It's a Team Game
Aside from the latest Matt Maher album and the traditional fight to see who has worked with the roughest young people, there is little that youth workers discuss more when they get together than how they interact with others in the Church. Whether it's priests, parents, teachers, volunteers, professionals, or any of the other stakeholders, there is an understanding that our relationship with them is both an important tool and at times a potential minefield.
Many years ago I was working in a diocesan retreat centre and I was asked by the deputy head of one of our client schools why we weren't able to come into school and help the students to embed what they had gained on retreat. My response was that it wasn't our job. We were a link in a chain. We were part of a relay team, and it was now time to hand the baton on for the next stretch of the race. In other words, I told him it was his turn. And like the parents watching their child's first attempt to ride without stabilisers, I stood and watched as he panicked, wobbled and eventually fell over in a heap.
My vision of youth ministry has always been guided by the notion that youth ministers are not the whole picture. Far from being some sort of spiritual Swiss army knife, we are one small part of a larger team. A team which should work in harmony toward the ultimate goal of bringing our young people to an adult faith within the Church.
Anybody who plays on a team will tell you that communications and co-operation are essential. Each part of the team needs to know his own purpose and when he is called upon to step in? When should he leave it to others? How can he make sure that he is backing up his team mates appropriately? The successful player knows the answers. The over-zealous or incompetent players don't. Those opposing roles bring equal harm. Mavericks who try to score from midfield when they could easily pass to a striker are equally as damaging to the team as the person whose lack of concentration makes him lose the ball to a weak tackle.
You'll be glad to know that I'm done with the sporting analogies now. You'll be equally glad that I didn't fly like a bee to honey in the direction of St. Paul and his 'all parts of one body.' Way too obvious. Though both make the same point very well. Both fit our purposes, and tell us how youth work can better be done.
There are a fair few key players in the work of ministering to youth, each with their own gifts and opportunities, and each with their limitations. I am bound to miss one out, and probably miss some vital facets of some of the roles. I am equally likely to be accused of subconsciously adopting some kind of ranking system. Fear not, however. What appears below is far from comprehensive, and is listed in no particular order, other than the order in which I think of something to say. I have also not made God a specific agent, as much as one who acts through and in all of the others. Hopefully my backside is now covered. Got it?... Good! Let's get going….
At the heart of youth ministry is the young person him/ herself. He (let's make our young person male, for fear us abusing my forward-slash button) is the only person who can choose to follow the path of faith. He is the one who must let what he experiences in any arena sink in and be reflected upon. He can choose to listen or ignore. He can choose to contribute to the process or to put obstacles in its way. He can choose to respond to the offer of a growthful relationship or to brush it aside. If we believe in free will and personal spirituality, then we have to believe that he (aside from God) is in the driving seat more than any other agent.
The young person himself is limited by his lack of experience and knowledge and also limited by his immature capacity to judge and to make decisions. We don't let young people vote, we don't let them work full time, we don't let them become MPs and we don't let them adopt children. This is because we recognise that their judgment and knowledge have not yet matured. In ever decreasing proportions, they need boundaries and limitations until they reach maturity. They are at the point which most clearly illustrates the model of a church in which human beings were left the task of passing on the faith from one to the next. Catechesis isn't innate. It takes those who can embody and represent the Fidei Depositum to deliver and encourage it's growth. Young people need the raw knowledge of those who are older. They need the guidance of those who have drawn conclusions and made mistakes. They need the boundaries, and often the sanctions, drawn by those who have experienced and understood the dangers that they have not.
Next we have the parents. I am not trying to put these in order, but these first two are probably in order of importance. Doubtless we can have an interesting debate about which should be number one, and which number two. I've opted to put parents second, but I'd happily hear the case for switching.
Parents are the first and primary educators of their children. The teaching of the Church and of individuals Conferences of Bishops' give verbal expression to this fact by coining phrases such as Primary Educators and Domestic Church. Useful, true terms. Both legally and morally, parents have the primary responsibility for their children until the age of 18, and in some respects even beyond that. If something goes awry, it is the parents who will be looked at first. By and large, if the home life is supportive and loving, the young person will turn out okay. The reverse is also true. Parents set the tone more than any others. They are copied more than any others. They are listened to more than any others. Indeed, their actions and attitude will imprint the very personality of the young person. No other agent has that kind of scope.
