Youth ministry: grasping the challenge

  • October 23, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - As a leader in Catholic youth ministry for nine years, Melissa Delaney knows the challenges of the trade firsthand.

Now a part-time youth minister at Holy Redeemer parish in Kanata, Ont., Delaney says one of the nagging issues for people working with youth has always been getting across the importance of the ministry.

“Some people think youth ministry is just using youth to set up events, as free labour,” Delaney said. “It’s about trying to evangelize young people, not just present them Jesus Christ, but encourage them to form a personal relationship with Jesus.” 

Now 27 years old, Delaney said some of the challenges she faced from the beginning, when she was almost the same age as the teens she works with now, came from a need to adjust in the way she related to them.

“It was hard to adjust to being a teacher and a disciplinarian,” she said. “But the hardest thing in relational ministry is time — becoming friends with them is important.”

Youth ministers across the country encounter similar struggles, which is one of the reasons behind the Canadian Catholic Youth Ministry Network’s nationwide survey this past year. The survey was to try and improve the ministry of those working with youth in their parishes. It aimed at creating a “common language” for youth ministers to understand their own behaviour and interactions within ministry and to find out if youth ministers are getting the support they need.

“It’s difficult to seize the portrait of youth ministry in Canada and I wanted to do something tangible to give to people about who they are as a collective,” said Fr. Daniel Renaud, a professor at Saint Paul University in Ottawa who teaches a theology course in youth ministry.

Renaud developed the survey along with Dr. Christian Bellehumeur, also a professor at Saint Paul, and Dr. Martine Lagacé, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

Renaud told The Catholic Register the survey showed that youth ministers generally fit into four ministerial roles which he has classified as the teacher, the therapist, the surrogate parent and the star. He said youth ministers usually do well when they can incorporate more than one ministerial role in their interactions and hopes to establish an evaluation that would allow youth ministers to determine where they can improve.

 One thing on the survey which surprised him was the high rating responders gave regarding the quality of their self-care and outside support, when burnout is generally seen as a problem among youth ministers. But Renaud pegs the results on the low number of responses — about 140 — completed mostly by full-time paid youth ministers.

“They are probably part of a structured network, which probably isn’t the case for volunteers,” he said.

He is planning to conduct the survey again in the coming months, to get a broader response.

Warren Dungen, the chairperson of CCYMN, which hosted the survey on its web site, said he hopes to conduct more surveys in the future as well, particularly to get a snapshot of the various dioceses and what they are doing and to evaluate the benefits of youth ministry, which varies in format from parish to parish but usually incorporates both social and faith teaching events and meetings.

CCYMN was created in the past few years as a representative network of all diocesan/eparchial youth ministry leaders to advocate for, promote and celebrate youth ministry in Canada, offering two national youth ministry conferences in the past few years.

For many paid and unpaid youth ministers across Canada, support — or the lack thereof — from the parish is still a big issue in delivering what youth need, Dungen said. 

“I know that various youth ministries and personnel have struggled,” Dungen said. “Our hope is that we can bring people together at the diocesan level.”

Some dioceses have a youth director to help co-ordinate youth ministers and volunteers and offer them monthly or informal meetings to share ideas.

In Toronto, the Office of Catholic Youth (OCY) hosts large-scale events to allow youth from parishes and different lay movements to network. This has allowed new youth group leaders to meet and learn from other more experienced youth leaders.

“It’s important for every diocese to have an office that provides support, resources and access to the priests and bishops,” said Christian Elia, OCY director. “There are a lot of parishes that don’t have established youth groups and it’s important they can attend events through us.”

Several times a year, the OCY organizes a day of workshops for anyone involved or wanting to be involved in youth ministry.

In smaller dioceses, the networking is starting to increase, as is the access to certificate programs in youth ministry. However, even with diocesan support, the challenges still exist, front and centre.

Kenny Costa, a university student and volunteer in youth ministry at his church in the archdiocese of Winnipeg, said a misunderstanding of youth ministry’s importance has been a rather large problem for him, as it was for Delaney, as he tried this past year to resurrect a youth group at his church. He said youth ministry competes with all the other clubs and sports in young peoples’ lives — which is part of the problem in getting support from parents who might not see the value in their teen hanging out once a week at the local church.

“Soccer or hockey or anything like that puts a lot of pressure on youth ministry to make sure parents and the parish know this is something important for the whole parish,” he said.

Youth have the passion for doing something church-related even if it’s just sharing some food and having an informal conversation about a different topic in their faith, he adds.

But it’s hard to sustain that passion and have youth thrive in the parish when they don’t have enough financial support or volunteers to help implement their ideas or events. Costa sees a lot of hope for his diocese, however, which recently hired its own youth director, Elizabeth Duggan.

Duggan agrees that youth ministers or co-ordinators have a lot to face in getting enough training and support since youth ministry is “still a baby,” having only begun to develop in the 1970s.

“It’s a large pastoral role,” she said. “There are youth personal needs, parish needs, parents . . . A lot of youth ministers don’t have the best wages either.”

She added that youth ministers need to have a gift with young people.

But another big item on the list of challenges is time. Many full-time and part-time youth ministers say that they can easily put in double the amount of hours they are being paid for. Volunteer youth co-ordinators put in a wide range of hours, but usually dedicate more time in planning bigger events.

Rosemary Ballard has been a youth minister at St. Mary’s Church in Ottawa for the past six years. She counts herself blessed — support from her pastor and from the parish are strong — but admits to working up to 60 or 70 hours a week some times, despite her 35-hour contract.

“I think youth ministry can become all consuming and burnout is something you have to look out for,” she said. “I just really have to watch my energy levels and guard, really well, my days off. I also get compensation time after retreats.”

Many youth ministers, including Ballard, say they find it easier to grow and manage their ministry when they give older teens leadership responsibilities to help them take ownership of the program and provide an extra example to the younger children getting involved.

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