Parishes’ young adult ministries must be focused to be effective

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

Keeping young adults engaged in their faith – and drawing their disaffected peers back to church – requires more than simply mounting another parish event targeted at their demographic, notes an assistant professor of religious education at the Loyola Institute for Ministry (LIM).

For young adult ministry to flourish, every parish ideally should have a trained, paid, full-time lay ecclesial minister focused solely on locating the parish’s now-adult former teens, whether they live locally, are away at college or are out in the working world, said LIM’s Tracey Lamont, who advises the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on ways to stem the tide of 18- to 39-year-olds leaving the church.

“We’re really moving away from that model of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Lamont said. “They’re not coming.”

Lamont said for many years, the mantra of church leaders was, “That’s OK. They’ll come back when they need to get married.”

“That tells young adults, ‘We are not concerned about your formative years – when you are learning to question things; when you are forming your identity; when you are becoming a person, figuring out who you are, apart from your parents,’” Lamont said. “The church is, in effect, saying, ‘Do all that alone and come back for the sacrament of marriage.’”

Finding young adults

Lamont believes that changing the Catholic mindset from reactivity – neglecting a whole area of ministry due to seemingly low interest –  to proactivity – meeting young adults where they are and advocating for their participation in the life of the church  – would alter the picture dramatically.

“The new template is to find them and go out to them,” said Lamont, noting that resources, such as the Newman Connection, list the names and numbers of young adults who were once involved in youth ministry.

“You can now figure out as a parish where your youth went to college, and you can keep in touch with them and talk with the campus minister that they (now) have,” Lamont said. 

Other strategies include taking a parish census – to learn where these elusive 20- and 30-somethings are living – and then contacting them. The lay minister also would be on call to reach out to young adults whose parents detected their children’s declining interest in Mass and the sacraments.

The lay minister’s approach might be as simple inviting a young adult to have coffee. The purpose of such one-on-ones would not be to ambush the young adults with pleas to return to church, but to build rapport with them, listen to their concerns, answer questions they might have about Catholicism and help them match their interests to ministries inside and outside parish boundaries.

If the ministry they are hungering for does not exist, the minister could encourage the young adults to start their own, Lamont said.

“You ask them what they want to do, so they can take ownership of it,” Lamont said. “(Their fledgling church roles) might not be focused on one thing. You could have five young adults over here doing prison ministry” and others who just want information on pop-up nights hosted by Young Catholic Professionals, Christ in the City and Theology on Tap.

“There is a way of being with young adults; there is a way of encountering them; there is a way of seeking them out; and there is a way of accompanying them,” Lamont said. “But it takes a parish that wants young adults in its faith community. It takes a pastor who says, ‘I’m going to put resources into this.’ And it takes training – someone with a special skill set and openness. It’s more than a pastor identifying someone who just wants to ‘help out with young adults.’”

‘Greet us by name’

This more proactive, relational approach to ministry also might uncover what is discouraging the young adults from more active participation or what led to their complete disaffiliation. While rifts with the church might stem from factors such as abuse, doctrinal disagreements or lack of formation, Lamont said young adults also attribute their lapses to things that can be more easily remedied. For example, the young adult could have been turned off after walking into a church where no one greeted him or bothered to ask him his name.

“Getting recognized is a thing – it means that you mean something to people,” she said. “If you can walk in and out of your parish and no one ever knows who you are, why would you ever go back?”

Lamont said a vigilant lay ecclesial minister could alert the ministers of hospitality to be on the lookout for new faces and equip church greeters with the names of newcomers.

“That takes working in concert with one another,” Lamont said. “It just takes one here, one there, and it will spread after that. That young adult is going to say, ‘That parish was really welcoming to me! Maybe (my friends) ought to come with me!”’

A parish-by-parish effort

Unfortunately, although many parishes in the U.S. Catholic church offer youth ministry, very few have a ministry focused exclusively on their parishioners’ special set of needs after high school graduation and before marriage, Lamont said.

Locally, the Archdiocese of New Orleans lends support to young adults through its Youth and Young Adult Office and programs such as Theology on Tap, Christ in the City and Young Catholic Professionals are popular with this age group. Lamont said young adult ministry cannot thrive, however, if shouldered exclusively on the diocesan level. It must rather be its own area of focus at each parish or small cluster of parishes.

“We need to be offering spaces for young adults to dialogue, to (share) the very hard questions that they’re having, because, you know what, they’re having them without the church,” Lamont said. “So we can either be a part of that or we can let them go.”

“All the while, you have a paid, educated lay ecclesial minister who is there to help them navigate those challenging questions, who is there to say, ‘Your voice is important to our parish’; who can go to folks in the parish and say, ‘We need young adults on the parish council; we need young adults who are present in the liturgy; they also need a voice in the songs that are chosen.’”

Called to help young church

A native of Rochester, New York, Lamont, 38, said her interest in youth and young adult ministry took root during her graduate school years at Fordham University. After interviewing her parish’s youth minister for a class assignment, Lamont was surprised to learn that most of the group’s time was spent “hanging out,” with the teens leading the way in the programming. 

“I’m asking the youth minister all these doctrine questions, and he was like, ‘Why don’t you just come see what we do?’” said Lamont, who landed her first youth ministry position at St. William the Abbot Church in Seaford, New York. The year-long post revealed that teens craved working alongside their elders in the full range of parish ministries and designing their own Scripture nights, retreats and service opportunities.

“These high school teens taught me how to be a minister just by my listening to them, finding out what their needs were, advocating for them,” Lamont said. “They wanted to do all these things, but there hadn’t been anyone to talk to about it. I was there to make sure the parish recognized them and that they had every opportunity and every door opened to them.”

