Three Attitude Shifts for Embracing Young Catholic Leaders

Colleen Reiss Vermuelen posted a great reflection on her blog last week (responding to a dynamite piece by Tim O’Malley) about the need for the Church to find new ways to recruit young Catholic leaders in her ministries:

Despite popular perceptions, the Catholic Church’s organizational structure is extremely decentralized. Canonically, every parish can stand alone in many aspects of administration/management. Every diocese can adopt different priorities. We have to take ownership of this challenge. Those who work in parishes, those who work in dioceses, young adults, those who know young adults, etc. It’s everyone’s problem when perception may be all that’s blocking us from moving toward more optimal ministerial hires.

In additional to (perceived) organizational obstacles, there are also some significant cultural obstacles to reaching potential young leaders, embodied in some persistent and deep-rooted attitudes among those currently in leadership. Overcoming these will require shifting the ways in which we think about young adults and their role in Catholic ministry:

“Come and tell us about yourself.” vs. “Let us come and learn from you.”

As I alluded a few months ago, many young adults in the Church are made to feel as outsiders — novices who must earn their way into the conversation. The assumption is that young Catholics are looking to find their place in existing structures and we must be invited in, at which point we become either items for study or pupils to be taught.

The reality: Young Catholic leaders are creating their own spaces, apart from existing organizations, in which to serve, share formation, and build one another up. These include ministry centers focused around small but vibrant educational institutions (such as the summer programs at the Franciscan University of Steubenville); more informal online venues such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs; and by cultivating relationships on the peripheries of formal organizations (through hallway meetings and Tweet-Ups).

When current ministerial leaders adopt a “come to us” approach they send the impression that the structure or organization is more important than the ministry — that it is only though an “official” connection that ministers gain legitimacy. Ministerial leaders should be closing the gap by going outside their own comfort zones to the places where young ministers are gathering (physically or virtually) and interacting with them on their own turf.

“You’re not what we’re looking for.” vs. “What gifts do you bring to ministry?”

This is a common trap of leadership, but it is particularly detrimental at this moment in the Church. When looking for successors we often look for people with the same education, experience, and skills that we possess. The assumption behind this bias is that we should be looking for people who will be able to carry on the ministry as it is by doing what we do.

The reality: We are in a rapidly changing cultural, technological, and religious landscape. It is a common saying in education that we are teaching students for jobs that don’t exist yet. The same thing is true in ministry. The ministries the Church will need in 10 years do not currently exist in 99% of parishes (a result in part, I would argue, of our cookie-cutter model of church life).

Instead of looking for someone with what we think are the right skills and education, we should be asking what particular gifts young ministers bring to the Church and help them to cultivate those charisms for the good of the People of God. While a particular job applicant may not have the necessary “5 years parish experience” or exact theological education, many have skills gained in other jobs that are transferable to ministry. Likewise, many young Catholics have engaged in self-education in the faith that, while incomplete, can be easily supplemented.

“That won’t work.” vs. “Go and show us what you can do.”

One of my great frustrations as a young adult working in the Church is the pace at which ministry occurs. In this I know I am not alone — I have seen the enthusiasm of young ministers for a new project or approach returned with immediate dismissals such as “That would be too expensive” or “We tried that 20 years ago and it didn’t work.”

The reality: This isn’t 20 years ago, and the tools now available to us — many of them ridiculously inexpensive, if not free — are vast. Inspired by companies such as Google, many young ministers embrace a “fail cheap and fast” mentality that values quick iteration and experimentation over months of planning and consultation.

Rather than dismissing new ideas (or even ideas that have been tried and failed) leaders should be asking “How would you do that?” Even better, leaders should be inviting young Catholics to try their ideas. Most don’t need a great investment of money or other resources — they just want “permission” to try something on behalf of a parish or school so that they can get others excited, too.

What other shifts do we need to make ministerial leadership welcoming and attainable for young Catholics?