Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?


Millennials in Ministry: Lencioni Thinking

Too often, people in church-world speak of “reaching” Millennials as if we’re some “foreign entity” (h/t Tim O’Malley) or a group solely in need of being reached/served/ministered to, in contrast to being baptized-believers whom God is already at work in and through–right now.

Patrick Lencioni, co-founder of Amazing Parish, offers these thoughts on Millennials:

As it turns out, there is a better way to think about hiring good people than focusing on a person’s generational stereotype. It comes down to looking for three simple, timeless and observable virtues that are reliable predictors of whether someone of any age will be a good team player. Thankfully, while generations change, the nature of teamwork does not.

I agree! A healthy organization is a healthy organization not because of the particular generational identities of its members, but because of their common commitment, the way the relate, and the way they make decisions together.

Millennials are largely missing from the teams of leaders in many church ministrieswhat holds us back? Maybe, a better appreciation of what makes a healthy organization and what cultivates effective teamwork is a missing piece. We don’t know how to “talk” about being an effective ministry organization because we lack the vocabulary, and so we default to stereotypes, thinking it’s because of a person’s age, marital status, regional identity, race, gender, etc. that “we can’t work well together” or “we always communicate poorly.”

As I’ve said before, I highly recommend Lencioni’s The Advantage for anyone in ministerial leadership. And 🙂 as a Millennial, I’m looking forward to reading Lencioni’s latest book, The Ideal Team Player, to see how it connects with each of our own baptismal vocations in ministry and some of the classic scholarship on “courageous followership.”

Have you read “The Advantage” or plan on reading “The Ideal Team Player” through a ministry lens? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Millennial Scrabble
Jeff Djevdet (Flickr), CC by 2.0

Unique “Goods” of the “Good News”: The Baptized Audience of the New Evangelization

Mission to places “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” is a defining aspect of the call to a New Evangelization, spoken of by Popes for over three decades (Redemptoris Missio, 33). While we often speak broadly of the people we are sent to in this mission field–our friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, and acquaintances among them–there’s indeed a tremendously diverse spectrum of “lost” and “sense of the faith.”

Bishop Robert Barron, summarizing one of his professors, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, observes:

with the rise of Protestantism and modernity, an integrated Catholicism blew up and its twisted pieces now litter the contemporary intellectual landscape. As I survey today’s cultural scene, I often think of Sokolowski’s observation: one can see Catholicism everywhere, but often in odd and distorted form

These “odd and distorted” forms are in many cases the why and the what of a lost sense of the living faith. People lose a living sense of the faith because they only perceive or experience an odd or distorted notion of it. On a secondary level, as a person goes through the process of losing faith (even if an odd and distorted set of beliefs) the people around them are not likely to reach out to them with the true, radically Good News that grounds and founds the fullness of the meaning of Jesus Christ and his call to follow him as disciples, if those people also have an odd or distorted sliver of the Good News.

Curtis Martin of FOCUS ministries often recalls that when asking Catholic young adults, “How’s that Catholic thing going for ya?” the overwhelming response was, “This Catholic thing is really tough!” I heard Martin speak a few months ago at my own Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly and he explained further, that for many young adults, it was as if the deposit of faith was like a shinny, new, fully accessorized SUV. They could get in it, and maybe even coast a little down hills. It was so much that could seem so good.

As a Millennial myself, I think this makes sense for many in my generation. We’ve never had a strongly enforced cultural/institutional religion to rebel against (as many Baby Boomers seemed to). We certainly have lived in a world where a crumbling idea of the common good and various social compacts has contributed to human suffering. We’re caricatured sometimes as “non-committal,” yet the flip-side of that is openness, curiosity, and a willingness to explore new beliefs and ways of living. In short, the image of being behind the wheel of a brand new SUV works for the experience of many emerging young adults when it comes to encountering Catholicism as an adult.

However, here’s where the problem comes. At some point, that downhill incline ends. Rolling along in this great SUV comes to a halt. The driver has to get out, and start to push that SUV–maybe even up a hill, maybe push just to keep it from rolling backwards! In Martin’s words, this is because the driver had never been given keys to the ignition. Even the shiniest car can become a burden when the engine’s not running. A SUV without a running engine is a distortion of what a vehicle is meant to do.

So, what of other situations, especially in non-Millennial generations? There’s as much diversity within generations as between, but here are some adaptations of Martin’s SUV metaphor to describe some of the incomplete or distorted notions I’ve observed while while teaching Catholic adults:

