Three Attitude Shifts for Embracing Young Catholic Leaders

GearShift

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?

Ministry is a Marathon

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Last year, during a presentation on the New Evangelization to a group of catechetical leaders in our diocese I’ve spoken to before, a startling realization hit me: they were attentive, engaged, and interested in a way I had not seen before.

“Well,” I laughed to myself, “that only took six years. Now to get to work on the catechists they lead!”

I was making a (silent) joke, but upon reflection I realized there was a sizable grain of truth: ministerial leadership is always a marathon, never a sprint, and we shouldn’t be discouraged or disappointed when our efforts don’t produce immediate tangible results. Too often we measure the results of our ministry in the short-term. But our faith reminds us to take a more sustained perspective and aim not just for the immediate, but for the long-term.

Indeed, Sacred Scripture is full of examples of the “long view” of leadership and ministry:

  • Abraham was 100 years old when the Lord’s promise of a son was fulfilled.
  • Joseph endured two years in prison, despite his pleas to be remembered by the pharaoh, before he was released and successfully interpreted the pharaoh’s dreams.
  • Moses tried ten times (and went through ten plagues!) before God’s command to pharaoh to free the Jews was answered.
  • Similarly, Moses had to lead a (at times disgruntled and obstinate) people for 40 years through the desert to reach the Promised Land.
  • The parable of the sower contrasts the seeds that fell on rocky soil and sprang up immediately (but ultimately withered) with the seed that fell on good soil and developed deeper roots.
  • Jesus formed the Twelve Apostles for three years, and they still abandoned him when he was arrested!

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins writes

No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no on killer innovation, no solitary luck break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process — step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel — that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.

We in ministry would do well to remember this and work on cultivating seeds that will have deep, abiding roots in our ministry.

How have you taken the long view in your ministry? How can you build your ministry step-by-step instead of shooting for instant results?

Image by familymwr under a CC-By license.

Book Review: Tweeting with God

TWG-PTweeting with God (Ignatius Press, 2015) arose out of sessions held by Fr. Michel Remery, a Dutch priest, and the youth of his parish. Two hundred of the questions these young people asked – and Fr. Remery’s responses – have been compiled into an attractive and wide-ranging overview of the Catholic faith.

The topics are arranged into four sections dealing with God, the Church, prayer and the sacraments, and Christian living. Each question is answered over two pages with supplemental material, sidebars, full-color pictures, maps, and other graphics. Each question also gets a 140-character “summary” answer (hence the title of the book).

The book is clearly aimed at a young audience. Fr. Remery writes with a breezy, relaxed style that never condescends or skirts difficult issues. Questions such as “Why are some Christians hypocritical,” “Why were there violent crusades,” and “Is it bad that I struggle with chastity?” are tackled in a straightforward, honest fashion. The answers are thorough without being overly academic or theological.

Fr. Remery does not claim the book is a complete overview of the Catholic faith; rather, it is designed to deal with the most pressing questions young people have about the faith. The book directs readers to the Bible, Catechism, and YouCat for a more thorough presentation of Catholic doctrine.

Recommended for high school, campus ministry, and parish libraries.

N.B.: I received a free review copy of this book from the Catholic Library Association. This review was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Catholic Library World.

After Obergefell v. Hodges: Now What?

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This morning the Supreme Court ruled, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the state must recognize marriages between persons of the same sex.

When someone told me the news they were surprised at my rather blasé response and questioned why I wasn’t angry or bitter.

The truth is that anyone surprised by this ruling is completely out of touch with the prevailing cultural and intellectual currents in American society. The triumph of the personal will over any other competing interests has been a fait accompli for some time. It is the basis for the rampant materialism and shallow spirituality manifested in everything from the collapse of the real estate market to the popularity of Oprah Winfrey.

Indeed, I find it impossible to be mad at the justices who ruled in favor of redefining marriage in the same way I can’t be mad at a fish for refusing to leap from the sea and take flight. They did not possess the means of arriving at a correct decision and it would be unjust to expect their ruling to conform to the natural law and God’s revelation when their underlying assumptions and premises are rooted in neither.

If I’m going to be angry with anyone it is with a Church that for too long allowed the ambient culture to shoulder the burden of forming its members. We were all too happy to outsource the work of building up culture and people when the culture agreed with us. Now that the culture has turned against us we are reaping the rewards of that transaction.

