I know, at first glance, that sounds insane. Before you write a dozen comments telling me I’m nuts, please read my logic and reasoning, and if you want to reply after, I think we can have a very good discussion. I’ve shown in other posts (particularly this one) why the teenage years are the most important years to determine if someone will keep their religion or not – especially in the Catholic Church. Here’s a few stats: “More than half of adolescents who attend church as children leave the church before they reach age seventeen” (DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry), 1/3 raised Catholic no longer even identify with that label, 70% who leave the Church do so by age 24 (and young adult religiosity is determined by teen religiosity), 85% of those who get confirmed will stop practicing their faith within 7 years, and only 5% of Catholic teens that are not involved in the church become active Catholic adults (Randy Raus). If we love the Church, those statistics should scare our socks off. Quite simply, if we don’t invest in teens today we have to look forward to a withering and dying church in our old age.
$500,000 to $750,000 is a round estimate of what an average parish should be spending on ministry to teens if we want the vast majority of teens to stay Catholic and have a moderate amount of conversions. I use “youth ministry budget” to refer to all ministry to teens: this would include youth group, CYO, Conquest and Challenge, Boy Scouts, Life Teen, American Heritage Girls, etc. I don’t want the discussion today to get mired down in the advantages and disadvantages of these various methods (and I’ve written plenty of discussion on this elsewhere).
This blog will talk mainly about money, but we need to remember that that money is to get people not an end in itself. Here’s my story: As a teen I almost became a Protestant. My logic was: if it gets them excited about Jesus, it’s likely true. At my parish, almost nobody between 12 and 25 seemed excited about their faith. I went to a rather large lower-middle class parish and I don’t remember anything offered from when you finished confirmation in 7th grade till marriage prep.
This blog will examine where $500,000 comes from, why it’s reasonable, how that money would be used, and end with a brief caution regarding how to implement this.
How many teenagers does each parish serve? According to the U.S. Census Bureau there were approximately 33,210,521 people aged 10 to 17 in the USA in 2013. In 2012, the Catholic Church had 68,503,456 from a US population of about 313,874,000 so 21.83%. (CARA puts Catholics at 76,700,000 but I use the more conservative number to be safe.) Let’s assume those numbers are the same today (as they are the closest to today I could find), and that the percent of the population that is Catholic is the same among teens as other ages: this gives us 7,248,244 Catholic teenagers in the US today. According to CARA, there are 17,483 parishes in the US, so a parish serves 415 Catholic teens on average. Note: this is an average parish (mean not median for math nerds) – mega-parishes in the suburbs serve significantly more teenagers, very often 1000 or more. If we want to try and reach the Catholic teens plus about 20% more (for some conversions), that gives us 500 teenagers to reach. (If we used CARA’s estimate, we have 464 Catholic teens per parish.)
In Sustainable Youth Ministry, Mark DeVries argues that for good youth ministry, you need to budget about $1000-$1500 per teen per year. So I’m guessing now you see what I get $500,000: 500 teens at $1000 a teen. Now, I want to give an explanation why $1000 a teen is a reasonable amount. According to the US Department of Education, a public school education costs $12,608 per student for 997 hours of instruction for $12.65 per hour of instruction. If we average 2 hours per week per teen in ministry, $1000 means just under $10 an hour. However, I think the average time should be much higher and certain other factors bring up cost so we’ll be getting a much better deal. Although generally teens will often be often involved for about 2 hours a week at the church outside of mass (I’m not sure if this shouldn’t be a little more too), proportionally youth ministry has much more “off-site”: going downtown to minister to the homeless or other service, times they meet with the youth minister or adult volunteers outside the normal hours such as spiritual mentoring, two weekends a year for retreats, and a weeklong summer camp for half the kids. 2 weekends and a weeklong summer camp add up to over 100 hours (at $10 an hour, that’s $1000) assuming we don’t count sleeping and eating. As well, youth ministry often provides things schools don’t such as pizza, laser tag, material for service projects, etc. Overall, if teens are involved an average of 200 hours a year, which is a reasonable goal, $1000 means we’re paying $5 an hour for that. I should note here that some of this $1000 per teen would likely be collected in fees: $100 for weekend retreat and $300 for the summer camp.
