Join hands with young adult ministers

Join hands with young adult ministers

By Paul Jarzembowski

One of the highlights of my job each month is heading off to our diocesan vocation association meeting. For vocation directors, it might seem routine; but for a young adult minister like me, it’s one of the most enjoyable and most important meetings I can attend.

About two years ago, Father Burke Masters, the Diocese of Joliet vocations director, and the members of the Joliet Area Vocations Association (JAVA) invited those of us in youth, campus, pastoral juvenil and young adult ministries to join them each month and contribute to the discussions and planning of vocation events across the diocese.

What I had never realized before that was that vocation ministry and young adult ministry actually share a very common goal: namely, to prepare young adults in their late teens, 20s, and 30s to fully realize and live out their baptismal calling. Even our methods are similar: both ministries accompany young adults on their journey of faith, sowing seeds and inviting them to go deeper through faith formation, social mission, and prayerful discernment. Where we differ is the point of entry: the young adult minister is usually focused on the evangelization of active, busy or indifferent Catholic young adults; while the vocation leader typically pulls from the already active, enthusiastic and spiritual young adults in the church.

Of course this does not mean that young adult ministers have no relationship with active young adults; it’s just that there are so many untapped young people that reaching out to them is a primary issue. Likewise vocation ministers and religious communities are also engaged in the work of evangelization, but the pathway to leadership and ministry should begin with a firm commitment to the faith.

Our teleology, however, remains the same. We all long for young adults to find their calling, and we both work hard at preparing them for that life. One thing I have noticed is that there are too many young people today who lack an intentionality of vocation, whether they are active in their faith or not. Many “fall into” whatever career or lifestyle follows the path of least resistance—instead of being conscious and intentional about their role in this world and in their relationship with God. The end goal of our ministries should be a church filled with intentional, purpose-filled young adults who, inspired by the Gospel and the love of Christ, find and fulfill their life’s calling.

Who are young adults?

Before going on, let us be clear about who exactly we’re talking about. Young adults are men and women between ages 18 and 39. But since we live in a “niche culture” that divides populations into countless demographics, there are many categories of young adults, each needing a unique outreach and ministry—from college students to singles to young couples; from urban professionals to blue collar workers to rural laborers; from Gen Xers in their 30s to Millenials in their 20s. What unites them all is their search for the four key areas of growth: identity, belonging, purpose and meaning. The journey toward a maturity in each of these areas marks a major turning point from adolescence to adulthood.

The search for identity emerges from the fact that they are no longer children or youth, whose identity is wrapped up in their family, but they have yet to carve out a place in their community, career or personal development. Who am I? Who am I meant to be? These are the common questions that all young adults ask. With every new transition in a young adult’s life (a new job, a new city or a new relationship), those questions rise to the surface once more as the young adult discerns how his or her personal identity is wrapped up in the new situation or circumstance before them. Much internal soul-searching happens at this time in the young adult experience.

The search for belonging is similar, focusing more on the community and social aspect of identity. Where do I go? Where is home now? With whom do I belong? Young adults are seeking a community or a group of people with which to identify—and they desire a place where they feel accepted and welcomed and where they have the opportunity to make a difference. Often the people or places that reach out to them the earliest or most genuinely are where they will immediately gravitate and find a home.

The search for purpose flows from the young adult’s emerging realization that God has given each person unique gifts, passions, talents and skills. What do I do with my life? How do I use my gifts and passions? What’s my role? How will I be remembered? These questions, combined with the reality that, to survive, they need to make a living, bring about young adults’ desire to find their purpose in life. Sometimes, due to finances, circumstances or expectations, these decisions can often be made in haste, leading to an ongoing frustration with their initial career and life decisions.

The young adult search for meaning stems from the fact that, up until this point, “meaning” had been spelled out for these men and women by their family, by their educators, by their peers and by the church leaders of their youth. But now, as an adult, this quest begins anew with renewed vigor. What’s the point? Why are we here? What does it all mean? Faced with challenging new information in college or in the work they do, young adults start to question the very foundations on which they stood for so long. When these questions go unanswered, or if no one is around to answer, many may turn to other sources or form their own conclusions to satiate the appetite for meaning.

