Young Adult Ministry for Dummies

Revitalizing the Church in the US can actually be a really simple process.

This is my fourth of four installments on Catholic Young Adult Ministry, aka YAM. You can catch up on my prior three articles about it, right on this here blog of mine. Installment one (link here), wherein I assert that YAM is for Catholic singles; installment two, wherein I further claim that YAM is important and worth the Church’s time, money, and attention (link here), and installment three (link here) wherein I discuss some common YAM strategic errors.

What if I told you (30 for 30 narrator voice) that in the midst of a national Catholic crisis, there was a lone city in the US where young, independent, free-willed people commonly chose to go to mass on Sunday. In this city, young Catholics socialized in groups together throughout the week, and encouraged each other to weave the faith into their everyday lives.

You’d be surprised, right? As a Catholic, you’d want to examine the Catholic culture in that city and see what was different about it. You’d scrutinize it with hope and excitement, like you’d found a potential cure for cancer. You’d want to try to duplicate the results in other cities. Well, some good news. I’ve found that city, and I’ve done that research for you. That magical city is, of course, San Diego. I’d call San Diego’s Catholic YAM the largest and most successful program in the United States, except I have no facts or data to support that statement in any meaningful way.

I’m not a journalist; this is an opinion piece. Even so, I’m not completely making a blind guess when I say it’s the best diocese for young adults; I’ve lived here 12 years, and for all of those years I was in the young adult age group, and watched it grow, firsthand. Furthermore, many of the young adults in San Diego are not from San Diego, and many of these transplants report that the experience here is entirely better than wherever they came from. So there is at least anecdotal evidence to support the claim that San Diego has the best YAM in the USA.

Sunny San Diego. Great weather, great YAM.

How then, did San Diego get so good at YAM? My answer may be a bit contentious, but it makes sense if you think about it. The secret to getting young people to mass in 2019 is… centralization and consolidation. It is common for YAM to be approached at a parish level, but the fact is that most parishes don’t have nearly enough young people for YAM to work. The solution for our nationwide lack of youth participation just might be for parishes to let go, and pool their resources. Yes, I distrust bureaucracy as much as the next homeschooled, trad-adjacent Catholic, but sometimes you just have to circle the wagons (or 15-passenger vans I suppose, to continue the homeschool theme).

Here’s exactly what happened in San Diego, or my cheapseats view of it anyway (having never actually interviewed any diocesan representative). First, the diocese hired a director of YAM. They created a full time position, just to promote and support YAM in the diocese. That is a great idea, and is step one. It is being tried elsewhere, and I hope it catches on, but what really put it on steroids in San Diego was that for a matter of years, the YAM director happened to be, for whatever reason, particularly present at one, specific, parish. That was not a directive from the diocese that I know of; just happened to be the parish the director belonged to, and, coincidentally, also it was in a great neighborhood that was convenient and attractive for young adult types.

Saint Brigid Parish, looking all fine on Google Street View

That parish was St. Brigid Parish, and it picked up extraordinary momentum with the diocese’s YAM director unofficially headquartered there. Saint Brigid’s became the de facto hub of YAM in San Diego. As the group got larger, it snowballed, and seemed to develop a gravitational force on young adults (and not just Catholics). The shear size of the thing, coupled with excellent, hands-on management by the director made it all work (not to mention of course the Sacraments and the grace of God). Essentially, we had created a YA Cathedral for the entire 8,852 square mile diocese. I’m a lowly WordPress free-version blogger, so I’m not adding firm, citable sources about any of the particulars or politics of how this St Brigid’s arrangement came about, but outside observers like myself would agree that this situation was a known reality.

The results of the centralization of YAM at St. Brigid’s were fantastic – depending on who you ask. I say “depending on who you ask,” because a lot of people (who are wrong) thought that what was going on at St Brigid’s was problematic. Again I say, there had never been a formal plan to make Saint Brigid’s **the** Young Adult parish. And so, some Saint Brigid parish leadership did not like the situation, and neither did certain influential voices elsewhere. Over recent years, both the parish and the diocese made deliberate efforts to spread the focus of YAM, and thus to some extent move it away from St. Brigid’s. The thought was to widen the reach of the ministry, but the more significant result, in my opinion, was merely to pump the brakes on a miracle that was happening, and move backward, toward the same old approach that has been failing for years.

And to me, that is appallingly dumb. We’d discovered a unicorn, and instead of trying to clone it and tell the world about it, somebody decided to have the horn removed, and make it more like a normal horse, and… um, modify its cloven hooves to make them more like horse hooves… I think cloven hooves are a thing that distinguishes a unicorn from a horse? Not that I don’t like horses; that’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Look, using the unicorn analogy was a mistake and that’s all another blog post for another day, so let’s just shelf that and look at my larger point: Centralizing and consolidating YAM, when it was tried, worked extremely well. I’m writing this whole series of blog posts, because I don’t think anybody ever mentions that point.

I think that us Catholics have a healthy distrust of bureaucracy. It’s the principle of subsidiarity, which “holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” Many would look at this principle and conclude that the individual parish is the best unit to handle YAM. I must disagree. YAM is something that simply can’t be done effectively at a parish level (for most parishes), but it can succeed at a wider level. And if that’s true, then the principle of subsidiarity actually would dictate that YAM should be centralized.