All of the other players in the picture of ministering to youth must defer to the parents. They don't always do so, but legally and morally they should. There is a (controversial) case to be made for the supplementation of a poor upbringing, or the contradiction of unhelpful teaching in the home. On occasion, a state will decide that the parenting is just so poor that a child needs to be removed and placed under different care. But in general terms, we have to work in a way which respects and defers to the parents. And not just because they sign the permission slips.
If parents have their limitations, they are probably to be found in the fact that once the teenage years come around, parents have normally lost the cool-factor with their kids. For pre-teens, their parents are the oracle on just about everything. Whether parents like it or not though, in teenage years their children will look to other sources for the truth about life. They will decide that learning about the world should happen in the world rather than in the home. This isn't the case for every young person, but you only have to see how many children grow up wildly different from their parents to realise that it's a pretty widespread norm. Parents are charged to respond to this by considering their partnership with other agents as life-giving and helpful, challenging what is wrong and affirming what is good. Ultimately it remains a truth that if they raise their children with love and values then, rebellious phases notwithstanding, they will probably end up rejecting what's bad and remaining with what's good.
Getting in to the 'in no particular order' section, first off we have peers of young people. In other words, we're talking about young people themselves here, but in relation to how they minister to one another rather than in relation to their own spiritual development. I'm not talking about all of a young Catholic's friends and acquaintances, but rather those who themselves are Catholic. Catholic friends of Catholic young people have an influence and therefore they also have a responsibility, a ministry.
The limitation of peers is that they don't have the breadth of knowledge and experience. Their friends will know this and won't place a great deal of trust in them much of the time. The advantages though are huge. The example of a Catholic life lived out in practice will be more powerful in a peer than in any other agent. If a youth worker tells a young person about his prayer life, moral choices or relationship with the sacraments then we have to admit that realistically, it will have a very hit-and-miss effect. If a friend models these things, then it becomes far more acceptable. It becomes the norm. It becomes cool, and that's why cracking peer evangelisation is such a holy grail in youth work.
Next, we'll tackle the clergy. Parish Priests, especially have a huge role to play, and a role that is often misunderstood. I was talking to a Vocations Director recently who told me that the understanding of the priesthood among Catholics is often wildly wrong. Priests are not there to organise parishes or to direct the Church's lay workers. Priests are the ministers of Word and Sacrament. Their role is vital to the Church and to the economy (dispensing, passing on) of that which Christ left for us.
Priests are in the best position to connect young people to the riches - spiritual, dogmatic, sacramental - of the Church. They represent a formal, structural link with the heritage we all represent. Others assist in this work, but it is the Priest's task above all to look after the ministry in his parish. The work of other ministers in the parish flows from his own work and can never be separate or at odds with it. At least in the modern context, priests were the original Catholic youth workers.
If priests have a disadvantage it would be that they cannot offer an example of a lay life lived 'in the real world.' They can set norms and teach concepts regarding lay life, but in some cases they are greatly benefited by the lay ministry of those who can model what they offer in a similar context to that experienced by their young parishioners.
Another disadvantage priests have is that they cannot bi-locate. Perhaps Padre Pio could, but the rest of them can't be in two places at once. It is grossly unfair that the laity will often expect them to do so.
Perhaps the expectancy that Priests will do everything for us comes from this misunderstanding of their office. Or perhaps it is a matter of convenience, arranged neatly (by either side) to stop the laity from having to do more in their communities than simplyreceiving. Priests need others to help and assist them. Our work must flow from theirs, but on the other hand, our work must flowfrom theirs. If that makes sense? The days of parishes with even two or three priests are long gone.
Though the office of priest does not ontologically include the role of administrator and overseer, it would be short-sighted to ignore the practical reality. The fact is that parish priests hold the purse strings. They have the final say on hiring and firing. They make the ultimate decisions. This is all crucial stuff. This has always been a part (though informal and varied at times) of the Church's practical and canonical understanding of priesthood, and is certainly a reality of parochial life. Priests make the decisions about everything in the parish. Therefore they need to have an informed overview in order to best serve their role.
There is a lot that's missing from this section. I have tried to make it short and snappy and therefore a lot has been assumed and glossed over. I have also neglected to mention liturgical aspects as well as the fact that the Priest's ministry flows from that of the Bishop, as does that of any Deacon who assists him.
