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?

What Young Catechetical Leaders Need

A couple weeks ago I responded to a request from a catechetical colleague and friend to consider working on a national project. After thinking and discerning about it I decided to politely refuse but found that, in doing so, I had some things to say. Indeed, what should have been a simple “no, thank you” email quickly blossomed into a 1,300-word essay about the needs of young catechetical leaders.

Below is a highly edited version of that email. I don’t mean to speak for all young Catholic leaders, but I would love to hear reactions from other young adults working in Catholic ministry — feel free to leave a comment or send me a private message via my contact page.

Dear T—-,

Thank you again for your invitation. I am gratified by the words you shared expressing your confidence in me and my gifts.

Unfortunately I find that I can’t muster much enthusiasm right now for committee work. As I mentioned, my experience with national committees is a mixed bag – good, committed, energized people who are often ignored and who do not possess a means of energizing the organization with their ideas. With a new baby, plenty of diocesan work to keep me busy, and other projects I’m excited to pursue, I don’t think I would be effective in breaking through this organizational culture.

In particular I find myself pessimistic about the ability of national ecclesial bodies to attract and tap into the energy, charisms, and commitment of young Catholics, in no small part due to the experiences I have had. In some corners of the Church there is a consistent undertone directed towards young adults that we are there to learn or be learned about, rather than having anything meaningful to say on our own behalf. This was made very clear to me when, at a gathering of national catechetical leaders, a well-known and respected leader in catechetical circles cut me off three times as I tried to respond to a point he was making to me during a hallway conversation before he walked off. At that moment he was the face of an organization that didn’t care to hear my story.

The failure of many national organizations to make good use of new media is also disheartening to me as someone who has tried to educate catechetical leaders on “best practices” for engaging the faithful through new media and who sees it used so well in other corners of the Church (including, surprisingly, the USCCB).

You may recall that, at the end of our conversation last December, you made the statement that “I have a deep loyalty to [X organization]”. I reflected on that afterwards and realized that I have no loyalty to the organization – not because I see it as unimportant or because of my shorter history with it, but because my loyalty is to the ministry of catechesis (as is, I know, yours). Any interest I have in or energy I give to the organiztion is directly proportional to how helpful I see it to catechesis and my role as a catechetical leader.

In this I don’t think I am alone among younger Catholics. Last October Rod Dreher recounted this anecdote following a meeting of friends of First Things magazine:

After lunch, an older Catholic theologian said the morning discussion highlighted for him a “generational divide” among our group. He said that his faction sees the basic problem as one of reforming institutions, which is the approach they inherited from the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, whose reign stretched from 1878-1903. This theologian said that Leo believed that society should try to re-harmonize the three things needed for happiness and a flourishing life: family, community, and church. In Leo’s day, these three had been thrown out of balance by revolutionary economic and political upheaval; he dedicated his pontificate to finding a workable balance.

In the classical First Things approach, said this theologian, the problem is one of bringing the three elements into proper balance in the public square. You can’t return to 1940, but you can bring them into greater alignment. But by the mid-1990s, it was beginning to become clear that the problems were not just a matter of reforming institutions, because institutions were fast becoming optional to American life.

The second, younger faction, this man said, seems to believe that the institutions can’t really be reformed, and that the problem, therefore is more radical. There seemed to be agreement around the table to this notion. One professor spoke quite eloquently throughout the day on the personal crises she sees in her students. There is, she said, an overwhelming sadness to them, an existential angst and fear…

“You can’t imagine how my 18 year old students think about these things,” she said. “No institutions, with the possible exception of their families, mean anything to them.”

This resonated strongly with me – I’m not interested in reforming organizations that have outlasted their usefulness. This is a reality that ecclesial organizations will have to face if they want to attract young adults – insofar as they seem to ignore the concerns of young catechetical leaders (and to be clear, those concerns tend to be very different from the concerns of older catechetical leaders who are driving the agenda), these organizations will appear useless to those young leaders.

I think such organizations have a place in the Church – they have not outlived their usefulness. Indeed, my words here are born out of a place of love and respect for the good work such organization have done over the decades. If I sound harsh it is only because I want such organizations to succeed in the future. But I do not see many of these organizations’ names surfacing in the catechetical circles in which I travel – young catechetical leaders see them as largely irrelevant to their ministry, if they think about them at all.

We don’t need organizations for their newsletter – there are plenty of blogs with more (and often better) content. We don’t need them for their conferences – we can see the same speakers in webinars and have the same lobby conversations on Twitter and Facebook (and year-round, too). We don’t need them to stay connected to the national catechetical scene – we have myriad ways of accessing resources from publishers and the USCCB.

What we need are professional organizations that will acknowledge, listen to, and engage young catechetical leaders as leaders with our own expertise and experiences to bring to the table, even when we do things differently and challenge the “old guard”. This generation is not willing to “wait our turn” – we have plenty of opportunities, thanks to new technologies, to strike out on our own and form our own intentional communities of support and mutual learning. Current national leaders could be a willing partner in those conversations. Thus far they have chosen to stay within their own walls.

