What's Working in Young Adult Ministry?

Cassie Schutzer
Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The National Community of Catechetical Leaders (NCCL) recently hosted an online conference on “What’s Working in Parent, Family and Adult Faith Formation” and invited our director, Cassie Schutzer,  and Dr. Tracey Lamont from Loyola to speak about ministry with young adults.

Click here to view the full talk and resources on the NCCL website.

 “What’s Working in Young Adult Faith Formation” according to our work at the Saint Meinrad Young Adult Initiative…

Cassie presented six key things for a successful parish young adult ministry.

  1. Build a community, not a program. It is important to focus your energy on creating spaces for meaningful encounter rather than building successful programs. Get to know your young people through listening and accompaniment in order to build events around them rather than trying to fit them into a program that doesn’t meet their needs.

  2. Get your pastor and parish on board. If your pastor is not supportive of young adult ministry, it will not happen. This was true 100% of the time in Phase 1 of our Young Adult Initiative. Additionally, parishioners are essential for bringing young adults into the fold of the parish. Imagine how alive your parish will look when the entire community sees it as their mission to welcome young adults!

  3. Remember that ministry with young adults is not “one-size-fits-all.” According to the USCCB, “young adults” range from age 18-39. The needs of this age group are as diverse as they are – think of an 18-year-old high school graduate and a newly married couple in their 20s and a single young adult in their 30s. Make sure the drivers and leaders of young adult ministry are taking different needs into account. Young adult ministry tends to take on the likeness of the leader, so having a diverse leadership team gives more voice to the varied realities of young adulthood.

  4. Set a vision and decide your measure of success. We need new metrics! We are so comfortable defining success by how many people show up, but this is not how the Lord works. Instead, set a uniting vision and decide what success will look like for your parish. Then you can accurately assess your progress and the obstacles that are standing in your way. (For example: a parish decides their goal will be more young adult leadership in the parish. Instead of looking at how many young adults are on the parish council, ask: Did they get a chance to speak and share ideas? Were they listened to? Did their involvement on the parish council broaden the conversation and/or bring to light an area for parish growth?) Let’s get comfortable with asking difficult questions of ourselves and moving away from numbers in order to grow and improve our ministry!

  5. Empower young adults to be leaders in their own ministry. Young adults are leaders in many areas of their lives – so why not in the parish? We need to involve more young adults in positions of leadership; not just as warm bodies in a seat, but as individuals with ideas and gifts to share. We can help develop young adults as leaders by acting as mentors, not micromanagers or delegators.

  6. Be rooted in prayer. This is the most important element for successful ministry, and it is the foundation for the previous five bullet points. Our relationship with God should be at the center of all we do. If we listen for His gentle promptings and commend our ministry to Him, we will be able to do far more with His help than we could on our own. And remember: we cannot give what we do not have; we cannot model what we do not practice. 

Questions/comments that came up in the Zoom chat, with responses and thoughts from Cassie (this list is not exhaustive, as there were many more comments!):