What we have discovered it that, for too long, the Church allowed its evangelization muscles to go unexercised, seemingly content that, even if the culture wasn’t forming disciples of Jesus Christ, it at least passed on a cultural Christianity that kept butts in our pews.

Now, for those of us involved in catechesis and evangelization, our task is to shake off the dust and begin to exercise those muscles again — to take up the call to “make disciples of all nations” without relying on the culture surrounding us. This will be a long, arduous process — think of it as physical therapy for the Church. It may require something approaching Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. But we will need to start with baby steps and small, seemingly insignificant victories that won’t make a dent in the culture but will help us make the slow, incremental progress needed to return to true health. Our losses against the culture will grow worse before they get better. I don’t expect to see the tide turn in my lifetime.

One sign of hope, however, are the wonderful men and women helping the Church to begin exercising these muscles — people like Fr. Robert BarronSherry Weddell, Tom Quinlan, Elizabeth Scalia, and Greg Willits (to say nothing of the statements of recent popes). The work has already begun — and thank God for the prophetic call of those who saw the need to begin working our evangelization muscles before now!

But the road ahead is long and narrow. Through prayer, keygmatic formation, and a careful reading of the signs around us we can rebuild what we have lost. The gift we make to future generations will be in our commitment to pass on to them the tools of evangelization that we ourselves did not inherit.

O God, who in the power of the Holy Spirit
have sent your Word to announce good news to the poor,
grant that, with eyes fixed upon him,
we may ever live in sincere charity,
made heralds and witnesses of his Gospel in all the world.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

(from the Mass for the New Evangelization)

Improving Parish Marriage Prep – More Highlights from Notre Dame

Last week I shared some highlights from the general sessions of the 2015 Notre Dame Center for Liturgy summer symposium on “Liturgy and Vocation.”

The afternoon sessions I attended were led by Josh and Stacey Noem and dealt with marriage prep in a parish setting. The Noems did an outstanding job laying out the theological and pastoral contours of an effective, evangelizing marriage prep process:

I’m looking forward to helping the parishes in our diocese deepen their commitment to a welcoming, evangelizing marriage formation process. Big thanks to Stacey and Josh Noem — and the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy — for the great conversation they facilitated at the symposium!

Highlights from the Notre Dame “Liturgy and Vocations” Symposium

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This week I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy‘s annual summer symposium, focusing this year on “Liturgy and Vocation.” This was my first time attending the symposium — indeed, my first time on the campus of Notre Dame — and I was delighted by the rich conversations that matched pressing pastoral questions with deep theological insights.

(Next year’s topic will be Liturgy and the New Evangelization — I would highly recommend attending!)

The symposium began on Tuesday evening with Msgr. Michael Heintz. His address on “Liturgy and Vocation” set the stage for the remaining general sessions and afternoon seminars:

The second general session by Dr. Brant Pitre was a whirlwind tour of nuptial imagery in the Bible, based in large part on his book Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.

On Wednesday Dr. Chad Pecknold of CUA spoke about the social and political dimensions of marriage and the priesthood, rooting his talk in St. Augustine’s image of the two cites.

Finally, on Thursday, Dr. Holly Taylor Coolman helped us to reflect on the nature of icons in order to practice seeing marriage and ordination as icons of Christ’s love.

These highlights don’t even touch the panel discussion on marriage and priestly formation or the two-day afternoon seminar on marriage prep that I attended — I’ll share more on them next week. In the meantime you can browse all the live-tweeting from the event by following the #NDSymposium2015 hashtag.

Thanks to Timothy O’Malley for inviting me to the symposium and for the gracious hospitality extended by the staff of the NDCL. I look forward to attending more Center for Liturgy events in the future!

Why I Remain Catholic

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Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, has invited Catholic bloggers to answer the question “Why do YOU Remain a Catholic?”

This is a most excellent question and one that, in the present age, all Catholics should stop and ask themselves. In the wake of abuse scandals, against a world that sees us as backwards and bigoted, and facing daunting challenges in evangelization, all the faithful should have a ready answer for why they remain when remaining seems, in the eyes of the world, so foolish.

I have many and varied answers for why I remain Catholic: because of the beauty of the liturgy; because the Church, despite all the flaws of her members, remains a force for good in the world; because I was raised Catholic and finding a new spiritual home sounds like way too much work. But the most foundational reason is that because the teachings and worldview presented by the Church constitute the most consistent and coherent set of propositions I’ve encountered — coherent in that it matches my own experience and observations about the nature of reality, and consistent in that it is systematic and non-contradictory. (Indeed, the systematic nature of the faith was one of the things that contributed to my spiritual awakening in college and beyond.)