Meet a Young Catechetical Leader: William O’Leary

One of the great joys of my job is meeting other young catechetical leaders in the Church. There’s not a lot of us, but I can already see the impact many of these “next generation:” leaders are making.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be featuring some of these young catachetical leaders on my blog. Today’s interview is with William O’Leary, the Director of Faith Formation at the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, Kansas, and a blogger at Catechesis in the Third Millennium and Amazing Catechists.

How were you called to the ministry of catechesis?
Ever since college I’ve had the desire to share the Gospel with others and teach others about the Catholic Faith. I decided when I was a junior to major in theology so I could prepare for work in a parish.

What is the best part of your job?
The people. I see that each day is an opportunity to be Christ’s hands and feet to those who come into our office or the kids I see in the hallways or the phone calls I receive.

What gifts do you think young Catholics bring to the Church in general and catechesis in particular?
In general young Catholics bring their witness of their love for Christ. They want to see what is good and true in the lives around them and are eager to identify what is right and good. In particular young people have a unique opportunity to echo their faith in a way that is more accepted than with older adults. When young people share about their faith it is often received with more openness than when adults talk about their faith. I think young Catholics, or as I like to say our “young parishioners” have a unique opportunity to proclaim their Catholic Faith to those around them.

What is one misconception people have about young catechetical leaders?
If by young you mean catechetical leaders that are in their 20’s then I’d say that a misconception is that they don’t have the credibility they often times deserve. Of course we’ve all seen situations where when we are young we go about things a little differently than when we have learned from those same situations and mistakes along the way. But there are many young catechetical leaders that have such credibility because of the love of the Faith and desire to serve.

How do you balanace your work in catechesis with the other roles you play in life?
Being a husband and a father of 3 young children it can be challenging to be present at every ministry function that I’d like to be at. I often have to remember that being a husband and father is my primary vocation. I love being a catechetical leader but I have a “higher calling” in the home than I do at the parish.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing catechetical leaders today?
Where do I begin? I don’t know if I’m prepared to name the biggest but a huge challenge today is how parents have their children in so many activities that often a child’s religious education gets the short end of the stick. There multiple reasons for this but it remains a great challenge.

Talked to Any Young Catholics Lately?

I read with some bemusement this morning an editorial by Ken Trainor at US Catholic about young Catholics and the “Spirit of Vatican II”:

World Youth Day, I suspect, attracts, inspires and/or meets the spiritual needs of those young people looking for a highly structured, hierarchical, institutionalized approach to spirituality, which is what the official version of the Catholic Church currently offers.

It does not reach the many young people, Catholic and non-Catholic, who define themselves as “spiritual,” but are suspicious of institutional religion, often with good reason. This generation has frequently been praised for their strong service values. Their hearts are in the right place.

The church of John Paul II and Benedict XVI will not reach these young people, no matter how many worldwide rallies they hold. The church of John XXIII and Vatican II, however, is tailor-made for them. It’s too bad the current Catholic Church has been trying its best to sweep that church under a rug.

I wonder if Mr. Trainor has actually talked to any young Catholics lately. From reading this piece I don’t get the sense that he has.

Young Catholics live in a Vatican II Church. It’s what we were raised and formed in; it is all we have known. (I include myself, having been born 13 years after the close of the council.) It would be impossible for us to live out the faith in any other context.

That some of us embrace more “traditional” devotional and liturgical practices is not an indication that we have been hoodwinked by some faceless institution or that we want to roll back the calendar to 1960. Rather, we approach these things with a sense of rediscovery and reappropriation in light of the council. In a very real sense today’s young Catholics are fulfilling Bl. John XIII’s call to the youth to re-imagine and re-articulate the great treasury of our faith in light of the modern world:

The Church looks to you with confidence and with love. Rich with a long past ever living in her, and marching on toward human perfection in time and the ultimate destinies of history and of life, the Church is the real youth of the world.

That Mr. Trainor wants to halt the march in 1962 says more about him, I think, than about young Catholics or the wider Church.

How Young Catholics Will Save the Church

Last night I had the pleasure to present a Theology on Tap talk at St. Boniface parish in Edwardsville, IL. Entitled “How Young Catholics Will Save the Church,” it was my own thoughts on the gifts young Catholics bring to the Church and how those gifts will help the process of renewal in the Church. While I didn’t have an opportunity to make a video recording of the talk (I forgot my tripod!) I did have an audio recorder going.

As I warned the group last night, these thoughts are in no way systematically laid out; they are closer to an extended  reflection  based on my own experiences as a young adult Catholic and what I have gleaned from other sources. I welcome any critique or correction to these thoughts.

Click to Play: How Young Catholics will Save the Church

Evangelical Catholics: The Future of the Church

The indefatigable John Allen’s latest column examines the trend of “evangelical Catholicism” in the Church. He makes a number of points about this movement, which he describes as “a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity coupled with an impulse to express that identity in the public realm.”

