Bridging the generational divide on parish staffs
Striking a balance between the wisdom of age and the enthusiasm of youth can make for a vibrant church.
Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.
Labor Day weekend 2012, Central New Jersey: Scores of young people from 16 to 31 years old streamed to our urban parish campus at all hours of day and night. The parish was alive with activity, as participants attended continuous workshops in our parish hall and meetings in the parish center. Food and fellowship abounded, and there was also a special Mass for the occasion. Neighborhood organizations and parish groups set up tables offering further opportunities. Most of those hosting and serving the youth were young themselves.
Was this a snapshot of a very vibrant and youthful parish in action? Not quite yet, but it was at least a showcase of what we’re striving toward as a community.
Our pastoral team decided to mobilize to best serve the 16-31 age group who would benefit from President Barack Obama’s June 15, 2012 executive order establishing the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program.
It was a one-time event, but a vision of how things could be as a church: young and not-so-young working together on issues that affect the lives of young people—a church attuned to both the needs of the young and the skills that they bring to the table.
The lack of any such intergenerational collaboration and youth leadership may be most apparent to those of us involved daily in church life, in terms of staff, volunteers, and programming. Without a Latino infusion, most parishes in our area would be shrinking into oblivion, with the aging out of parishioners and the lack of churchgoers under age 40 to replace them.
At a recent Mass here, a survey was cited with reasons why people ages 16 to 29 are not going to church. And, fittingly, there was no one in that age group to hear! Older folks are often heard lamenting the lack of youth at Sunday Mass. Yet, in separate conversations, younger folks snicker to each other about how dull or backwards the church is with so many old people.
In the wider world, statistics show that baby boomers and millennials should be sharing conversations, decisions, and many other aspects of daily life. According to the U.S. Census, it is estimated that there are about 81 million boomers and 84 million millennials; that’s approaching a 1:1 ratio.
Over the last decade we have begun to find that balance in our parish staffing. In 2004, our pastor was the second youngest member of an older parish staff, and the youngest was only four years his junior. By 2013, he has “aged” drastically; he’s now the third oldest. In fact, 60 percent of our full-time parish staff are now under the age of 24.
We began making changes to our staff around the same time that we realized we needed to restart our religious education program from scratch. In 2004 our program had dwindled to 48 students; by the decade’s end we were at 300. This growth was the result of guidance from two parish leaders who were not yet 26 years old. We needed to make religious education more about energy and flexibility, and who better to advise that process than those who had recently completed it?
The emphasis on our youth group has produced some of the strongest leaders in our parish. When new staffing positions open up, we don’t have to look far for the perfect candidate. Investing in our youth is an investment in the well-being and future of our parish. At our confirmation liturgies, we remind our youth that if they take this sacrament to heart, the celebration and impact for the parish can really be labeled “under new management.”
The church as a whole seems to clamor for more youth involvement. But when we really tried to make changes in our parish, like pointedly asking young people to come aboard and help re-invent parish life, there wasn’t exactly cheering in the pews.
At first there was a fair amount of uncertainty, polite resistance, and resentment. Who are these kids? What do they know? For a time, the established staff seemed to pretend the younger newcomers did not exist; younger staff members felt condescension and were subjected to various patronizing comments. We had a lot of meetings to clarify and soothe feelings, and eventually we came to see each other as assets.
We made these changes because our parish demographics have changed: 75 percent of our parishioners are Latino and under the age of 35. It only made sense for us to change our leadership model to fit our congregation. And if we want to retain these younger parishioners, we need to continue encouraging their deeper involvement in parish life. Although our charism for youth empowerment came out of an experience specific to our parish’s needs, the benefits of encouraging youth involvement would be a welcome change
to any parish.
And it’s not like the universal church has not seen the impact from its youthful leaders over the centuries. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, patron saint of youth, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha are three who had already established saintly credentials by the time of their deaths in their early 20s. And from our 21st-century perspective at least, if not from Middle Eastern actuarial tables of the time, Jesus of Nazareth would probably still count as a young adult.