  1. Pushing a lightweight sub-compact around. This person is in shape. They’ve been pushing around a lightweight sub-compact car for years. They can make the car move, and that’s good, because in their mind, you gotta do the moving to get to heaven. Most everyone around them is moving too–no matter what they’re driving (or walking, or biking). Except for those few maniacs who deliberately wreck their vehicle in spectacular ways (think mass murderers). Everyone’s pretty much earning heaven by being a basically good, moral, and civic-minded person. And they stop and think about it, “heaven” isn’t even really the point, it’s being a good person now that matters.
  2. Driving a hideously ugly car. This person is aware of how hideously ugly their car is. In fact, that’s kind of what makes it the right car to be driving. They put keys in the ignition and drive this ugly whale of a car around as if under daily orders to do so. Because the car is just so ugly and clunky, they assume the car’s manufacturer is like a rigid military commander–out to “catch” them not following orders if they don’t drive. They worry that even by following the car manufacturer’s orders, they’ll never please him. But, they drive on nonetheless, because Hell is awful and any driver turning the ignition key could accidentally end up there. You can never tell with car manufacturers.
  3. Cruising in a reliable sedan. This person loves their sedan. The values. The smell. The familiar dashboard. The owner’s manual in the glove compartment. The eternal reliability. The way other sedan drivers behave on the road. Yeah, maybe things were better when more people drove sedans, but nonetheless, the sedan is still the the only car that’s got it all. This person is exited to learn more and more about their sedan, even tips to show off the best of the interior design. They’d welcome anyone who wanted to take a ride, but that doesn’t happen very often because the invitation, “Sedan driving has the best sedan-values and best sedan rewards program” doesn’t seem to attract many passengers.

Now, all of these are metaphorical caricatures–all images “limp” at some point (as Barbara Morgan so often notes in her talks) and when it comes to evangelization of any type, “never accept, a label in place of a story” (Sherry Weddell). But, if these sketches ring a bell for you in terms of naming the wide range of the “baptized” that are an audience of the New Evangelization, I encourage you to dig deeper in your own setting. My list is not exhaustive, and may not fit your setting at all.

Really think about the audiences of baptized you’re trying to reach–what makes each unique? What unique theological affinities or distortions might each be prone to? What connects each group to the Church to begin with at this point in their lives? This process of imagining the baptized “lost” in your mission field (i.e. one example from Church of the Nativity) paves the way for being able to not only “smell like the sheep” (as Pope Francis exhorts pastors) but think like the sheep, and only then design your strategy accordingly. As Jonathan Sullivan has explained, there’s no such thing as “average” catechesis. And the same goes for the New Evangelization, especially when it comes to the audience of the baptized.

ancient symbol of baptism. unique + uniquely weathered. image source @ceasol (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0



Finding a Local Church to Call Home

From the Pew Research Center comes a new study ripe with implications for how we think about hospitality, evangelization, and growing disciples in our local churches.

Question #1: What to Americans look for in a new congregation? 


Question #2: Why do Americans look for a new church home to begin with? 


Let’s dig into each of these areas further to flesh out implications for how we share Jesus’ love with the world…

Becoming a Parish Ad Gentes

  1. For Americans with kids, 65% say that education/programs for children age greatly valued. How are your children/student programs? Do they run year round? Are they convenient? Are they high-quality enough that parents would choose to place their children there? Would they appeal to outsiders (not just those feeling an “obligation” to attend)? As the leaders of Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) often say “when you do something for my kids, you do something for me” is an important societal, parental value to respond to.
  2. When Americans go looking for a new church home, roughly half consider switching denominations (note: while this isn’t a term we use in Catholic theology, it’s common in vernacular conversation, so I use it in that sense here). This is a huge opportunity! Talk about opennessAs Catholic parishes we should ask ourselves, what kind of impression or perception would someone from a different faith background take away from setting foot on our campus or at our programs? 
  3. We may think that the unaffiliated don’t visit our parishes. But this would be a mistaken assumption. Almost “about three-in-ten current religious “nones” (29%) indicate they have searched for a new congregation at some point in their lives.” What’s for them at your parish? What would their experience be like? 
  4. How do typical Americans find a new church home? More than eight-in-ten adults who have ever looked for a new house of worship say they attended a service during their search (85%). And roughly seven-in-ten talked to members of the congregation (69%) or to friends or colleagues (68%) about the house of worship they were considering. What kind of recommendations or comments would your typical parishioners make about your parish? Would they be enthusiastic? Resigned? Unsure what to say? 
  5. Though it’s not the most important method for learning about potential local church homes, 59% of adults under 30 say they have incorporated online searches when looking for a new congregation. Your online presence matters. And, it should resonate with Millennials. 