Perhaps most notably, and counter to the prevailing narrative, he points out that

there’s a tendency in some circles to see evangelical Catholicism, with its strong emphasis on hierarchical authority and traditional doctrine, as a “top-down” project intended to bolster the sagging power of the clerical caste. No doubt, such political calculations can be part of the picture, but sociologists such as Roy confirm that the evangelical wave has much deeper roots in widespread social forces, and is thus a “bottom-up” force too. The hunger for a “thick” sense of Catholic distinctiveness among some Catholic young people these days, basically unsolicited by anyone in authority (and at times seen by church authorities with ambivalence), makes the point.

I’m surprised that this would surprise anyone. While I know a number of younger priests who fit the definition of “evangelical Catholic,” I see them as largely having arisen from the movement as opposed to instigating it. Just this week I was talking to a priest who grew up as a Baptist. One of the things he was looking for when he (re-)joined the Church was a solid foundation on which to base his faith — something he didn’t think his Baptist church, which often fragmented when a new pastor was hired, afforded him.

That this should be true for the laity — even absent any prodding from the clergy — really shouldn’t surprise us. When I have conversations with other catechetical leaders the talk often turns to the so-called “lost generations” who received incomplete catechesis in their parishes. It is only natural that, lacking a solid foundation of understanding in their faith, they should be drawn to a more robust and (to borrow a phrase) “caffeinated” Christianity.

The challenge for the Church, I believe, is to welcome evangelical Catholics and create space for their energy to act as leaven in the Church. They are the heir-apparent of the Boomers and the future movers and shakers in the Church (indeed, they are already making their presence known in many organizations). Coupled with their deft use of social media and other communication technologies, anyone who dismisses their efforts will soon find themselves left in the dust as evangelical Catholics create their own structures to carry out their work in the Church.

Reappropriating the Tradition: The Gift of Young Catholics to the Church

The November 2007 issue of Touchstone Magazine had an enlightening symposium on the current state of the Evangelical movement (with a promise of future discussions concerning Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and mainline Protestantism). The comments are frank and honest, pointing out the movement’s shortcomings as well as it successes.

I was especially struck by this passage from Michael Horton:

Sociologist Christian Smith has recently described American spirituality as ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism,’ and he says that this fits those raised in Evangelical churches as well as any others. If Fundamentalism reduced sin to sins (or at least things they considered vices), contemporary Evangelicals seem to have reduced sin to dysfunction. In this context, Jesus is not the savior from the curse of the law, but a life coach who leads us to a better self, better marriages, and happier kids.

I think we have failed to see that emotional summer-camp experiences cannot sustain a robust faith through the trials of real life. So, ironically, while Evangelicalism celebrates reaching the lost, it is losing the reached.

I am concerned that Evangelicalism is proving the thesis that when the gospel is reduced to simplistic jargon and is taken for granted in the life of the church, the next generation even forgets the slogans.

This is not, I think, a problem isolated in Evangelicalism. Certainly my own experience of Catholic catechesis (which, to be fair, took place outside of Catholic schools) reflects some of this same reality. While some of the early faith formation I received was valuable (especially in so far as it was based in a love and knowledge of the scriptures), other experiences were little more than watered-down sentimentality. I often lament that, as a child, I wasn’t introduced to the Communion of Saints, taught how to properly pray the Rosary or exposed to the various faith practices that sustained American Catholicism throughout the centuries. Instead we painted plaster butterflies, made sand drawings and sang songs (many of which featured butterflies).

I suspect that much of this is generational; the catechists who taught me, while of good intentions, were also working out their own renewal of faith following the Second Vatican Council. They were learning, sometimes for the first time, how to appropriate the faith into their own lives and experience not just a knowledge of faith but a real communion with Christ. As a result they sometimes abandoned those practices which did not speak to the challenges of the time.

Unfortunately, having experienced that communion, many never returned to the task of reappropriating the traditions of the faith passed on to them in their youth, instead remaining fixated on the same questions. This isn’t new; every generation seems to take the challenges of youth and relive them into adulthood (who hasn’t heard of the grandparent who lived through the Great Depression, only to become a hoarder of goods and money in fear of reliving those lean days?) and I doubt my generation will be any different. That having been said, this failure to connect the reform to the traditions which proceeded it in the life of the faithful has led to a generation which is starving for authentic catechesis and a solid rock on which to establish its faith.

This dynamic may also have something to do with the declining and aging membership of Catholic groups popularized in the 1970s and 80s — they don’t understand that they aren’t addressing the questions of young Catholics. When I talk to Baby Boomers mystified by the “conservative” faith practices of young (especially Millennial) Catholics, I point out that this is not the reactionary faith they tend to believe it is. Young Catholics aren’t trying to turn back the clock to the 1950s. How could we return to a time before we were born? Instead, the challenge for young Catholics (and, I believe, their particular gift to the universal Church) is the struggle to learn ways of living the faith in a very modern world that is both religiously pluralistic and often indifferent or hostile to faith.

Young Catholics are re-appropriating the traditions of the Church that have largely laid dormant for the past few decades. Without being disrespectful to the Boomers, we didn’t have the luxury of abandoning these practices because many of us never knew them in the first place. As a result young Catholics are delightedly rediscovering the Rosary, Benediction, Holy Hours and other traditional practices as if they were new. In a very real way they are creating a renewal of practice in the Church – in the very best sense of the word.