Intergenerational fruits of millennials and boomers working together are evident. Sometimes it’s as basic as youth have energy, elders have wisdom —the two can really feed off each other. Thinking a little more specifically, putting these two groups into dialogue can help a parish decide its mission. What kind of parish do we want, and who can help shape it? Are we going to be more of a caretaker, or a change agent?
Greater diversity yields more ideas and opportunities. We’ve made it a point to include various ages, genders, and ethnicities in our parish leadership, and as a result we’ve created more innovative programs, liturgies, and services. The uniqueness of our parish attracts even more new members.
Older parishioners, even those who may have been skeptical of youth leadership at first, experience an added pride in seeing the young adults whom they catechized as children flourishing—in terms of faith and professionalism—a pride they wouldn’t have had if older outsiders were hired.
In turn, the younger staff benefits from a feeling of safety, having the support and wisdom of older staff giving them the freedom to experiment and take projects further. Much to their discomfort, young staff can be pushed out of comfort zones: to provide a last-minute public speaking moment, represent the parish at a diocesan gathering, or attend a national conference. As any recipient of this treatment will tell you, the temporary embarrassment, nervousness, or frustration is worth the lessons learned, and it prepares young people well for professional and personal challenges to come later on in their lives.
That is not to say we are completely attuned to each other at our parish. We debate whether to use Internet Explorer versus Google Chrome; whether to listen to classical music or pop hits in our shared office; whether the younger staff is eating enough vegetables or whether the older staff’s aches and pains are worthy of sympathy. But even there, by poking fun at our age stereotypes, we come to see the silliness of them.
One ridiculous moment reminded us that we still have a ways to go. “You won’t believe what just happened, Monsignor,” a younger parish staff member grimaced after paying the waiter for a quick meal together at the corner diner a few months ago. “She asked whether you were my father or my husband!”
We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Had a winter coat not obscured the clergy attire, the ridiculous question probably wouldn’t have been asked, but if many people automatically see personal or familial connections in intergenerational combinations, and don’t think of professional ones, there is still some work to do.
So, do we need a preferential option for the young in our church? We need at the very least to rethink a preferential deference to seniority and experience.
On his second day as pope, Francis instructed the cardinals of the church: “Let us give with wisdom to the youth: like good wine that improves with age, let us give the youth the wisdom of our lives.”
Youth is ready to share its own wisdom and is primed to take an active place in church life.
And the survey says...
1. I currently see young people working in key roles on my parish staff.
36% - Agree
55% - Disagree
9% - Other
2. I’d be happy to welcome young adults to our parish staff, but there are not many to be found at my parish.
55% - Agree
32% - Disagree
13% - Other
3. The percentage of parishioners who are under age 35 whom I see at Sunday Mass is approximately:
15% - 0–5
64% - 10–20
16% - 30–50
4% - 55–70
1% - 75+
4. Without a preferential option for young people, many of our parishes will simply wither away to nothing.
60% - Agree
29% - Disagree
11% - Other
5. Younger people aren’t experienced or knowledgeable enough to successfully navigate some parish jobs.
14% - Agree
74% - Disagree
12% - Other
6. If parishes put an emphasis on having young people in leadership, then older parishioners will feel excluded.
13% - Agree
70% - Disagree
17% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“That depends on how the pastor directs and supports such efforts.”
7. Preference in all parish hiring should be given to young people from the parish.
17% - Agree
60% - Disagree
23% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“Young people who come from outside the parish should be considered as well.”
8. If my parish had more young people in leadership positions, I would:
69% - Welcome their involvement and look forward to the changes they would bring.
24% - Be happy they were participating, but be cautious about letting them make too many decisions on their own.
1% - Be wary of their actions and want an older member of the parish to keep a close eye on them.
6% - Other
This article appeared in the September 2013  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 9, pages 17-20).
Results are based on survey responses from 198 USCatholic.org visitors.
Image: iStock/fstop123