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.