Moving on swiftly brings us to volunteer parish youth workers. Though they are not in the frontline of those who minister to young people, they are the first wave of attack among those who call themselves youth workers. They are the unsung majority of those with that title. They give their time willingly to youth ministry in their parishes and they try their best to master the skills and to take on the knowledge of the discipline which they have engaged.
Their advantages are numerous. They know the community and its young people well. Even before they start their work, they're part of the parish and so they know its history, politics, family and the area in which it finds itself. They build up positive relationships with young people and their families Their membership of the parish means that they can be advocates for its young people when the need arises. Their voluntary work also means that they have the respect of the community for giving to it so generously. There is simply so much to be gained by members of a community standing up and taking responsibility for (at least a large part of) the way that community ministers to its young people.
The disadvantages faced by part-time volunteers stem from the fact that they have other jobs and commitments in life, which naturally have to come first. For this reason, they can't give the time needed to learn the disciplines associated with youth work in the depth that a professional might. They can't arrange and organise complex events, session and syllabuses, and they can't be expected to maintain an awareness of the latest developments, requirements, resources and techniques. Many parish volunteer youth workers will also come into their role with little or no experience. Hence, support is needed. It is only fair and correct to say that a great many parish volunteers will become very good indeed at what they do. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to expect them to move mountains all by themselves. They need the support of priests and others in the community, and they need resources to draw upon.
Full time paid parish youth workers are a rarity in the UK, although they are far more common in other places. Sadly, when they are employed in England & Wales they are often (though not always) poorly managed, trained and supported. They are expected to transform everything within a matter of weeks and they often find the minefield of parish politics and expectations to be very difficult to traverse. If used correctly though - and if they have the proper skills when they arrive - professional parish youth workers can be incredibly effective.
I used to think that full time professional youth workers should not be needed in a parish, but I have since changed my tune. Or at least I have been convinced that while the members of a parish running that parish entirely on their own initiative is the ideal, in reality it is very unlikely to happen in most of our parishes anytime soon. I recognise - and love - the fact that there are many parishes where lay people have got it all sorted, so to speak. They divide up the tasks well, they pay attention to learning the skills needed, and they run things with creativity and diligence. These parishes are great. They're also few and far between, and so it stands to reason that a parish priest or parish council might see the wisdom in bringing in a full time paid professional.
The advantages of full time paid professional parish youth workers are simply that they can give more time and more skills. They have the scope to organise, learn and work with greater diligence and in greater depth. They can be expected to have resources at their fingertips for music, catechesis, programme material, games and many other things. More than that, they can put time into developing resources. They can give the time to staying on top of new developments in their field and they can also bring a vas amount of knowledge and expertise to their role.
The disadvantages faced by full time professionals in parishes include the fact that they are not from the parish. They, therefore, have to get to know a community quickly and effectively in order to discern how best to meet their needs. They also have the potentially hazardous task of fitting into a community and affecting change without putting anybody's nose out of joint, or as it's known in the Catholic Church, Mission Impossible!
Another disadvantage faced by paid workers is that they are not volunteers and don't have the cache that comes with giving their time for free. The irony is that many paid workers in the Church give far more hours per week than they are contracted for. I was once privy to a discussion between a paid parish worker and some other members of the community. One person commented that the paid worker was the only person in the room who wasn't there voluntarily and for free. The paid worker then asked that person how many hours he had given to the Church that week. 'At least five,' came the proud reply. The paid worker then pointed out that he was about ten hours over his contracted tariff that week, and that this was the case most weeks. Once the enquirer realised that his 'voluntary' hours had been far outstripped he became rather quiet and despondant.
This is the case with most paid youth workers in the Church. They give far more hours than they are legally meant to, or indeed allowed to in many cases. In fact, many parish volunteers are often paid workers of some kind in other parts of the Church. I am a paid professional youth worker, yet I am also a volunteer youth worker in a local parish, a local monastery and in my diocese. Often professionals are the most prolific volunteers, ironic and controversial as that may seem. Sadly though, this is rarely recognised and professionals sometimes have to content with the stigma of being a bit mercenary.