For some perspective on my opinion, consider the first post I wrote on YAM. The whole point of that post is that YAM is, more than anything else, a singles group. I contend that one of the most important things that YAM can do for the Catholic faith is provide help in this area. Believe me, there are mountains of angsty Catholic blog articles and podcasts out there about the dating struggles of the modern Catholic, and the difficulties people can have finding other faithful Catholics. Most parishes are far too small address that need. A typical group might get 10 to 15 people, ages ranging 18-39 doing a bible study on a good day… the odds of a match there aren’t too great.

Alternatively, consider Saint Brigid’s at it’s peak; that place would pull in a group of 100 people on a Wednesday in March. Now we’re talking. Today’s young people need a Catholic culture in which to meet each other, even if it has to be a bubble; the actual culture is so very far from bearing any semblance of traditional morality. As much as we hate the idea of a “cultural Catholic”, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are some important things people get from having a reliably huge group of like-minded peers. It is good for development to be able fit in, relax, be yourself, be stupid, and have fun, without seeming like an extremist for simply living out the basics of the faith.

While I think the dating aspect of YAM is the most important, I also think a big group is important for young people in general. When we’re young, we all need to be able to hang out together whenever we want, but not be missed if we don’t show up. It’s how people today are wired. If we can’t have that relationship dynamic among Catholics, then people will naturally go elsewhere to find it. This is why it makes sense that once St. Brigid hit a critical mass, the sheer size became it’s own draw. Young people would often prefer to be in a morally like-minded crowd, rather than a more ideologically diverse crowd, but Catholics usually don’t have that luxury. It’s not a surprise then, that people drift away from the faith once they age out of Sunday school. So let’s do whatever we can to give young Catholics a crowd, to help them stick around.

And that’s my big thesis. In every diocese, they should hire a YAM Director, and have that person babysit one parish (rather than trying to build little YAM groups across a wide area). That will provide a consistent, thriving social scene for young Catholic people, and in turn, draw in more young people. It will save souls, change lives, create marriages, families, and all the good things. Prove me wrong.

Before I sign out, I’m going to fire off some of the common objections, strawman style, and refute said objections like I’m a some kind of debate prodigy or something. Here goes:

  • “I happen to prefer small groups, and don’t like the big group.” Of course! That’s very normal. Here’s the thing: I believe that the large group in San Diego actually spawned the creation of more small groups than ever. People meet at the big groups, who would never have set foot in their local parish. That means there is a giant net increase in active Catholic young adults. So it will naturally follow that these people can form smaller groups with more ease, and will do so more often. A rising tide lifts all ducks, as they say, and so the net increase in participating young people will facilitate more small groups, co-existing alongside the large group.
  • “Having the diocese invest in one parish neglects those who live in more remote locations.” Ok, two things, 1) I grew up in Amish country in Ohio, so I can talk. I had no problem driving 50 miles to everything interesting. I didn’t feel neglected or disadvantaged. I felt like that was simply life. Suck it up, you people out in the boonies. 2) It doesn’t matter how much money you budget to building YAM at a bunch of remote parishes; whatever you accomplish there, would probably have happened anyway without you. Anybody can get a half dozen friends together for a bible study. They don’t need a consultant; that adds no value. Further, many times YAM, isn’t going to take root in a smallish parish, because the handful of YA’s recruited will quickly “graduate” and move onward and upward. It’s quite in the very nature of a young adult to be transitory and fickle. You’ll need to come back in a year and try to jump start the group again. Contrast this to the large group, which still needs continuous administration, but also kicks in quite a bit of its own momentum, once it is running.
  • “It is unfair to the smaller parishes to take away their young people, and it is unfair to the central parish to burden it with the crowd of singles.” It’s not about your parish. It’s about souls. We’re in a crisis, times are changing, and this works now. Get on the team.
  • Why not organize both? Some large events and some smaller ones?  Some dioceses will offer a handful of centralized events, and also do work to promote groups at parish levels. Theology on Tap for example, or an annual retreat. Those are sporadic, and won’t cut it. A few big events is nice, but it’s not a culture. They are just that: events. We need to have a place where it’s happening 7 days a week. Something consistent, dependable, and relatively massive, so people can make the faith a real normal part of life.
  • Jesus only had a handful of close friends.” I’ve started hearing this only in the last year. It’s a garbage point, meant as an excuse for dwindling parishes and poor turnout. Jesus deeply loves every single human soul on earth. A handful of friends? What are you even talking about? And Jesus didn’t have a disdain for crowds either. I mean, He got his alone time, don’t get me wrong, but put in plenty of time among crowds. So for young adults, there’s got to be a big group around. It’ll be nice to know it’s there. Besides, the existence of a large group does not prohibit smaller groups (to reiterate my point earlier) and in fact has the reverse effect. Anyone has the ability to invite a handful of friends to a Bible study. But not just anyone can build and manage a 500 person community in their spare time.
Photo by Manfred Irmer on Pexels.com

Ok, that was one, loooong blog post, but I think I’ve finally managed to land the plane. I hope it is somewhat coherent, and maybe even a little food for thought to you good reader people. Uh… The End.

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