Ministry to youth, young adults launches ‘game changer’ to keep young people in church


For The Dialog


A new approach to youth ministry will help parishes find ways to engage young people into parish life so they don’t drift away from the church.

The effort seeks to reverse a trend toward less church involvement among young people by helping them come to think of their local church as their spiritual home, said Patrick Donovan, director of the Office for Catholic Youth and Young Adult Ministry (CYM). Two factors he cited toward reaching that goal are to find ways for young people to be involved in the parish and to ensure connections that let them know they would be missed if they were to leave.

“The work is based on the premise that young people are leaving the church in great numbers and they are doing so because drifting away has become easy if the parish does not feel like a spiritual home,” Donovan said in an interview.

The program evolved from discussions for a possible pastoral letter on youth ministry by Bishop Malooly. As the CYM board and others discussed over the past five years what effective youth ministry should be, the focus changed from a pastoral letter to a new approach toward youth ministry that Donovan described as “a paradigm shift.” The approach includes four key components:

• An “Effective Pastoral Ministry Toolkit” booklet, also available online, that lists 40 key indicators of effective youth ministry within a parish. Those indicators are grouped in one of four major categories: Advocacy, Discipleship, Engagement and Leadership.

Cover art from the Effective Youth Ministry toolkit. (Courtesy CYM office)
Cover art from the Effective Youth Ministry toolkit. (Courtesy CYM office)

• Pastor’s Tips, which will go to all pastors as well as primary youth ministry contacts in each parish and Catholic school.

•  “Bring It Home,” a weekly electronic newsletter for parents to help them in their role as the first and primary teachers of their children. The newsletter will “unpack the [following] Sunday readings” so parents can discuss the readings with their children, Donovan said. Parishes also will receive the newsletter for possible bulletin use.

•  “What Do Young People Want from the Church?” is a video that will be filmed over the next two months and be presented at the January meeting of the diocese’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry Network.

“This is a game-changer,” Donovan said. “We have now given parishes what we and researchers believe are the 40 best indicators of an effective parish youth ministry.”

Each indicator has a separate page in the toolkit. The page includes a church context for the indicator, a goal, suggestions for implementation, methods for evaluation, and room for notes.

CYM also has redefined its target audience, which traditionally had been middle school and high school students and later included young adults. Now it will include elementary school children once they receive first Communion.

A statement about the age shift contained in the “Effective Pastoral Ministry Toolkit” explains the change: “If young people are old enough to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, there should be ways we can engage them in the life, mission and ministry of the parish. If young adults are to be encouraged to stay active in their parishes, they, too, should be welcomed and encouraged to share their gifts.”

Donovan, the father of four children, noted that his oldest, a 9-year-old daughter, wanted to be active in their parish. “Fortunately, at my parish young people are allowed to help at an age-appropriate level,” he said. “If you don’t have something for a 10-year-old [at a parish, other than religious education] then he is not going to feel at home.”

When Donovan unveiled the plan to the Youth and Young Adult Ministry Network meeting Sept. 12 at St. Joseph’s parish hall in Middletown, Donovan said, “If we wait until they are 14, it is too late.”

Immediate reaction from those at the Network meeting was positive. Several people noted that if the words “young people” were replaced simply by “people” the toolkit would be a handbook for all parish ministry.

“This is for everybody. This is church,” said Ruth Sanders, liturgist at Resurrection in Wilmington.

Holy Rosary in Claymont is in the process of reviving a youth ministry program, said Theresa Moschelle, so the toolkit will be valuable. “This clearly makes it a collaborative effort” involving the whole parish, she said.

Sister Maryanne Zakreski, director of religious education at St. Edmond in Rehoboth Beach, said the toolkit “seems to cover the holes in our ministry that we need to be aware of. It is a tool that we can use not only to evaluate where we are right now but it can help lead us forward.”

The plan’s introduction was set up by Ela Mileska of Cultivation Ministries, who spoke about why young people leave the church. She cited research that shows 32 percent of 18-29 year olds say they have no religious affiliation, double the rate of two years ago and far exceeding the 5-7 percent of 15 to 20 years ago.

She noted that one in every 10 Americans “used to be Catholic.” In 2010, Mileska said, 97 million Americans said they were Catholic at some point in their lives. Of those 74.5 million considered themselves Catholic, with 50.6 million saying they go to Mass at Christmas and Easter. Only 17.9 of those almost 75 million who still consider themselves Catholic attend church once or more a week. “For Catholics that’s our minimal participation,” attending Mass once a week.

A survey of people who left the church, which allowed participants to cite more than one factor, showed about half reported problems with the church’s teaching on birth control, about 65 percent disagreed with church teachings, and about 25 percent cited the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

More worrisome to Mileska was the “more than 71 percent that just gradually drifted away. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop going to church and participating in the faith.”

Donovan was quick to note that rather than “grabbing things from other ministries” the new approach calls for collaboration between ministries within a parish and within the diocese.

“This toolkit is not just for the coordinators of youth ministry. It’s for all who work with young people, the staff, volunteers, parents, liturgists, clergy, coaches, catechists, counselors, and on and on and on,” Donovan said. “Their challenge is to work together … to engage young people in the life of the parish.”

Parishes should take a systematic approach toward the indicators, he said, by choosing two or three objectives from each category to improve upon in a given year. The next year other indicators would be chosen.

“If you were to make a conscious effort to do this, then I guarantee you your parish will become a youth-friendly, thriving place for young people, and if you attract young people you attract their parents.”