I am an accidental youth minister. After many years as an editor, two stints as a director of religious education and a relocation to Wisconsin, I am three years into my current position. These days I stay up late on mission trips and confirmation retreats instead of burning the midnight oil to write articles on Catholic social teaching. Now I use Facebook more than Photoshop and refer to the Urban Dictionary more than Merriam-Webster.
I have worked for the church my entire professional life—25 years—and thought I had seen just about everything possible in parish life. What I did not glean from interviews with national church leaders and veteran “people in the pews,” I figured I knew firsthand as an overcommitted church volunteer myself.
In 2006, however, I accepted a job as a parish director of religious education and got the education of my life. Jesus may have said, “The harvest is plentiful, laborers are few.” But Dwight Eisenhower put it more precisely for parish workers when he said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.” As one who now toils in the fields of parish ministry, I see two bracing challenges.
First, most people have no clue about the myriad maddening details or the continuous drain on energy and attention that go into running a local parish. I have gained new respect for parish priests, seeing the hours they keep, the expectations people have of them and the way they are pulled 10 different directions each day. Expectations of pastors are passed on to the parish staff.
The local parish is not a typical workplace; the detailed work you are paid to do is constantly interrupted by people seeking many different things. Nor are parishioners the kind of clientele you encounter in other lines of work. I once heard a speaker say: “Nobody goes to the drive-up window at the bank and tells the manager, in fine detail, how to run her business. But parishioners do that to trained church staffpeople all the time.”
Second, the distressing disintegration of family life shows up in living color at the parish: Many families are in financial trouble; many face the ripple effects of divorce and rocky remarriages. The needs strain a social-services safety net that includes parishes and schools. Few seem to understand the insidious way competition and consumerism erode the foundation of family life. Ironically, in a quest to give their children the best of everything, busy families rarely sit down together any more to eat a meal or go to Mass. Time together means driving a minivan to sporting events and music practices, everyone too occupied with iPods, cellphones and Disney DVDs to converse. As a parish minister, I see a generation of distracted children and harried parents who need repeated reminders to sign up for programs, hesitate to commit themselves to participate and expect endless flexibility. It is as if the parish has become a commodity instead of a community.
Despite those challenges, I truly enjoy being a youth minister, particularly when I can interact directly with teens. I love hunting for new ways to touch their tender hearts and slightly cynical minds, opportunities to showcase the everyday wisdom of the Catholic faith and the reality of God’s unrelenting love. Somehow I am able to earn their honesty, respect and trust. I would like to think it is because I try to approach them from the start with honesty, respect and trust, instead of phoniness or agendas. Listening has turned me into their emissary and advocate among the other adults who populate their world—not in a doting, hovering-helicopter parent way but in a manner that challenges teens to rethink their assumptions.
Teenagers challenge my assumptions, too, and keep me on my toes. We remind each other to laugh out loud and sing along to songs on the radio. Becoming a youth minister has taught me to value a good road trip. Happiness is a carload of teens in lively conversation, as we make our way to a conference or work site. Sometimes the talk turns serious; they ask tough questions or admit to common conflicts with parents, teachers, siblings, peers and significant others. These young people are some of the best traveling companions I have ever had: always entertaining, unusually honest, sometimes vulnerable, typically hopeful.
When the hardest parts of parish work get me down, I find my comfort in the prayer I teach for confirmation (St. Augustine’s “Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit”) and in the breath of fresh air I find in the company of these parish teenagers.