by Amanda Gallear and Msgr. Joseph Kerrigan
At a recent Mass here, a survey was cited with reasons why people ages 16 to 29 are not going to church. And, fittingly, there was no one in that age group to hear! Older folks are often heard lamenting the lack of youth at Sunday Mass. Yet, in separate conversations, younger folks snicker to each other about how dull or backwards the church is with so many old people.
In the wider world, statistics show that baby boomers and millennials should be sharing conversations, decisions, and many other aspects of daily life. According to the U.S. Census, it is estimated that there are about 81 million boomers and 84 million millennials; that’s approaching a 1:1 ratio.
Over the last decade we have begun to find that balance in our parish staffing. In 2004, our pastor was the second youngest member of an older parish staff, and the youngest was only four years his junior. By 2013, he has “aged” drastically; he’s now the third oldest. In fact, 60 percent of our full-time parish staff are now under the age of 24.
We began making changes to our staff around the same time that we realized we needed to restart our religious education program from scratch. In 2004 our program had dwindled to 48 students; by the decade’s end we were at 300. This growth was the result of guidance from two parish leaders who were not yet 26 years old. We needed to make religious education more about energy and flexibility, and who better to advise that process than those who had recently completed it?
The emphasis on our youth group has produced some of the strongest leaders in our parish. When new staffing positions open up, we don’t have to look far for the perfect candidate. Investing in our youth is an investment in the well-being and future of our parish. At our confirmation liturgies, we remind our youth that if they take this sacrament to heart, the celebration and impact for the parish can really be labeled “under new management.”
The church as a whole seems to clamor for more youth involvement. But when we really tried to make changes in our parish, like pointedly asking young people to come aboard and help re-invent parish life, there wasn’t exactly cheering in the pews.
At first there was a fair amount of uncertainty, polite resistance, and resentment. Who are these kids? What do they know? For a time, the established staff seemed to pretend the younger newcomers did not exist; younger staff members felt condescension and were subjected to various patronizing comments. We had a lot of meetings to clarify and soothe feelings, and eventually we came to see each other as assets.
We made these changes because our parish demographics have changed: 75 percent of our parishioners are Latino and under the age of 35. It only made sense for us to change our leadership model to fit our congregation. And if we want to retain these younger parishioners, we need to continue encouraging their deeper involvement in parish life. Although our charism for youth empowerment came out of an experience specific to our parish’s needs, the benefits of encouraging youth involvement would be a welcome change to any parish.
Read the full article, Bridging the Generational Divide on Parish Staffs