While we're on the subject of professionals, it's worth looking at youth officers who work at Diocesan and Deanery level. Their role is less pastoral and more administrative. They don't run youth groups as much as parish workers. Rather, they are there more to support and enable parish workers, as well as to run diocesan level events and organise parties to World Youth Day and other large events. Those working at higher (organisationally higher) level are in a position to keep their eyes on things that others might not be able to track at ground level, such as the goings on at the Holy See and/ or World Youth Day. They can organise large diocesan/ regional events at which young people can meet hundreds of others from around the diocese. They can take groups to World Youth Day or organise larger parties for other international events. A parish worker couldn't do this with the same dynamic.
Diocesan and Deanery youth workers can also provide training and support to parish youth workers in situations where the volunteers haven't been able to fill the gap left by having a professional on board. This gap isn't always there (note my use of the phrase in situations where) but when it is, the people in these posts should provide support if required. It varies a great deal depending on the area, the diocese, the job description, the individual and the nature of the parish, but it is possible and useful. This may mean starting a youth group, tutoring local volunteers, coming in for a consultation, or in some cases stepping in and tackling a situation that's causing problems.
RE teachers and others working in ministry roles in Catholic schools, have a role to play that is removed from the regular structures of the Church (i.e. parish, family, diocese). They have a great many young people to work with, many of whom won't be Catholic, and they have many different needs to differentiate and meet. The role of RE teachers is to provide formal catechesis. The role of Chaplains is to provide pastoral support and youth ministry within the context of the school. Both of these roles are helped by the great deal of access they have to young people. Both are hindered by the fact that their role is tertiary and limited. They are also tied to a system, which young people will often see as formal, disciplined and rigid. Divorced from their real lives and their real search for truth. In other words, school based ministry will often failed if not supported by the other elements. This support is all the more crucial since the agents in schools are often not in regular contact with the other agents. They should be, but they're often not. Those in schools can do a lot of good, but they are limited by their distance from other agents at times.
Let's run quickly now through the rest. It's not that these are any less important or that I can think of less to say. It's just that I've been at this article for a few weeks now and I really want to get it out…
The Universal Church (i.e. Rome) has an important role to play in that it safeguards and protects the deposit of faith. It sets norms for the teaching of the faith and the conduct of the faithful, and it is the symbol of unity and of catholic identity. Big 'C' and little 'c'. The major disadvantage that Rome has - and this is a huge thing - is that it's not on the ground. Rome will never be able to explain and animate it's own teaching in the context of a young person's individual life, experiences, questions and journey. Some young people will come across Church documents and will find that they really strike a chord, but these young people are few and far between. Most need a pastor or minister of one kind or another who walks alongside them to make it all real.
Individual baptised Catholics all have a role to play in the Church by virtue of their baptism. In a manner of speaking, they are the Church (okay, okay… I know… but you know what I mean, right?). They have a responsibility to every other Catholic, every other human being, and perhaps especially to every Catholic in the formative years of their faith. Their disadvantage is that they have no formal role whatsoever, and their scope will be limited. Their advantage is that they can offer a simple witness of the everyday, given not by virtue of a role they hold but, well, just because. A surprising amount of young people, when asked who inspired them in their faith, will say that it was a parishioner who had no particular role with them.
Specialist agencies within the Church aren't there specifically to minister to the young. Rather they have a very certain job to do. That's the point. From time to time though, they can aid in giving young people a specific concrete way to explore and live their faith. Their disadvantage is obvious: their narrow scope. Their advantage is that they just might be the spark that sets a young person's faith on fire. CAFOD in the UK are one such specialist agency. They exist to work with those in need oversees, not to do youth work. But they decided long ago that educating people about the issues they tackled was not merely an aid to their work, but rather a key strand of it. The amount of young people in the UK who are regularly inspired by CAFOD bears constant testimony to the place that specialist agencies have in youth ministry. They are not essential and not front line, but they can really change lives!
Youth centres and mission teams, I suppose, exist to give a boost to faith and a boost to a school, parish, or deanery etc in it's ministry towards its young people. These organisations should never be front line, though the reality is that they quite often are. Their disadvantage is that they are only a temporary, short term, tertiary, supplementary injection. Their advantage is that, sometimes - sometimes - that can make all the difference.
I am going to stop there, because this could go on all year. There is so much left unsaid in this article and so many threads left hanging. There are probably so many agents left untackled too. The reality is that you could probably write a book on each and every one of the agents mentioned above, and even then still not nail the thing in its entirety. What I offer here is the most brief of thought starters. Hopefully it will do just that.