You know, some things should just be obvious. When a woman is pregnant, that means she has a baby growing inside of her; that is obvious. But here is one that we seem to have been slow to recognize in our Catholic parishes: if you don’t want youth ministry, it won’t happen. That’s pretty obvious.
I know many people say they want youth ministry for those young people (or more lovingly and erroneously called, the future of the Church), but their actions hardly reflect it. Let’s take a look at what continues to happen at parishes across North America, and why anyone with two eyes open can see the writing on the wall before the program even begins.
Consider first that we don’t really expect the youth minister to know anything or at least very much about the Faith. No, we would rather them be as young as possible so that there can somehow be a connect with the target audience. We would expect them to know the latest music, but not to know how to speak about the Church’s beautiful teaching on chastity. And we would much prefer that the youth minister played the guitar than find out that he or she was studying the Bible with a rare passion. Somehow, we have not yet learned that ministry takes a basic and growing familiarity with the Faith, otherwise it remains hopelessly at the level of a high school drama club, where entertainment really is, in the final analysis, all that matters.
Notice that we also don’t take care to keep our lay ministers focused on what they are good at. It happens more times than any one person should have to witness. A youth minister is hired to do youth ministry, but within a very short period of time that famous clause in the contract, duties as assigned, comes knocking on the door. Other groups within the parish, the secretary, the pastor even, begin to throw every conceivable event, excursion, and program in the direction of the youth minister. If there is any hint that youth might be present, or could be present, the youth minister is called out to ‘get them involved.’ Youth ministers burn out for the same reason that so many great priests burn out: we are demanding that they do what they were never called to do in their ministry. Isn’t this obvious?
Finally, there is almost a running joke out there that says I should be able to get the best of youth ministry on next to no money. I want more than full time work, on part time hours. I want the youth minister to be available to go to the Mass that we choose and on the days we select. I want this person to be great with people, not just youth but parents and teachers and administrative staff. I want them to establish something lasting and beautiful for God and the young people in this particular parish BUT I am going to pay them miserably for it. I am going to nickel and dime them at every turn. I am going to raise eyebrows if they even hint at needing to be paid more and I am seriously going to question whether they are in it for the right reasons if they talk about a living wage. Remember, most youth ministers love doing what they do, but they still need to pay the bills and provide for families.
Here is what is obvious. Many in the Church are discussing the value of youth ministry but few people are acting accordingly. If we really think this ministry is necessary, then we should invest in their Faith development, pay them well and keep them focused. Because let’s face it, we don’t need something scandalous or catastrophic to bring down youth ministry in our parishes, we only need to continue doing what we are doing.