September 14, 2007

Be Our Guest / Ray Lucas

Teenagers need more than a youth minister—they need you!

Young people today want, crave and need more and better relationships with adults. This is one of the key findings in research done by the Search Institute that includes hundreds of thousands of teenagers.

And while young people have a lot of adults in their lives, says Gene C. Roehlkepartain of the Search Institute, “it’s striking how few young people have good sustained relationships with adults within congregations.”

As someone who has been involved in youth ministry for nearly 20 years, I believe there are a few important reasons why teens aren’t connecting with the adults of our parishes.

Part of this disconnect can be attributed to how we think about youth ministry, and the other part involves helping adults find simple and comfortable ways that they can get involved in the lives of teenage ­parishioners.

First, let’s talk about our model for youth ministry. Too often, we—including youth ministers—believe that the work of youth ministry is best left to the youth ministry professional. We pay youth ministry leaders to have relationships with our teenagers so let them do their job. This model undermines the idea that youth ministry is the job of everyone in the parish.

It is time for our parishes and our youth ministry leaders to approach their roles as coordinating the gifts of the parish to benefit youths and not just sharing our own gifts. Think of youth ministry as a building project. For too long, we have asked youth ministry leaders to pour foundations, lay bricks, install windows, run wire, etc.

We need only look to the example of Jesus’ leadership style to see that a youth ministry leader’s role would be far more effective as the architects of youth ministry. A youth ministry leader’s role should be more about finding others in the parish to take on the various roles of building faith and relationships with teens. Youth ministry leaders should be coordinators, not doers!

Why is this important? I have seen far too often the situation where a youth ministry leader leaves and suddenly an entire group of teenagers feels alienated from the parish. They had so much invested in their relationship with that one youth ministry leader instead of feeling a sense of belonging to the rest of the parish.

Youth ministry is the role of the baptized—that means all of us!

So if youth ministry is yours, mine and everyone’s job, how do we do our part?

You may be thinking that you’re not cut out for youth ministry. Perhaps you don’t feel comfortable enough, cool enough, young enough or just don’t have enough time.

As St. Paul reminds us in Scripture, we all have a role to play in the Body of Christ. It’s just a matter of finding out what role you can play.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Go out of your way to learn the names of the youths you see in church as well as something about them. Greet them warmly at church and outside of church. Tell them you are glad to see them and ask how they are doing.
  • Volunteer as a chaperone for a camping trip, a service project helper, a volleyball coach, a white-water rafting trip leader, etc. Find areas where your personal interests and teen activities overlap.
  • Commit to at least one youth ministry activity a year as a leader or chaperone.
  • If you can’t be that active, volunteer to make phone calls to teens about upcoming events or volunteer to pray daily for teenagers.
  • Personally invite the teens you know to join you in “job shadowing” the roles you have in the parish. Walk them through your volunteer roles as greeters, lectors, in quilting circles or at parish council meetings. Ask them to join you one Sunday in these roles and later invite them to try it on their own with your help.
  • Encourage your parish to create meaningful roles for youths as liturgical ministers, in the choir, updating Web sites, on building committees, and on and on. Help the parish see that getting youths involved in every aspect of parish life now is vital if we want them to stay connected later.
  • Encourage your parish to plan inter­generational events like service projects and educational sessions where youths and adults may work and learn side by side.
  • Talk to your parish youth leaders about a way to “adopt-a-youth.” Adults and senior citizens can send teens handwritten notes, cut out newspaper articles about them and send them a card on their birthdays or special occasions like confirmation. Be that older mentor in their life—go to one of their sporting events, plays or band competitions.
  • Contact your youth ministry leader or director of religious education and offer to share 10 minutes in their sacramental classes about your experience of having your child baptized, your confirmation or how you live out your vocation. If you have a passion for service justice, come and share when the teens study discipleship. Or share for 10 minutes how prayer has been a part of your life.
  • At parish meetings, planning sessions or during the budget process, stand up and be a voice for young people.
  • Reinforce to everyone who will listen in your parish that youth ministry is not just the job of the youth ministry coordinator—it is the job of everyone in the parish!

Yes, I know. This is all easier said than done. But the impact of helping teens build relationships with dozens of caring adults in their parish would be incredible. Young people are certainly the future of our Church. By inviting everyone in our parishes to do their part, we begin to build a community where youths feel they are a part of today’s Church as well.

Youths want and need relationships with the adults of their parish. You can be that adult for one of our youth. Youth ministry is everyone’s job!

(Ray Lucas is the executive director for Catholic Youth Ministry in the New Albany Deanery and has worked with southern Indiana and diocesan teens for 17 years.) †

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