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.

Posted on November 14, 2011, in Youth Ministry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. One of the fruits of the “Spirit of Vatican 2″was that RE courses in the Catholic School system,particularly during the 1970’s and 80’s, were gutted of virtually all meaningful content which resulted in the majority of students spending up to 12 years in the system and then leaving with roughly zero knowledge of the faith.
    Needless to say,regular Mass attendance amongst the 18-30 year olds,in percentage terms,dropped to single figures.
    I don’t recall exactly when it was,but a train of thought developed that the future of parishes was,to a significant extent,dependant on whether they had a youth ministry.The majority of these youth ministries failed for the reasons outlined by Fr.Chris.
    Fr.Chris mentioned clericalism as one of the problems.Nuns were also flies in the ointment here,particularly those from teaching orders who thought their work should take a different direction in the post-concilliar Church.Their ideas for getting the young back to the Church had all the intellectual depth of a rice pudding.A few renditions of Kumbaya was never going to cut it.
    There is not much doubt that teams of people are the answer but getting people involved is not easy.It would be interesting to know what percentage of people who take their faith seriously have read Blessed Pope John Paul 2’s 1989 Apostolic Letter Christifideles Laici on the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World.Page 15 says-
    “A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social,economic,political and cultural life,calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful.If lack of commitment is always unacceptable,the present time renders it even more so.It is not permissable for anyone to remain idle.”
    This makes peoples obligations very clear.

  2. Perhaps a large part of the problem is the terminology of ministry.

    The term after all, as Christifideles laici makes clear, refers to what priests do first and foremost, and what others do to substitute for them as far as this is possible when absolutely necessary.

    While some people do want to be pseudo-priests (clericalization of the laity), many more, I think, instinctively rebel at moving into this territory, hence the few who end up dominating things and failing.

    If we want people to really engage in the ways Vatican II’s texts actually suggested (as opposed to how some would like them to read) we need to find language about being actively engaged in our parish community rather than talking about ministry as such.

  3. Well said Fr Chris. Your comments could equally be applied to the field of social justice in which I work (and I suspect the many other church agencies or offices that have a specific focus).

    Im reminded of a visiting community organiser from the US who was asked how many issues a particular social justice group should address. He replied not with a number but with his own question; how many leaders do you have?

    I suppose its the same in youth ministry where your activity is curtailed not by the need (which is unending) but the available hands.

    Training then in the process of ‘recruiting, training and collaborating’ is not just something for youth ministers but anyone who wants to avoid burn out and pseudo-clericalism.

  4. Well said Fr Chris,

    I have found Frank Mercadante, “Growing Teen Disciples” very helpful in developing a team of Youth leaders in my Parish that set the direction and lead our Youth Ministry.

    I think it is important to point out that ultimately, the more leaders that are involved, the more participants a group will have as fundamentally our Catholic approach to Youth ministry must be modelled on Christ and therefore incarnational, person to person contact.

    In my opinion, youth ministry should ultimately about forming leaders, for our youth ministry should be leading all our young people to taking leadership roles within the church, be that in their single life, in their future marriages, in vocations to the priesthood or religious life or through particular ministries within their parishes and communities.

  5. Great article, I think great churches will have an overflow of great young adult leaders. Whilst not all of them want to help in youth ministry, if we have the solo youth minister covering the youth ministry then these leaders will use their skill else where. It can be said that young adults want to help, just the church isn’t asking, so they help in other areas. Now I know some will say they have asked young adults to help but on who’s terms?

    Great blog post, keep up the writing … And the awesome ministry that inspires your writing.

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