The subsequent 12 years had Lamont working as a youth and young adult minister in Tampa, Florida, developing a comprehensive confirmation prep program based on her studies at Fordham, and teaching social studies and world religion to public high school and college students.

In 2016, within weeks of joining LIM’s faculty to establish the institute’s new focus area in youth and young adult ministry, a webinar Lamont created, called “New Directions in Youth and Young Adult Ministry,” caught the attention of the USCCB Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, which was assembling a team of lay people to advise U.S. bishops on this important demographic. Lamont was confirmed as the team’s vice chair of resources.

She and her fellow USCCB team members have organized summits, listening sessions and webinars on issues close to the hearts of young adults, such as the environment, violence and immigration. Ministry leaders worldwide are looking forward to October’s Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. Bishops will convene in Rome to examine what the church is doing well – and not so well – in its pastoral care of the young church.

“We believe (this synod) will be a watershed moment, because the church nationally and the church in the world is saying that if there’s one thing we need to start doing, it is investing in our young people,” Lamont said. “Everyone has known this for years, but it hasn’t happened yet. Now, we’re getting the backing.”

Students in Lamont’s “Foundations in Youth and Young Adult Ministry” course include ministers, teachers, parish- and diocesan-based directors, volunteers and parents who simply want more information on communicating with their teens and young adult children. Lamont’s religious education students include catechists, DREs and Catholic school teachers. For information on these and other courses at Loyola’s Institute for Ministry, call 865-3728.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

Loyola prof offers 5 tips for re-engaging young adults in church
By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

It’s a refrain heard repeatedly in Catholic church parishes across the country: We would like to start a ministry for our young adults, but no one will show up. So few of them are in the pews. Why bother?

“We think we’re doing young adult ministry – we think we have this great idea and throw a Scripture night – but no one shows up. So it becomes defeatist, it becomes frustrating,” said Tracey Lamont, an assistant professor of religious studies at the Loyola Institute for Ministry (LIM).

While young-adult mixers and well-crafted programs are great, Lamont said they neglect what this quickly maturing age group really craves: someone to listen to them, answer their big questions, advocate for them and help them identify ways they can put their faith into action.

But how can parishes locate these young adults? What are the keys to a successful young adult ministry?

Lamont offered five tips, ideally carried out by a trained, full-time, parish-based lay ecclesial minister for young adults in collaboration with the pastor:

1. Assemble the group you want to serve.

  • Begin by identifying four or five of your parish’s very active young adults and ask them to invite a few of their friends to your first gathering. Ask these young adults what they would like to see added to parish life and which leadership roles interest them. This group could have a monthly cup of coffee with the pastor.
  • Find ways to plug this core group into existing parish ministries. For example, go to the DRE with a name of a young adult who expressed interest in becoming a catechist, or encourage someone who enjoys singing karaoke to join the choir.
  • Recognize that the lay ecclesial minister is only one person and cannot be the sole recruiter/evangelizer of young adults. “We want lay ecclesial ministers who are able to identify leadership, gifts and potential in other youth and young adults, so that those young leaders can also go out; so that we have a network of mentors, leaders and partners in ministry,” Lamont said.
  • Locate former teens whom you have not seen in church for a while, whether they live locally or out of town. They can be found through social media networking, “but there’s also just picking up the phone and calling them if they were once registered, ever,” Lamont said.
  • Parents often will go to a priest (or would go to the lay minister for young adults, if the parish had one) with concerns about their adult children’s faith lives. Get to know these young adults in informal settings.

2. Find out where young adult Catholics are spending their time and go there.

  • Local programs, such as Christ in the City, Theology on Tap and Young Catholic Professionals, attract young adults in droves. “We already know they‘re there. So if you’re a lay ecclesial minister or a pastor, go there (too)!” urges Lamont. “Tell them you care for them. Tell them how excited you are that they’re there and that you need them in your parish. You need their vibrancy. You need their gifts in your parish to set your parish on fire. They need to be welcomed, and they need to be needed!”

3. Use the resources of Catholic student centers.

  • Build a relationship with the Catholic student center at the colleges your young adults are attending, even those located out of state. Keep in touch with your young adults and help them match their talents to a ministry that needs them. Follow up with the campus chaplain.
  • Meet young adult Catholics at events and liturgies held at local Catholic student centers. Invite them to an occasional Mass in your parish. Even if they don’t end up attending Mass there every Sunday, they might show up for an occasional parish event or become involved in a ministry. If the ministry of interest doesn’t exist, encourage the young adult to form his or her own.
  • Look for other ways to spur collaboration between your parish and local Catholic student centers. For example, your pastor or parochial vicar could visit campus to celebrate Mass or give a talk; or your Men’s Club could invite the college students to work with them on a service project. Conversely, the parish could seek out young adults who need service hours, research materials or professional experience.
  • Reach out to young-adult Catholics whose college or trade school might not have a campus ministry and to those who entered the workplace directly after high school graduation.

4. Remember: Hospitality is key as young adults form their identities apart from their parents.

  • Alert your parish’s ministers of hospitality to expect some new faces at Mass, give the ministers their names, and ask them to welcome them by name. Ask your pastor to introduce them at Mass.

5. Don’t be afraid to find and serve Catholics “in the margins.”

  • There are Catholic young adults struggling with homelessness, incarceration, single parenthood and addiction who feel completely disconnected from their faith. Encourage your parish’s young adults to form a ministry to assist them.
  • Ask those who operate centers of art and music if they have noticed anyone struggling in their lives who might want to have coffee. “(The conversation) doesn’t have to be about faith,” said Lamont, citing one group of young adults dedicated to mentoring their peers at music clubs. “(The lay ecclesial minister for young adults) will hit dead ends, but always say, ‘Where am I going to go next? Where did Jesus go next?’”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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