These four marks of young adulthood form the basis for a mature look at the world. What’s interesting, though, is that the search for any of these benchmarks of young adulthood takes much longer today than in previous generations. For one, the Millennial young adults are not finding full-time employment and are staying in school longer. From 2006 to 2010, due in large part to the economic recession, the percentage of young adults ages 18 to 30 in full-time work dropped from 50 percent to 41 percent, while the number of Millennials in school rose from 10 percent to 13 percent, and those unemployed altogether rose from 18 percent to 22 percent. For this age bracket this is the highest level of unemployment or non-employment in more than three decades.1

In addition the average age of marriage today is 28 for men and 26 for women, whereas in 1970, men and women were getting married at ages 23 and 20, respectively2. People are having children later as well. The average age of parents having their first child has increased each year in the United States. From 1970 to 2006, the average age of first-time mothers rose from 21.4 years to 25.0 years. And 1 out of 12 first births were from women over the age of 35, compared to 1 out of 100 in 1970.3

The search for meaning is also taking longer (and for some, might never come at all). Recent polling shows that one in four young adults (26 percent) in the Millennial Generation is unaffiliated with any organized religion, which is double that (13 percent) of Baby Boomers at a comparable point in their lives.4 The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University also reports that only 15 percent to 17 percent of young adults under 45 attend Mass on a weekly basis.5

While some young adults make rash decisions, many others are delaying their quest—wanting to be certain that they have made the right choice. Some may see the divorce, pedophilia, unemployment and growing cases of loneliness and depression in their families, peers and culture as a warning sign, akin to the advice of the grail knight in the final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "Choose. But choose wisely… for while the true one will give you life, the false one will take it from you.”

For one reason or another, some young adults see the Catholic Church as irrelevant, hateful, hypocritical, boring or unconcerned with them and others their age. Others see it as a place for their saintly grandmother, but not a place for a “sinner like me.” On the other hand, many are incredibly spiritual people who believe in equality for all people, charity to the poor and suffering, and compassion for the earth and other nations.

This is the field vocations and young adult ministry professionals have the opportunity to work and minister in. These are the young adults, both active and inactive, whom we can help to find the next step in their vital life searches.

The role of young adult ministry

In 1996, seeing a major need for outreach to adults in their 20s and 30s, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops outlined a pastoral plan to address the journey of young adults called Sons and Daughters of the Light, saying:

In light of these insights, our ministry with young adults, who make up approximately 30 percent of the total U.S. population, must be intensified. We need to be a Church that is interested in the lives of these men and women and is willing to invite them into our community. We need to be a Church imbued with the missionary zeal for the Gospel. When young adults accept our invitation, we must welcome them; acknowledge their participation; and make room for them in all aspects of church life.

The bishops encouraged all members of the church to invest in the outreach and ministry to those in their late teens, 20s, and 30s. It was important in 1996—and it is even more critical today.

Due to budget cuts and a tough economy, much of the work of young adult ministry today is being done by a collage of people who have stepped up or have been assigned to do it, including but not limited to: adult faith formation leaders, youth ministers, campus ministers, religious educators, wedding and baptism ministry leaders, young adult volunteers, vocations leaders, evangelization teams, pastoral associates, priests, pastors and deacons.

We estimate that over two-thirds of Catholic dioceses have some form of young adult ministry. Many of these offices are combined with youth ministry or campus ministry, and some are housed in the diocesan offices for religious education, family ministries, evangelization, black Catholics, or Hispanic ministry. Only a select few have their own distinct agency or office in their diocese. At the parish level, the young adult ministry efforts might be more difficult to spot (and there may be fewer outreach efforts for young adults); however, it is best to contact either the director of adult faith formation, the youth ministry director, or the director of religious education/faith formation. In some parishes, the people who are most involved with young adults are the marriage and baptism ministry leaders, the welcoming and evangelization committees, and the RCIA teams. However, if vocation leaders continue to struggle to find the right person or the right fit, they can also contact the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association (NCYAMA) and check what is available in their area of the country.