What’s more, this worldview helps me to see beyond my own myopic vision and to overcome my own self-interested biases. This is part of what is meant when we describe the Church as a hospital for sinners — it strips away our excuses and denials and distorted passions, allowing the root of the problem to be diagnosed, treated, and cured by the Master Physician.

Of course, all of this would be as nothing if it weren’t for faith, since it is faith that allows us to see the coherence and consistency of Catholicism. Our faith is not scientific; it does not rest on demonstrable proofs or repeatable experiments. I agree with Chesterton that “original sin… is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

And that is the paradox: faith doesn’t make sense from this side. It’s only by crossing over — by taking the proverbial “leap of faith” — that we get the proper perspective and can begin to retrain ourselves to see the world, ourselves, and God as they really are.

And that’s why I remain Catholic: I have crossed the chasm and become, to paraphrase the Apostle, a fool for Christ, even as I follow him imperfectly in starts, reversals, and blind reaching. Yet it is in the striving to achieve holiness that the world takes on meaning and hope is made manifest — not due to our own efforts, but because in the reaching we find God, in his infinite mercy, reaching out to us.

Where else could I remain?

No One Cares About Your Office Hours (or: What Your Voicemail Greeting Should Say)

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I recently called someone and reached their voicemail. As part of their greeting they let me know what their office’s normal hours were. “I don’t care about your hours,” I thought to myself, “I want to know when you’ll get back to me!”

The truth is that, when someone calls and reaches your voicemail, they want to know two things:

  1. Did they reach the right voicemail?
  2. When will you be available to get back to them?

I have found that the most effective way to do this is to change my voicemail introduction every week, first thing on Monday. In the intro I state who I am and what days that week I will be in and out of the office. This accomplishes both the tasks set forth above.

As an example, here’s the script of my voicemail introduction a few weeks ago:

Hi, you’ve reached Jonathan Sullivan, director of catechetical services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. This is the week of May 10th. I’ll be in the office on Monday and Tuesday. I will be out of the office Wednesday and Thursday attending a curia workshop. Our offices are closed on Fridays. Please leave your name, phone number, and a brief message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can. Thank you, and God bless.

Using this system it is clear that, if someone leaves a voicemail on Wednesday, they probably shouldn’t expect a response until the following Monday. On the other hand, if all I had was an evergreen message stating the curia office hours, they might expect a return call much sooner. (And grower frustrated while they wait until Monday!)

This goes back to a fundamental principal about leadership: anticipating what people need, not what we think they need. The more we practice this principal, the more effective we can be in our ministry.

Book Studies for Catechists

I’m a big believer in reading as a vital component of personal and professional development. This is especially true for catechists and catechetical leaders — reading, sharing, and discussing good books is a great way to form ourselves as disciples and disciple-makers.

Recently my office compiled a list of books that would be appropriate for group study by catechists and Catholic school teachers:

(We also correlated the books to our diocesan Catechist Formation Process.)

My hope is that our parishes and schools will organize book studies for their catechists as a path for continued formation.

Have you ever participated in a catechetical book study? Are there any books you would add to our list?

An Easter Reflection for Catechists

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ in this Easter season, it is a good time to reflect on the meaning of the Paschal Mystery in our lives and for our ministry. The Church proclaims that

In the sacraments of Christian initiation we are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. We receive the Spirit of filial adoption and are part of the entire people of God in the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection. (Christian Initiation, General Introduction, no. 1)

As catechists this is not only true of us personally, but it is also the basis of how we form those in our charge. All catechesis finds its root, its hope, its end in the Paschal Mystery, because it is through that mystery that God’s promises to his people are completed:

If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)

In the RCIA, Catholic schools, religious education programs, and adult faith formation sessions, the Paschal Mystery should have pride of place and be a constant touchstone for our teaching and formation. As catechists it is our privilege to lead people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship finds its culmination in Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, because these sacraments unite us in an unchangeable way with the life of Christ.

My prayer for you in this blessed season is that your life and ministry will be increasingly touched by a radical encounter with Christ and his Pascal Mystery. Have a happy and blessed Easter season!