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Exiting the Young Adult Ministry Whirlpool

By Cristofer Pereyra

It’s the fact that many young adults are approaching it as their chosen career path. 

Through my years in lay leadership-development I have bumped into a recurring profile which is poignant of a common experience in the Catholic Church.

We’ll call him, Peter. He was born into a faithful and practicing Catholic family. He grew up to love the Lord with sincerity. Perhaps his faith really came alive during a parish youth retreat. Following that experience he got involved in youth ministry. The experience of sharing Christ with others fulfilled him, so he grew into young adult ministry (YAM) leadership. By the time Peter was in college he knew he wanted to serve the Lord full time. The obvious choice of career for him was theology. During college, Peter continued his path of service at his university’s Newman center.

Peter developed extraordinary skill for meeting people where they are and walking with them. Many of his friends credit Peter’s friendship for encountering Christ. Later, Peter meets a good Catholic girl. He falls in love and gets married. They both are open to life and God’s will in their lives. So they wish to have a large family. Because of Peter’s notable track in YAM, he has no trouble finding a job at a local parish. Peter’s wife stays home to raise their children. The first and second child come.

Suddenly, Peter realizes it’s very hard to support a large family on a YAM salary. Moreover, Peter begins to feel burned out. YAM is all Peter knows. But he begins to realize most YAM directors are… well, young. Peter won’t be young forever. He also feels he is ready for something more, a new challenge where the gifts God has given him can also be put to good use. But he never planned for anything else.

What should Peter do?

Friends, you cannot imagine how many times I have met Peter. So much, I’ve come to realize helping Peter is part of my mission. In the past, I have often pointed out that not all lay Catholics can (nor are they meant to) become apologists, catechists, or theologians. Today I want to point out that most God-loving young adults are not meant to build a career out of YAM either, not permanently.

YAM has its place. We need people equipped to serve in this space. What we don’t need is high school children to choose a career path that will lead them to a professional dead-end.

YAM can and should do what it’s supposed to do, bring young adults into an encounter with Christ, with missionaries who clearly understand that YAM is a temporary state in life. And because they understand this clearly, they prepare for what’s next in their professional lives. I like what FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students does. Their missionaries are recent college graduates who make a two-year commitment. One of the things FOCUS does for them, that most YAM outlets do not do for their leaders, is require them to raise their own salary and rely on the support of benefactors. Why is this helpful? FOCUS missionaries develop skills that can later be used to pivot into a different career path, like development.

The problem with YAM is not the ministry. It’s the fact that many young adults are  approaching it as their chosen career path. YAM is not only a difficult career path to sustain, but most will eventually have to age out of it. The sooner YAM leaders realize this, the sooner they can make the necessary adjustments.

Exiting the Whirlpool

For those who find themselves in the YAM whirlpool, below are some of the most successful ways I know of to pivot into a different career path.

DEVELOPMENT

Need for Further College Education: None

As I mentioned before, the skills used in YAM, the ability to reach people where they are and walk along with them can be pivoted into development because to fundraise for an organization, development officers must be able to do just that. Not everyone involved in YAM has the blessing of having experienced development as a specific part of their ministry (like FOCUS missionaries do). Still, the skills gained in YAM itself are transferable and a good basis for learning development. They key here is the prospective development officer must often be ready to start at the bottom, perhaps as part of a development office’s administrative support team or as a junior development officer. This is an area where I have seen many former YAM leaders thrive.

REAL ESTATE

Need for Further College Education: None.

In most states, getting a real state license does not require a college degree. One must only take a few classes to get a license. Most of the time, Peter already has a (theology) degree. So higher education is simply a plus. Because of the skills he built in YAM, Peter could be very successful in real estate. He’s not shy about approaching people. He knows how to reach people where they are and walk with them. In ministry, Peter did this to care for their souls. In real estate, he would be taking care of their need to provide a home for their families.

TEACHING

Need for Further College Education: Possibly

Most people with a bachelor’s degree can become schoolteachers. This one is tough, because if what Peter is trying to do is find a better way sustain his family, a teacher salary is not that much better than a salary in YAM. But there are paths for leadership in education, and for those who are interested, there can be opportunities to grow as a school administrator, president, principal, or headmaster, even development officer. Some of these will require additional education.

ACADEMIA

Need for Further College Education: Yes

Perhaps it wasn’t Peter’s initial consideration. He really was just in love with YAM. After all, it can be a lot of fun. But Peter might have already graduated with a theology and/or philosophy degree (Very often Peter graduates with a double major). If Peter is willing to go for a masters, he could begin a path towards teaching at a college or university. Later in life, if Peter develops the skills for it, he could also become an author, and eventually an authority in his space or specialty within theology, philosophy, or whichever other area he chooses for a graduate or doctorate degree. I have seen many young adults exit the YAM whirlpool this way.

ADMINISTRATION

Need for Further Education: Yes

This is the final way out of the whirlpool I am aware of. Many former YAM leaders are able to pivot their careers by going into administration. I am referring to a Master of Business Administration (MBA), or similar degree. This is perhaps the most versatile and flexible degree in existence today. If Peter were willing to get an MBA degree, his limited options would virtually turn into endless possibilities. All human institutions need to be managed. An MBA degree can place Peter as part of the administrative team for a business, nonprofit, or even a government organization.

“I have many friends in young adult ministry. They are saints! I love an admire their love for the Lord and their dedication to evangelization. But I also know Peter. I know many Peters. This article is for them.”

Final Thoughts

I am wary about writing this piece because I know and acknowledge that in fact there are some God has called to serve in YAM as a full-time career, permanently. And in very creative—and frankly unusual—manners the Lord has allowed them to advance in the YAM space successfully. Although, this usually means they become leaders or administrators of a larger enterprise or apostolate that serves young adults. But notice that while they remain in the YAM space, what they are really doing is something different.

I mean no disrespect to YAM leaders. I have many friends in this space. They are saints! I love an admire their love for the Lord and their dedication to evangelization. But I also know Peter. I know many Peters. This article is for them. I know that they have already given so much to the Church and have reached a place where they must begin to think of their families. I have good news for them. A lay Catholic professional can continue to win many hearts for Jesus, outside the YAM space. In fact, I know without a doubt that most lay Catholics are not called to become theologians, catechists, apologists, or young adult ministry leaders. Our lay vocation is to be in the world! We are called to be ambassadors of Christ, influencing every aspect of human activity with the values of the Gospel.


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