Church leaders who work in young adult ministry might see themselves as missionaries. While pastoral care of young adults is necessary, the vast majority of inactive young Catholics today need missionaries—making the role of evangelization even more important. Their role is, through evangelization and ministry efforts, to connect young adults to four basic elements of the faith experience: to God, the church, the mission of the church in the world, and to a community of fellow disciples.

These church leaders are ambassadors and advocates for the church with young adults—and for young adults with the church. Sadly, though, even though there are more ministers working in the field and the need is greater than ever, young adult ministry is stretched and strained. Combining with other ministries often diminishes the impact a parish leader can have on young adults—and with a lack of resources and publications—the advocacy and ministry can be lost.

Without the people or the resources, the church cannot help young adults in their quest for identity, belonging, purpose or meaning. Without this essential ministry, the church cannot help these men and women understand and fulfill their baptismal call.

A study released in The Next Generation of Pastoral Leaders: What the Church Needs to Know, by Dean Hoge and Marti Jewell discovered that many young adults are indeed interested in a life of service to the church, but little structure was in place to help them make the next step.6 In other words, without good outreach and ministry, these young adults simply fall through the cracks.

Building connections

This confluence of circumstance, shifting statistics and the reality of young adults in the world today creates a “perfect storm,” one in which both church workers in young adult and vocations ministries are called to work together.

Due to the fact that our goals are incredibly similar, given the late commitment of young adults in their search for maturity today, and taking into consideration the reality that the church is lacking in its intentional outreach and ministry for young adults, the time for collaboration has come: neither young adult ministers nor vocation ministers can afford to be alone in their work any longer. In the past, this collaboration might have been strained. Some young adult ministers rejected vocation work because it was perceived as “too pushy” or because a past vocation director once dismissed single or married life as an inferior vocation. It’s good to know of these potential roadblocks so we can navigate them in the future. Below are some steps that vocation leaders and young adult ministers can take as they begin to work together.

Being present and working alongside

As a young adult minister I am incredibly grateful to the Joliet Area Vocations Association (JAVA) and to the Diocesan Vocations Director for extending an invitation to join them as they vision, plan and evaluate their work. Looking at your local context, who is working with young adults in your area (at a local parish, diocese, campus or organization)? Invite them, as JAVA invited me, into a collaborative relationship—either with your religious community or with a larger diocesan or regional association. You may also consider inviting them to attend one of your already-planned events, especially one aimed at young adults.

This networking works both ways. In addition to you, as a vocation minister, inviting young adult ministers to collaborate with you, you may want to consider being present at or helping organize young adult activities in your area, such as a retreat, social outing, or a specific program like Theology on Tap. Let the organizers know in advance of your interest—and, if you are able, offer to assist them in whatever way you can. (This might be a way to avoid the roadblock of suspicion).

Simply being present and invited goes a long way toward mutual respect and cooperation between vocations and young adult ministry. From your perspective as a vocation leader, the presence of sisters, brothers and priests at young adult activities can be a great way to sow vocational seeds, extinguish myths and open wide the doors of communication.

Here are some examples of how JAVA and I have collaborated. Over the past year or two, I have served on JAVA committees to help plan young adult days of reflection and to develop effective marketing strategies for vocations events and for specific religious communities within the association. Last year, I led a workshop for JAVA members on how to best use Facebook and other social networking sites to connect with young adults. And at each month’s meeting, I contribute to the discussions, general planning and visioning that takes place throughout the year.

The JAVA members and diocesan and order priests have been present at and helped to plan a number of young adult ministry programs this past year, including weekly young adult Stations of the Cross visits, our annual Holy Thursday Midnight Pilgrimage Walk with our diocesan bishop, as speakers and as participants at the many Theology-on- Tap sessions over the summer, in the planning of our annual Advent Candlelight Vespers Service, and at weekly gatherings of the Spirit & Truth Eucharistic Adoration Communities around the Diocese of Joliet. One religious community was inspired to start a monthly Lectio Divina group through their convent aimed at young adults, which has recently moved online through Facebook as “Scripture Wi-Fi.”

