Last week I published a blog post that did all the math to explain why it would cost us $500,000 per parish if we want to reach every Catholic teen in the USA and a few non-Catholics during their teen years. As one friend on Twitter put it: “Too often parishes recognize the “value” of youth ministry but fail to acknowledge the cost.” I put $500,000 to indicate what deep ministry for all Catholic teens would cost because so often people will say they value youth ministry or want to get teens involved in the Church, but then dedicate a dramatically inadequate amount of money to it. I know a large suburban parish that has a regular Sunday attendance well into the thousands and says that it values teenagers, but provides no budget for teens: when I did an evening retreat for them, the young couple who volunteer as leaders gave me a few bucks out of their own pocket.
Only 55% of parishes have a youth minister of any form. Christian Smith says only 21% of Catholic youth go to parishes with a full-time youth minister. Smith’s conclusion in Soul Searching will not shock us, but should: “In our study, Catholic teenagers… stand out among the U.S. Christian teenagers as consistently scoring lower on most measures of religiosity.” And why is that? His research shows, “At the parish and perhaps diocesan level… the Catholic Church seems to be relatively weak when it comes to devoting attention and resources to its youth and their parents.” We say we value it, but do we acknowledge the cost?
Only 5% of those not involved in something beyond Sunday mass at their church as a teenager become weekly attendees as adults, according to Randy Raus. I think a deep youth group can get something in the neighborhood of 90% of the kids to be weekly Sunday mass attendees as adults. If 10% of Catholic youth are engaged (which I think is a high estimate today), we can expect mass attendance for them as adults to be 13-14%; if only 5% of Catholic teens are involved we can expect a 9% mass attendance.
In one sentence: If we don’t invest heavily in transforming youth today, there will not be much of a Catholic Church in the USA to talk about in 2115.
Many people received this blog well, but I had some objections that I’d like to give a response to.
“What about other souls?”
I am truly concerned with saving all souls. The evidence is fairly clear that if someone will leave the Catholic faith, become active in it, or join it, it usually happens between 10 and 25. Logically, if you want to build up the Church long-term, it would then make sense to focus our ministry on this age range. There is a myth that a large percentage of those who leave come back. In young Catholic America, Christians Smith debunks this myth: he shows that for each age cohort (people born in 5 straight years – say 1970 to 1974) in a large longitudinal national study, the percent who went to mass at 20 was the percent who went to mass when the same group was 45, and continuing up the ages until 80 when a large percentage becomes homebound.
Simply put: long-If we don’t help people in this age range long-term, they’ll be almost no souls inside the Church.
Unfortunately, this is the age range we often provide the least with. When I was a kid, my home parish had nothing from Confirmation (in grade 6) to marriage prep. Nothing. (There were a very small number of us who continued as altar servers up to the first years of high school – as I had not gone through conversion yet, I probably would not have were it not for my younger siblings who were also servers.)
“That’s a lot of money!”
I agree. I’m just stating what it would cost to reach everybody and go deep with them. Let me address several variants of this concern.
The easiest variant is the person in the small rural parish. If you are in a parish with 100 people which the priest drives 30 miles from his residence to say one mass on Sunday, obviously you don’t have $500,000, but you will have far below the average of 500 teenagers to minister to. First of all, if it costs $1000 per teenager, such a parish would have a budget in the $10-$15,000 range. Second of all, such parishes are usually tighter-knit communities than small cities or suburbs in huge cities so volunteers can more likely take care of it. Then, the only cost would be a few hundred dollars a year for camps and retreats, which could be raised through fees to the families rather than donations for the parish.
The next is those who operate on a zero-sum accounting or a scarcity of resources model. Many people figure that if more money goes to X, less money goes to Y. I don’t think stripping all other ministries of funding is wise as that will just bring up the ire of many people. Instead, if we have a vision, we can raise this money. Look at how FOCUS (and CCO in Canada) has been able to raise money for campus youth ministers.
I was really hoping that several people could give me a few good examples of places where youth ministry went deep with a much lower investment (under $1000 per teen). I clarify “in-depth” here because I want something more than a teenager who simply goes to weekly youth mass. The only two examples I know of relied on the main people working for almost nothing. The first case is my own experience (and my religious community): because I was given free lodging and quite a bit of free food from families, I was able to live on $10-$15,000 a year and, with the help of many volunteers, do in-depth youth ministry for 50 to 75 teenagers for $20-$25,000 a year. The other case was a retired couple who volunteered a large portion of their time to run youth ministry. I wish we could find 175,000 retired people like this as that would cut out the largest expense in a youth ministry budget (I think there are many retired people who would do this but not 175,000).
Also, I don’t think that parishes should jump from $50,000 to $500,000 in one year. What I’m looking for is urgent strategic investment in youth ministry over medium to long-term. It may not even be this much, but even 2 or 3 times our current amount would be very beneficial.
Finally, I want to make a note here that I included fees in the youth ministry budget. I think it is completely appropriate to charge families for a weekly activity for the year, a weekend retreat, a summer camp, or a mission. This could cover a large percent of the overall budget: it could easily cover 50% or so if well-organized.
“Throwing money at the problem won’t solve it.”
I could not agree more wholeheartedly. My goal was not to say we should throw money at it, but to say if we want to strategically, this is what it will cost – probably more than 10 times what is currently dedicated to it, or is one, to put it “I don’t think my diocese has a $500,000 budget for Youth Ministry.”
I think there are a lot of good ways to help teens go deeper and not just babysit them. If a parish ever wanted to get 500 kids involved, they would use a multipronged approach with various methods. Some examples include very intellectual discussions such as those run by CL, apostolate clubs such as Conquest and Challenge, etc.
Spending this amount of money would require an incredible amount of vision, rather than a youth ministry paradigm of making sure I get 50 kids into seats so I can justify my salary to the pastor. That it is a sustenance paradigm, which will focus on making sure that the teens who will easily come, come. Instead, we need to work on a vision paradigm that attempts to get as many teens as possible.
If we care about the future of the Church, we need to care about reaching teens today. If we want to reach teens today, we will need a visionary and strategic investment in youth ministry. We need money and volunteers. The Economist estimated that the Catholic Church in the US has an overall budget of $171.6 billion; even in the most ideal situation, reaching teens would be under 5% of that. Unless we reach them, the rest of the budget collapses long-term. Where we put our money shows our dedication more than where you put our words: if we truly value teenagers, we will dedicate money to them.
The Church today faces an option: dedicate a dramatically higher amount to youth ministry or become irrelevant in 50-100 years. Our youth ministry today may not be ideal, but our response should be, “Let’s improve it,” instead of, “Let’s defund it.” Most people make their choices about religion in the 10-25 age range so this needs to be a focus of our ministry, not just something added. Our goal should be to save everyone by bringing them to know Christ when a teenager.