  • I think that lumping youth ministry with young adult ministry is unfair to the two groups. They are in very different stages in their lives.
    • Cassie: Yes, agreed! So often, young adult ministry gets grouped with youth ministry because (1) there aren’t enough ministers/resources or (2) we don’t know how to “do” young adult ministry, so we build a youth group for adults. (The way we minister to our youth and how we can improve is a whole other conversation.) Young adult ministry is simply ministry. If it has to be lumped with anything, put it with adult ministry!
  • How do we get them into the parish to get to know them, to build relationships, learn about them?
    • Cassie: Honestly, you might not get young adults into the parish. The Lord tells us, “Go and make disciples” not “Stay here and wait for them to come to you.” Many of our young adults are quietly present in the parish, so keeping your eyes open for moments of encounter is crucial. Just start up a conversation, say hi, ask their name, thank them for being present! It doesn’t take a lot to make someone feel welcome. Now as for the young adults who aren’t in our parishes … they will either (1) come with a friend, so let’s make sure we form meaningful relationships with the young adults who are present, (2) come during a crisis or when they are curious/searching, so let’s make sure we welcome them and encourage their questions, or (3) never step foot in our parish, which means we need to be evangelizers and relationship-builders outside the walls of our churches.
  • What have you found most effective to getting young adults (18-25ish) to gather initially? Ideas for that initial gathering/experience to build from?
    • Cassie: I know I said to focus on people over events, but that doesn’t mean to ignore events entirely. So thank you for this question! I would say that the initial gathering doesn’t have to be anything flashy or over-planned. When I formalized the young adult ministry at my previous parish, I simply sent out an invitation for a free lunch after Mass for anyone in the young adult age range. We had about 60 people show up, and we had some short surveys asking (1) what types of events are you interested in and (2) will you commit to being a leader. This lunch is also where we shared our vision for the ministry. So I would say that you should have a few committed leaders who have met to set a vision before doing the initial gathering. You need to know what you’re inviting people into before you gather them.
  • What’s after the listening? How do we bring them in?
    • Cassie: “After the listening” doesn’t really exist because being in relationship requires constant listening! Authentic, non-judgmental listening means that there is no agenda behind it. You listen for the sake of loving the other person and learning about them and their experiences. And honestly, the relationship might stop there. They might not immediately come back to the parish. But at least their experience will be that someone cared enough to listen without expecting anything in return, and that seed could bear fruit some day – that is God’s work.
  • This sounds something along the lines of ALPHA. do you use youth ALPHA in your parishes?
    • Cassie: Several of our partner parishes use ALPHA, yes! This program works well for their ministries. What I would caution with ALPHA (as I would with any program) is that it is not a magic bullet. ALPHA, and programs like it, are simply tools. Tools are only as good as the intention behind them, the people who are using them, and whether they meet the needs of the people they are serving. Our partner parishes are successful with ALPHA because they have adapted the program for their specific communities and they use it as a jumping-off point for deeper discipleship in the parish.
  • Cassie said no one can do it alone, and yet, that is often what we are being asked to do as catechetical leaders.
    • Cassie: I am so sorry that this has been your experience, and you are not alone in that. My hope is that by having these conversations and changing the paradigms rather than just the programs, we can ease the burden on ministers and involve more people in the work of ministry! The way I see it, every single parishioner is a young adult minister whether they know it or not. It’s not up to the paid minister to have a 1-on-1 relationship with every young adult. But it is our job to help others see their call to ministry and discipleship through their baptism.
  • Comments from the chat about listening:
    • Very powerful concept – listening sessions!
    • True listening feels like love.
    • True listening is a ministry of healing
    • One of the Moms in our young adults group said to our pastor, “Thank you for seeing us and listening to us and putting us in charge.”
    • Listening means not fixing people!
  • Comments from the chat about quality relationships:
    • Quality not quantity!!! YES
    • You can have a more powerful accompaniment experience with three people than with 300. When three people show up, you can directly walk with those three. If 300 show up, it’s hard to really impact everyone who came.
  • Other helpful comments:
    • I am a young adult and that is SO TRUE. We aren’t warm bodies… we are people with needs and hearts and desires for communion!
    • A few helpful things… one: “We count people because people count.” I use this phrase with people a lot to honor where they’re coming from with numbers, but also to encourage them to think that EACH PERSON behind the number is their own person with a journey. Two: Glory stories. When folks get discouraged about low YA numbers, share a positive story of how someone came back to confession; someone came to Bible Study for the first time; someone opened up to you about their lives. Those things are really meaningful and can satisfy hungry pastors/councils sometimes.
    • There’s some wisdom to be gleaned from the practices of the period of evangelization in the RCIA process. So much listening, so much pointing out how God is already present, so much inviting folks to connect to Jesus … all listening deeply to the people and the Scripture/Tradition.