Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Solo Youth Minister: Set up for Failure

Over the past couple of days I have been reading The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry by Roland Martinson, Wes Black and veteran Catholic youth ministry leader John Roberto.  The book presents the findings of a best-practice study (the ‘Exemplary Youth Ministry Project’) of 131 congregations from seven different denominations in the US.  There’s plenty of food for thought from the book, but at this stage I wanted to highlight this point:  all 131 congregations emphasized that they had adopted a ‘team approach’ to youth ministry.  ‘Aha!’, I hear you say, ‘it’s easy to have a team when you’re part of a cashed-up US congregation who can pay all these youth ministers, but it isn’t possible in Australia where we struggle to pay even one youth minister in a (Catholic) parish’.  The only problem with that response is that two-thirds of the congregations in the study don’t actually have one paid youth minister let alone a team of employees.   What they do have are teams of unpaid volunteers who are well-trained and resourced for their role under the leadership of the ‘youth minister’ who may or may not be employed either.

This data is vitally important in our efforts to continue to build youth ministry in Australia, because it suggests that the solution to our challenges does not necessarily lie in employing more people, but in changing our understanding of ministry.  It is all the more pressing because it’s not uncommon for extraordinary expectations to be placed upon a solo youth minister in a parish or diocese.  We should no longer be surprised when a youth minister burns out after a year or two, or moves on discouraged and disheartened when a role that began with such promise ends in failure.  After all, we have seen it too many times before.  We are setting these (usually young) people up to fail.  It’s because we ask them to do it alone and without adequate training or support. We sometimes hear critics complaining about the money that is invested in youth ministry for little tangible result.  If we are not getting the results we hope for in youth ministry in this country, then I suggest that this is a good place to start looking for a solution.

Poor management and organisational failure are usually blamed for such stories of failed youth ministry initiatives around the country.  While I think that is partly true I actually think that the real culprit here is pseudo-clericalism.  The solo youth minister model of youth ministry looks a lot like the lone priest in a parish doing all the ministry himself.  Its just been transferred to this (largely) lay context.   In other words, it’s a problematic ecclesiology that is undoing us here.  Instead of Vatican II”s vision of the Church which has everyone contributing their particular gifts for the sake of the Church’s mission our current practice actually reflects an ecclesiology that concentrates all ministry into the hands of the ‘professionals’, be they priests (clericalism) or employed laity (pseudo-clericalism).   And of course, this vision of the Church is thoroughly Pauline: I often wonder what we might be capable of as a Church if we really took the image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians seriously.

According to the study a thriving youth ministry could have twenty or more adult volunteers of all ages playing all sorts of roles in mentoring, supporting and encouraging young people in their faith.  I suspect it becomes more obvious at this point why the youth ministers in these exemplary congregations aren’t reporting high levels of burnout or dissatisfaction with their roles. Such involvement from a broad cross-section of people in our parishes will only be possible here if we can shrug off the ‘service mentality’ that most  Catholics have of their parishes in which they think that merely coming to Mass is a sufficient expression of their faith.  Of course, this mentality can also be attributed at least in part to clericalism’s highly dubious legacy.

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not arguing for or against paid youth ministers here.  I’m not arguing against the need for an identifiable youth minister either.  (Nor , I suspect it must be said, am I for doing away with the ordained priesthood in any way shape or form).  The exemplary congregations in the study have a youth minister, but these ministers never work alone or in isolation.  Instead, they are the leader of a team of youth ministers, and they are also an integral part of the life and leadership of the congregation.  So what I am arguing for is twofold: on a practical level we need to train youth ministers to recruit, train and collaborate with adult leaders (as well as youth or peer leaders).  But at a deeper level we need to ensure that our ministerial practice is informed by an appropriate ecclesial vision which does not merely pay lip service to the baptismal vocation to participate in the Church’s mission.

Teresa of Avila on Prayer III: Meditative Prayer

This excerpt on prayer begins with me speaking about Sue, a hypothetical woman who is deepening in the life of prayer, and who has begun to pray meditatively.  Meditation in particular draws upon the Scriptures as the font of our prayer through ways of prayer like lectio divina and the Ignatian prayer of the imagination.

Teresa of Avila on Prayer II: Introduction to the Mansions

This is the second excerpt from the series of talks on the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila.  This excerpt introduces Teresa’s image of the castle with many mansions as a metaphor for different stages on the journey of prayer.

Teresa of Avila on Prayer I: Union with God

Last year I gave a number of talks to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Melbourne on St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle.  The good people at CCR Melbourne have now posted excerpts from the talks  on YouTube so I thought I would link to them here.

This first excerpt is about the goal of the Christian life: God.

Called to Lead: Audio Talk from the YMG National Conference

The Young Men of God Movement (YMG) held its annual national conference last month on Collaroy beach in NSW.   About 150 men aged from 16-35 came for the weekend.  Given that this is the demographic (young adult males) least represented in our parishes on a Sunday, this gathering and the movement itself are making a really important contribution to the Church in Australia.   I’ve been a chaplain to the Melbourne group for several years now and really enjoy being part of the national conference.

At the conference this year I was asked to speak about leadership.  I’ve attached the audio below so you can listen to the talk.  I began by providing a context for this conversation about leadership and the need for young men to step up and lead by giving a couple of examples from our culture where men have failed to lead.  I then reflected upon Rembrandt’s image of the father in his rendition of the story of the Prodigal Son, and what insights into leadership we might gain from his painting.  Then I opened up the story of Gideon, suggesting that this story might be a paradigm for young men today who are called to lead.  The thrust of the talk: that young men can make a difference to our culture.  And that God and the rest of us need them to stand up and be the men that they are called to be.

I also used the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt in the talk: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

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