Monday, July 20, 2015

OK, Young Lay Ecclesial Ministers: Please Help Us Understand You

I've pretty much been watching the recent blog thread on how the Church should embrace the gifts of younger leaders from millennials Jonathan Sullivan, Timothy O'Malley and Colleen Reiss Vermuelen from the sidelines. This has been a bit challenging to us older folks - especially those of us who were unaware we were being perceived as suspicious or non-accepting.

Certainly I agree we need to value each other's gifts - that's a given. Each person who dedicates their life and gifts to service in ministry feels a distinct call to do so, which should of course be honored. As to us letting you show you what you can do - I'm somewhat less enamored. To me, that sounds like a need to prove something, rather than simply to engage in the hard work of doing the will of God in each situation in a collaborative manner and growing organically to become a respected leader in ministry.

Believe me, acceptance was just as difficult for many of us when we started out, even for those of us who began ministry in mid-life. In the late 1980's when I started, even though I had an ecclesial degree, I had to "prove" to people of my parish that I could be the liturgy coordinator. They had never seen a lay woman who was not a religious sister in ministry. (My pastor finally had to tell people from the pulpit: "In matters of the Liturgy, Joyce speaks for me.") Later, it took me almost four years to prove to some people in the parish where I became the DRE and director of liturgy that I was not one of those "uppity" women who wanted to be ordained! More recently, though I have always been a writer, I was not "recognized" on a non-local level until about a year ago. So, don't feel picked on. This is not all about generational differences. It's actually more about being "new" to the ministerial community and possibly about the impatience of youth. (ducking!)

Here is my challenge to younger leaders. Indeed, let us learn from you - but not just about the operational points of ministry. I know for a fact you have great ideas. Instead, sit with us in the circle of community. Let us learn from you how God is calling people into lay ministry today. You have a different story to tell - and it is a necessary one to an understanding of the story of the Church in the USA. We older folks DO have a need for you to tell us about yourselves. We honestly don't know - and that's why some may have a hard time accepting you. Sherry Weddell has said the first threshold is trust. It's hard to trust someone whose experience appears to be very different.

Let me explain. Maybe I'm not the norm, but my (very) slight degree of disconnect with younger people in ministry is my lack of a frame of reference for their vocation. Pretty much every middle-aged and older catechetical leader I know tells a similar story: none of us actually planned to do this with our lives. Rather, God called many of us, from something else, through a series of situations. Those with ecclesial degrees, mostly went "back to school."  In other words, it's often been a case of giving up another agenda in favor of service to the Church.

A popular meme of many in the older generation of ministers is "This was not my plan, but apparently it was God's idea all along."  Often, there is a great deal of Paschal Mystery involved - dying to old priorities and rising to new - widowhood, divorce, unexpected request from a pastor at the departure of a previous leader.That's why local, diocesan-sponsored lay ministry formation programs, local university cohorts and online learning are needed for those who did not or could not become qualified by traditional academic experience as young people.

What I most want to hear from this new generation of leaders who chose to go to college and major in theology, catechetics, liturgy or something else ecclesial  early in life, is how does it feel to choose this intentionally as a young person?  How is this, for your generation, a divine calling, and not simply a "career choice?" I am certainly not at all suggesting it is not a divine call. I just want to know how this works when God calls a young person. I want to hear the Christ-centered theological reflections that help me understand how this is as real for you as a divine call as it is for me -and how a young person's ecclesial vocation is part of an ongoing path of conversion. (And no, you don't need to prove your authenticity - just tell me how it works!)

In my experience, some people in the "older generation," especially those with a background as school teachers who took this path as career choice early in life, have (how do I put this nicely?) an institutional bias, and may, in their later years, have developed a "staleness" and a tendency to cling to old models.  In contrast, many who have felt a strong mid-life conversion-based call to catechetical ministry are more open to new models and methods, if the impetus for these seems to be coming from the Holy Spirit. This is because, through their response to their call to the vocation of catechesis, they have been opened up to God.  Yes, these are all generalizations, but this, in some way, reflects my experience. I so want it not to be true for this new generation.

So, please tell me. How does an early vocation work? Did you grow up admiring other catechetical leaders or theologians and want to emulate them? Or, did you, too, start out doing something else and then God "yanked" you into this? When did you know this was what you wanted to do? Was all of this pretty organic? Where does the vocation of a young person come from, if not through the changes and demands of Paschal Mystery?  Help us "old folks"out.  Many of us have been sharing stories of our convoluted paths to ministry for years. This has been an important part of what the first generations of post-Vatican II lay leaders have brought to the conversation.

Millennial leaders: it's time for you to update the community story. Help us to know how you fit in. We bring the history and context, you bring the energy and the current landscape of ministry - and what is possibly a different way of living ministerial vocation. Help us discover together the continuity in the ongoing story that is the Church. Please don't just demand to be accepted and allowed to show us what you can do. In most cases we have already seen that - and it's more than impressive.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful response and gentle challenge, Joyce!

    Honestly, I don't view this as (necessarily) a generational thing. I'm more interested in how organizational cultures are mitigating against the inclusion of young leaders as such. As someone pointed out on Twitter, major corporations are putting 20- and 30-somethings into top leadership roles; why isn't that reflected in the Church?

