Glimpses of Calls to Ministry

As part of a continuing conversation (1, 2, 3, and 4) on younger generations and ministerial leadership, I’m sketching out some insights into Joyce Donahue‘s offer to younger generations of Catholics, “Let us learn from you how God is calling people into lay ministry today.”

One of the most important axioms I took away from reading Working Hard–And Working Well: A Practical Guide to Performance Management (David E.K. Hunter) is to aim to seek out data and stories when seeking understanding (p. 33-34). A wonderfully told story may be inspirational, but doesn’t necessarily help us know what’s typical. Likewise, all the quantitative data in the world isn’t enough to convey our “contextual,” “nuanced” human reality (aka we’re all too messy to be captured solely through data). [By the way, this book is available as a free download if you’re intrigued…]

With this in mind, I’ll be offering both–a few takes on the quantitative, as well as my own story* (which is, to use Joyce Donahue’s spot-on characterizations, “convoluted” and conversion-filled to say the least).

CARA functionally identifies lay ecclesial ministers (LEMs) as “professional and trained lay persons involved in paid parish ministry for at least 20 hours a week” (lay=not ordained; lay≠less professional/educated/certified/experienced). [Note: I personally have some linguistic concerns with the term LEM–but since most readers are in the U.S. and using USCCB language, we’ll stick with it for the sake of clarity. Plus, I’m in the military so I have an inherent desire to use as many acronyms as possible. J/k 😉 ]

Based on CARA’s most recent blog posts, the average age of a LEM in the U.S. is 55, and roughly 5 percent of LEMs are from the Millennial generation. The average age of an adult Catholic is 45. According to the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry (AGPIM)’s November 2010 Student Survey Report, 12 percent of those in graduate ministry programs were Millennials (defined as post-1983, slightly younger than other metrics which use a 1980 or 1982 start date).

Donahue asks us to consider, how does an early vocation work?” [Note: the average age parish ministers first hear a call to ministry is 29 (see footnote 8)]

Fundamentally, any call works through and with the Holy Spirit. We’re considering the human response side of things here, not trying to measure grace.

In 2012, CARA completed a study, Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics. Overall, 80 percent of male respondents and 74 percent of  female respondents were members of the Millennial generation.

The national study included this question:

A lay ecclesial minister is someone with professional training working or volunteering in a ministry at least part-time for a Catholic parish or other Church organization (for example, director of religious education, pastoral associate, youth minister, campus chaplain, or hospital chaplain). Have you ever considered serving in the Church as a lay ecclesial minister?

Here’s what CARA found among never-married men:

And among never-married women:

Overall, 7% of respondents—male and female combined—said they had ever considered becoming a LEM…A total of 0.9% of respondents indicated that they had considered becoming a LEM and now serve as such already.

This is lower than the 12 percent of male respondents who considered becoming a priest or brother and the 10 percent of female respondents say who considered becoming a religious sister.

Okay, so based on CARA’s regression analysis, what is statistically significant as a positive predictor of someone in a [mostly] Millennial never-married population considering becoming a LEM?

Faith is among the most important or the most important part of life (3.2 times more likely to consider than those not responding as such)

Participated in campus ministry on a college campus (3.1 times more likely to consider than those who did not)

Reads or prays with the Bible or Scripture at least once a week (2.9 times more likely to consider than those who do not)

Has volunteered in a service project in their local community to help people in need (2.6 times more likely to consider than those who did not)

Belongs to a group or organization that encourages devotion to Mary (2.4 times more likely to consider than those who do not)

Self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino/a (2.3 times more likely to consider than those self-identifying as Non-Hispanic white)

Being involved in their parish is “very important” to their sense of what it means to be Catholic (2.2 times more likely to consider than those not responding as such)

Attended Mass at least once a week during high school (2.1 times more likely to consider than those who did not)

Attends Mass at least once a week now (2.1 times more likely to consider than those who do not)

Has a household income of less than $40,000 per year (2.0 times more likely to consider than those with higher incomes)

Participates in multiple Church-related groups, programs, and activities (1.6 times more likely to consider than those who do not)

Despite some perceptions, “Gender is not a statistically significant predictor of considering a LEM vocation once one controls for everything else in the regression model. This means that the general observation that there are fewer male LEMs or fewer men interested in this vocation is attributable to gender disparities in the factors listed above—most likely the combined religiosity or importance of faith reflected in the statistically significant predictors.”

These are all fairly similar to the positive predictors for priestly and religious vocations, however there are some differences in emphasis:

The best education-related predictor of women’s considering a religious vocation was enrollment in Catholic primary school and the best similar predictor for men’s interest in becoming a priest or brother was enrollment in a Catholic secondary school.

But, the best education-related predictor for LEMs is participation in a campus ministry program (public or private), as “more than a third of those who participate in campus ministry programs consider a LEM vocation (35%).”

Okay, so insights relevant to Donahue’s conversation starters?

  • Considering a call to lay ministry (or any ministry) is relatively rare among younger generations (thus far in our lifetimes). The perception that lots more young Catholics today are considering ministry at an earlier age has yet to be proven. The current average age of first hearing a call is 29. For the 1961-1981 generation the average age of first hearing a call is 24, for Millennials, it’s 16 (but this will probably rise over time, as the oldest Millennials are only 33 years of age) [see p. 6, .pdf]. Thus, the shift to an earlier call might not be as dramatic as some perceive. Maybe that means it’s not so different from the calls experienced in other generations.
  • The positive predictors listed aren’t surprising. I would imagine they are similar to the predictors of a call to any ministry across all generations. Again, the perception of difference in calls among younger generations may be overestimated. 
  • The campus ministry connection means that role models are probably important, as campus ministries often have many more staff lay ministers than a parish (and ministers able to give one-on-one mentorship to students, and opportunities for students to take on volunteer roles they might not otherwise in a typical parish). Donahue asks, “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?” It seems that an “early” call to lay ministry involves witnessing LEMs in action in campus ministry settings and/or conversion in aspects of the Christian life in these ministry settings, more than K-12 experiences. There’s probably a “yank” effect to some degree during this campus experience, as many undergraduates consider multiple majors, careers, vocations, etc.
  • To the discussion prompt, “How is this, for your generation, a divine calling, and not simply a ‘career choice?'” — I gravitate toward the #1 predictive factor that “faith is among the most important or the most important part of life.” I think for those who name faith as the (or “among the”) most important part of their life, any work/vocation of any type would likely only be undertaken with a sense of divine calling and/or consolation in discernment. As divinely called to be a disciple-scientist as a disciple-LEM.

Okay, that’s enough to kick-off my reflection. So far, I’d say there aren’t significant differences that should cause anyone to pause with concern before recruiting a young adult to apply for or accept a specialty, parish, or diocese leadership position of any level.

Up next I’ll share my story, and then get back to a few more trends. In the meantime, your thoughts on Donahue’s discussion-stimulating reflection prompts?

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