love you, Father, but we've got to say your homilies bore us." His brave response was, "I know. What can we do about it?"

The priest's open attitude led to weekly meetings with the teens to discuss the readings for the coming Sunday. Together they addressed questions such as: Whom do you most relate to in this story? What would you do in this situation? Did something like this ever happen to you? What did you learn from the experience? The homilist found he had plenty of material to work with to connect their life lessons to what the faith has to say.

3. Leadership 

Youth are willing to take on leadership, but they need leadership skills. And they need to learn to take responsibility for their actions, to think about the needs of their own parish or community, and to carefully design projects, events, or activities. After implementing their project, they need to evaluate it. What went wrong? What would have been better? What went well? How can we improve it?

In short, teens need to develop and use leadership skills: communication, decision-making, group dynamics, assessment, conflict resolution, creative thinking, problem solving, and presentation techniques. We want the whole parish to recognize them as leaders, because young people who know they are church leaders today will imagine themselves as church leaders tomorrow.

"This training has become a big part of my life," says Wendy, a public school student. "It's not just some fun thing we did on the weekends or once a month, or one week in the summer. It goes beyond that." Like many young people, Wendy reported using her leadership skills at home, at her job with supervisors and coworkers, and at school with friends and teachers.

4. Service

Finally, teens ought to see their lives as vehicles to serve. We want them to consider the consequences of all they do in terms of whom it might serve and whom it might harm, from befriending the new kid in the school lunchroom to eating with and serving food to the homeless at a soup kitchen.

Students who attended Tomorrow's Present workshops took part in mission trips to Appalachia, worked with Habitat for Humanity teams in their neighborhoods, and started youth programs and liturgies in their parishes. One group concentrated on learning skills for effective teaching and started a Bible camp in New Mexico.

Carmelita, an 11th-grader from an urban Hispanic parish, wants service to be part of her future. "Being involved with church and community service is going to continue in my life," she says. "I don't know where I'm going to live yet, but I'm sure I'll find a parish and settle down and get involved."

During the program it became clear that there is an essential tie between learning, prayer, leadership, and service. Wherever young people start in the process of leadership development, the outcome is usually an involvement in direct service.

Parishes need to offer teens all four of these core experiences to be truly effective. Without service, nothing gets done. Without learning, you might do things that don't really help anyone. Without reflective prayer, things are not always done with the right spirit. Without leadership, things are disorganized or ineffective and no one has ownership.

Successfully emphasizing all four areas in our ministry with young people could lead to transformational results. Ignoring the need for any of the four will just continue what we already have in too many parishes—hit-and-miss attempts at youth ministry with less-than-ideal results.

The Tomorrow's Present research study reflected these four core experiences as well. In addition to teen-led workshops, youth and adult leaders attended forums in which they discussed ways to involve more teenagers in the leadership of their parishes and Catholic schools, then planned an activity or project to bring about those goals.

Graciela, an eighth-grader at an urban Catholic school, recalls, "Most of the time, adults are telling us what to do. At the youth forum, teenagers got a chance to talk."

Implications for youth ministry 

The findings of Tomorrow's Present did not unearth wildly surprising information. Youth ministers and others who work with teenagers know what makes for effective youth ministry. If we really value our youth and the future of our church, we will do what it takes to provide core relationships and core experiences for teenagers that are rooted in their faith communities. We will see that they experience supportive relationships with both peers and mentoring adults. And we will see that those experiences integrate learning, prayer, leadership, and service.

But the question remains: If no one is surprised about these essentials, why aren't parishes more deliberate about developing programs based on this approach?

Tom Thibodeaux, an assistant professor of religious studies at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin says that every group he talks with—youth, parents, and other adults—is exhausted. He cites three main issues: Young people's needs seem to be increasing; scarce resources—time, money, and qualified, interested people—are becoming even scarcer; and the levels of accountability are higher.

In other words, we are challenged to do more and do a better job with much less. With so much turnover in parish youth ministry leadership—a recent Gallup poll reports that the average youth minister only stays 18 months at a job—both adults and teenagers may be hearing the message: Young people don't matter much.

Many parishes experience a financial crunch, lack of time and money, fear, and chronic burnout. But when we really value something, we find the resources we need for it. Is the youth minister at your own parish paid well? Could that person support a family on that income? Are the hours reasonable? Is the job description reasonable?

And teenagers can appear scary. They sometimes ask impertinent questions and can upset a parish's normal routine. That scares a lot of people, and when we are afraid or don't understand something, we often hope it will go away. Do adults at your own parish enjoy the company of young people, or are they so baffled by the fashion, language, and trends of teenagers that they don't know what to say or do with them?

Whatever the challenges, if we truly value our young people, we will make effective youth ministry a priority—with our time, money, courage, and creativity.

While we're at it, we need to make healthy lives and ministry a priority for ourselves as well. Core relationships and experiences are as important for adults as for the younger members of our community.

Teenagers have a lot to offer. And the best way to improve high-school youth ministry is to make middle-school youth ministry a priority. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders don't have jobs, cars, proms, and other distractions that older teens have. Once they are connected to the church with core relationships and experiences, they will be transformed. More of them will make the effort to stay connected.

When adult parishoners put money, time, energy, and planning into youth leadership development, teenagers start to imagine different kinds of futures for themselves.

They start imagining things like eighth-grader Orlando, who, after participating in leadership development training, has concluded about his future, "I will probably be one of those people still meeting in the parish, because things wouldn't get done without them. Maybe I'll be a hospitality minister or a eucharistic minister. Maybe I'll sing in the choir or run retreats, like some of the adults do today."

Let's do more than just hope for that.