Becoming a Parish for Catholic-Seekers

  1. What’s most important when choosing a new parish for Catholics? “nothing is more important than location. Fully three-quarters of Catholics who have looked for a new church (76%) say location was an important factor in their choice of parish.” Our first reaction might be to think (with relief or discouragement) there’s not much we can do then. But this misses something more significant–if Catholics are most likely to select a parish based on location, then it’s vitally important that every parish have a discipleship pathway, that every parish be intentional about ministering to people at every step of a disciple’s journey. We can’t be content to have some “powerhouse” parishes where intentional discipleship and fruits of the Holy Spirit are typical and then “maintenance” parishes for the rest. Taking this reality seriously might force us to think about collaborative organizational structures, networks or associations, and other ways to move more parishes from maintenance to mission. 
  2. Not convinced of the need for every parish to have pathways for intentional discipleship? Here’s another perspective: of affiliated Christians, Catholics are the least likely to ever look for a new congregation. Most Catholics will stay in the parish they’re at, unless the geography (location of household or parish) changes. What’s this mean? Our expectation must be that every parish be fully alive in the Holy Spirit, offering robust pathways for disciples to grow–otherwise, many Catholics will continue to exist in “maintenance” parishes.
  3. When Catholics are looking for a new parish, after location (76% rate as important), the next most important values are “feeling welcomed by leaders” (71%) and sermons (67%). This data supports the pitch made by Amazing ParishRebuilt, and Divine Renovation in recent years as to the importance of the “Sunday Experience.” Authentic welcome from leaders and good preaching aren’t accidents or “bonus” attributes of charismatic leaders–no, these are essential parts of ministry that must be planned, cultivated, and assessed for effectiveness.
  4. Though Catholics are less likely than other Christians to look for a new local congregation, when Catholics do go seeking, about one-in-three report exploring changing denominations or religions. This might come as a surprise to many of us–but it’s a reality we can’t ignore. The question becomes what’s going on in your parish, so that when parishioners do move or go looking for a new congregation, they seek out a Catholic one? 

Okay, so those are my takeaways from this study. What are yours? How might this data impact how you do ministry? 

Vocation. Integration. Combination.

Patrick Didonato on work, ministry, and personal integration:

For the lay disciple, what is the difference between being just a great [insert a job title here] and working for the Church full-time?

It’s not just one or the other, but rather, audaciously fusing the two in every aspect of our lives.

That’s our mission as intentional disciples.

Why is this so important?

Because becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and following Him means recognizing that God cares what we do with our time. Yet, this doesn’t mean that every single person who calls Jesus Lord is called to work (paid or volunteer) “full-time” in the Church. Church work is not, by default, better than secular work–or not working for pay, etc. This would fail to acknowledge that as Christians, we are not of the world–yet still in the world–and called to bring the Gospel into all spheres of society.

Failure to fuse or integrate the two ideas also reveals some real human resources issues in our design of “jobs” in ministry, i.e. treating full-time work as “better” or “more significant” than part-time work, rather than looking at actual outcomes; of thinking “more hours” is better (when this may prevent healthy integration of ministry and human formation/needs); and closing out many potential candidates for ministry work due to our own inability to recognize the evolution in more flexible work policies, and more.

To work “in the Church” or not is a false, humanly constrained set of choices. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must pursue something more–“audaciously fusing” and integrating our lives in a way that opens us the most to follow the Holy Spirit and embrace the renewed life offered to us in communion with Jesus Christ.


Ministry Hires: Building Applicant Pools Internally and Externally

Your parish or ministry is looking for a new leader. A new staff member. Where to go?

Many organizations submit a job description to a diocesan human resource page–maybe post it on a larger search engine like–and leave it at that. An “if we build it, they will come” approach.

Now this is a good start, but people are important. Arguably, the most important leadership and administrative decision when it comes to shaping the organizational effectiveness of your parish or ministry. Building up and strengthening an applicant pool for any open position is critical to ensuring your team can make a positive discernment and decision, and leverage the talents and spiritual gifts present in the Body of Christ.

Ideas for Expanding the Pool

  • Consider the Diversity of Your Area. If your current staff does not reflect the cultural or demographic diversity of the geographic area where you minister, set a goal to recruit at least one candidate (preferably more) who do reflect the demographics (race, ethnicity, language, age, etc.).
  • Pursue Success. Keep your eyes open for those who’ve been successful in similar roles in other churches/ministries, especially if they’ve grown or transformed their area of ministerial focus. Reach out and explain that your parish might not be to their vision yet, but you’re interested in their potential to serve as a change leader with a vision. If they’ve been building a strong ministry for many years in one location, they likely have able assistants ready to step up. By recruiting proven leaders to the areas of most need, you’re creating opportunity for others to grow.
  • Have a Dream. Share your dream, your vision for the particular ministry area you’re recruiting for with your entire staff, parish council, and/or other trusted volunteer leaders. Ask them to pitch the dream to individuals they know who might be motivated to take it on and then encourage them to apply for the position.
  • Plant Seeds Within Your Community. As Fr. Michael White writes, “be constantly on the lookout for new talent so that when the inevitable happens and someone leaves you’ve already got a pool of likely candidates.”
  • Contact Educational Institutions. Many centers of formation for Catholic lay ministers are hosted within larger educational institutions. While these institutions may have well-resourced career centers, these career centers rarely focus on forging connections with dioceses, etc. to help new ministry graduates. Build contacts and relationships with programs producing lay ministers so that through professors and directors of formation you can get connected to qualified candidates who might be a great fit for your ministry.

Many debate the merits of hiring from within vs. hiring externally. I think that’s a conversation that doesn’t require a set answer. More important than internal vs. external, is small applicant pool vs. large. Build your applicant pool, so that you aren’t discerning out of scarcity, but instead discerning based on the wide array of gifts God has given the Church and the Body of Christ for ministry.

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?