    I do appreciate your invitation to share our stories. One reason I think young Catholic lay ministers may be reluctant to do so is that we're still trying to figure out what it means to choose ministry as a vocation from the beginning. In some ways we don't need opportunities to share our stories, but space for discerning what our stories are and mean. I have a strong suspicion our experience of the Paschal Mystery is very different from "second career" lay ministers.

  2. I agree - this is very possible, but dialogue would uncover that - and perhaps provide forums for discernment to begin or progress. I'm not sure everyone in my generation knows how their vocation works! The ones who are not "second career" - with roots in Catholic education are perhaps just as disconnected from the concept of a catechetical ministry as a sacred vocation. They also may be the ones most resistant to innovation.

    I have run into another disturbing practice - that of deferring potential younger leaders (and presenters) until later, with a preference for using the wisdom-figures while we still have them. The line is something like, "Let's wait and let (young person) mature and see what they are like later." In an institute that values history and tradition, I guess I should not be surprised.

    Anyway, dialogue is good. I already have two invitations - one for Google hangouts where some younger ministry folks are apparently participating - and the other from Tim - to begin to hear from his Echo program students. This is a all good.

  3. My name is Kate and I am a 27yr old military spouse and mom of 3 kids. I graduated from the University of Dayton with a BA in Religious Studies, the degree I declared freshman year and have a MA in Religious Education from Felician College. I have worked as an Adult Faith Formation Coordinator and am presently working Felician's new institute for religious studies and education ministry (thank goodness for telecommunication!)
    My story of vocation comes from a place of curiosity and quest for knowledge. From the time I was a small child I was fascinated by the liturgy. My parents talk about how I learned my Faith by asking "who, what, when, where, how, and most of all, why?" I carried this appetite for theology throughout my youth. In high school, I encountered my first "doctor of theology" in my freshman year theology class. The light bulbs went crazy. It was the first time I realized that my passion for religion could be more than a hobby or interest. It could be a life.
    As I've grown and developed, both as a person and a young theologian, I've felt God pulling me toward different ministries, including my ministry to my family and the families that I interact with.
    Presently, my main ministry is just that, family ministry. My work is also ministry, though it is all online at this point. I also see myself as uniquely as a military spouse. I have an intimate understanding of military life , it's joys and trials, which have been shaping how I think about theology, hierarchy, obedience, authority and structure. I have also been blogging and reflecting on raising our daily awareness of God's presence in our lives.

    So for me, my vocation journey started as a child. Perhaps because of that, I have had a habit of being open to God's calling. I don't think I've struggled a whole lot, My love of learning propelled me and continues to do so. The more I learn, the more I believe, the more I question and the more I am convinced that my life will always be ministry in some form.

    I hope you get more responses, it's a great question
    God bless

  4. Hi, Kate (I think I remember you working with University of Dayton VLCFF, perhaps?)

    Great sharing... I think your parents must have done a lot of things right - and your vocation is, in part, the fruit of them taking seriously their call to be their children's first catechists. That is fascinating to me, because we hope that parents will do that. To be building in a child the kind of curiosity about faith that persists into young adulthood is no easy thing.

    Your commitment to taking that seriously is also major, because when you were old enough to "own it", you did. Your continued commitment in some form, in harmony with where you are currently called in terms of vocation, is a wonderful testimony. Keep it up. God will send you where he intends you to be. You seem like the kind of person who will accept those challenges over your lifetime and step up to them. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Here's my convoluted (and on-going) call to ministry:

    Thank you for the invitation :-)

    1. Thanks, Colleen! I do think it's important to share the stories (useful as it is to mine the stats and trends.)

      In the interest of fairness, parts of my own story have been posted all along on this blog... Short form:

      I grew up as a semi-churched protestant with heavy Methodist and Unitarian influence, married an inactive Catholic. I was an English major in college, got the MA, but ended up ABD because my husband switched majors and finished a year before I would have completed my thesis and PhD. When we moved to an area with few professional jobs, I worked as a customer service rep in a factory until I had my first child, then stayed home with my kids.

      I joined the Church through the RCIA when it came time for my children to learn about their faith. I sang in the choir and helped on the liturgy committee - but ended up, through a volunteer opportunity that became a doorway, coordinating a diocesan liturgy office part time for a couple of years.

      I went back into the workforce after my divorce, my full-time job became executive secretary to the Vicar for Clergy - with that liturgy office oversight on the side. I went back to school to get a degree through a LIMEX cohort. A couple years later, I was tagged to become the part-time liturgy coordinator at my parish, and after several more years and a long search, was hired as a parish DRE and director of liturgy. After 4 years at that parish, I ended up, because of incompatibility with a new pastor (that's putting it nicely!) leaving to work for the Diocese of Joliet Religious Education Office.

      The spiritual autobiography behind this can be read here;

      I do feel that sharing stories is an important part of getting to know one another.. They help us learn from each other who we are and how God calls each person. I think many of us older people don;t have a clue how much we do have in common with young leaders. When we realize how much we share, it becomes easier not to feel like we have to circle warily around one another.

      So far, in this space, we have one young person who admits maybe he needs more discernment, one person who came organically to the ministry through the examples of others and a steady inner prompting, and one whose story is as complicated as any of us second-career types. But what we really have is the beginning of a shared story.

      Thank you all for your responses.