We look short-term, youth ministry seems like a complete drain: we can invest $1 million a year and get less than $10,000 back for the teens in donations. Their parents will donate a bit but probably not enough to cover the whole budget. However, if we look long term, it’s a great investment. If it costs us $10,000 to keep a teen Catholic through teenage years and University, how much will he give over the rest of his life? If we assume he gives $20 a week which isn’t much (I just use today’s dollars as by inflation $20 may not be much in 50 years) from 25 to 75: that’s $50,000! We’ve made 5 times (plus inflation) on our money invested in youth ministry. I really hate to put in those terms, but so often the argument against a large youth ministry budget is we can’t afford it. Long-term the Church as a whole can’t afford NOT having a large youth ministry budget!
Now, what does the $500,000 pay for? The biggest cost is youth ministers (note that I use the plural). The average full-time youth minister makes $34,878. The cost to the employer (the parish) is 1.25 to 1.4 salary, so let’s estimate the average cost is $45,000 (1.29) for simplicity. DeVries suggests: “One full-time staff person for every fifty youth.” I’m really not sure how he hopes churches can do that with only $1000 per teen (then $900 of $1000 would be salary and benefits which is unsustainable as a model almost anywhere). If we aim for about one for every 75 teens, we need 7 for 500 teens – there goes $315,000 of the budget. Then, let’s assume 250 kids are going on summer camp and the camp charges you $250 for facilities and food – there goes $75,000. You also need space for your ministry. If you were to build a very simple steel prefab building with 2 basketball courts and that space again with individual breakout rooms, that would be a one-time cost of $1.2 million ($50 a square foot) or $6300 a month at current interest rates – that means a little over $75,000 a year. With these 3 costs there is only $35,000 (or $70 a teenager) left to run two retreats, buy pizza and snacks, buy materials (both fun stuff like basketballs and prizes, and serious stuff like catechetical programs and supplies for service), train the youth ministers and volunteers, get insurance, go to laser tag, etc. You can see why I said $500,000-$750,000 – I quoted the current average salary of youth ministers but if we want to get quality and long term, we’ll likely need to start offering a bit more (hence the possibility of $750,000).
Now I want issue 2 cautions or warnings. First, don’t think that the money alone is enough. When I listed the 3 things that almost guaranteed teens stay Catholic, youth ministry was one but only one of them. The 2nd one was relationships with adults – and thus Mark DeVries suggests one adult volunteer for every 5 youth. Yes, this means that one of your 7 full-time people will just manage 100 volunteers. The other thing is personal religious experiences. We cannot force these, but we can give the environment where they are likely to occur in youth ministry if we do it well. There is also the need to have a clear vision for youth ministry in the parish and not just shoot craps with half a million dollars; Mark DeVries outlines this well in Sustainable Youth Ministry, and even though he’s a Protestant, 90% of what he says applies to Catholic churches too. There are a bunch of other factors that also contribute to good youth ministry but this blog is getting long and I’ve mentioned the key factors.
The other concern I have is that someone reads this, and bumps their youth ministry budget from $50,000 to $500,000 in one year. That is just going to cause trouble. Generally, increasing the budget more than 25% to 33% a year creates unreasonable expectations for growth which can happen naturally. The year you hire the first 3 full-time employees will likely have over a 33% increase because there salary will be a large percent of the budget. Far better than inflating the budget in one year is to set a pastoral plan to move it from $50,000 to $500,000 over the next 10 years.
So there is the argument why parishes should invest $500,000-$750,000 a year in ministry to teens (or at least the summary version in 1500 words). Remember that this is an average parish, so mega-parishes in the suburbs probably need to invest several times this and rural parishes need to invest less. I don’t know of one parish, even a suburban mega-parish, that dedicates this much money annually to youth ministry. (In fact, the only suggested budget I found estimated budget of about $45,000, and only 55% of parishes even have a youth minister at all.) My hope is not that every parish adapts this today – I know that’s not realistic – but that a number of parishes significantly increased her youth ministry budget and give models for other parishes. We need to keep our Catholic teens Catholic, and help other teens join the Church, because their salvation depends on it, and because, since the US is the leading country in the world, the salvation of a large part of the world depends on it. Not only should we look for them be saved, but to become apostles and missionaries. We want more people to know Jesus in his Church in 2050 then know him in 2015.
EDIT: I wrote a blog in response to some questions or critiques of this blog that were mentioned in comments when it was posted on other sites.