These sorts of collaborations could potentially lead to a fusion of ministry efforts, whereby young adult and vocations leaders work together to organize, plan and carry out activities or initiatives for men and women in their late teens, 20s and 30s. What charism does your religious community have? What skills do your members possess that might benefit the church’s outreach and ministry to young adults? Asking questions like these can lead to some potential connections that can be crafted by just being present for one another.

Outreach beyond high school

Over the years, I have seen vocation ministers do some really great work with children and youth in the parishes and schools around the country, raising awareness and inviting kids to consider a life of service to the church. But what about the next stage of their lives? With the fact that many are waiting until young adulthood to make major life decisions, it makes sense to expand vocation fairs and visitations to young adults as well.

This might involve working together with local young adult ministry leaders to set up vocation programs for invitation, formation and discernment, or making sure young adult leaders are invited to join you for these initiatives.

Another area of need among young adults is mentorship. As they search out their identity, as they find a place of belonging, or as they ask questions about their purpose and the meaning of life, a good mentor is good to have. Whether you provide spiritual direction or companionship or simply your presence to young adults—this is an invaluable connection point between young adults and vocation leaders (and others in the religious community). These one-on-one relationships can help the young adult with his or her questions, in addition to showing positive examples of other generations living out a baptismal call.

Looking beyond high school can also help to more effectively bridge that gap into which many young adults fall. If positive relationships have been established in elementary or high school settings, it makes sense that those continue into college and young adulthood. Those relationships can continue through e-mail and social networking, as well as by arranging to meet up at college, on campus or at young adult ministry activities in the summer or on breaks. If the students attend a local college or university or are already in the working world, they can keep in touch at parish and ministry events year-round.

One effective way to stay in touch is for priests or religious sisters and brothers to arrange to meet up before a ministry event during a contact’s college or young adult years—and then attend the event together. Another practical way to maintain contact with university students is through “care packages” during mid-terms or finals weeks. Sending some food, stress relievers and devotional items (because the college students really need some prayer about that time!), along with a personal note of encouragement, is a gesture these young adults appreciate. Such ongoing contact forms an unbroken line of ministry, showing young adults they are important and valuable to the life of the church.

Use media and technology

It is a given that to reach young adults we must use media and technology. Gen X and Millennial young adults have grown up or have come of age in a global, Google-speed world. In fact, 24 percent of Millennial young adults say that their use of technology defines who they are, just as the Second World War defines adults born before 1945. Even more so, young adults today consume technology much differently than their peers five, 10 or 20 years ago.

Technology and virtual tools are no longer just fun, as they might have been in the 1980s and 1990s. They compose the paradigm in which we live and breathe today—no longer a toy for kids, but an essential part of the education, business, health, news and entertainment industries. A decade ago, the Internet provided an outlet for people to escape the world; but now, with the rise of social networking sites, technology has broken the concept of individualism as quickly as it created it. Tools such as Facebook and Twitter don’t replace the personal touch, but they are making relational ministry more popular than ever. The Catholic Church cannot afford to ignore technology if it seeks to reach out to young adults. We may not be called to be “of the world,” but we must certainly do our ministry “in the world.” These virtual tools can enhance our prayer and worship, provide on-the-go catechesis, and develop communities of faith to support the journey. If young adults are Googling everything else about the world, why not the church?

Advocate and pray

Finally, we young adult ministers need the prayer and support of vocation ministers. The Catholic belief in the communion of saints and the fact that we all pray for each other (both on earth and in heaven) has been a saving grace for me as a young adult minister. Too often, I as a young adult minister, have felt alone in the struggle to minister to such a vast population. By cutting budgets and ignoring this vital ministry, have we abandoned the young adults and our church’s call to reach out to them, as expressed in Sons and Daughters of the Light?

If there is a young adult ministry leader in a parish, diocese, campus or organization near you, please take the time to work alongside them in this crucial work as we all advocate for the place of young adults in the Catholic Church in the United States. Support and encourage the good work they are doing, whether it’s full-time or parttime—either by calling them up to let them know you’re praying for them or to ask how you and your community can support their efforts. It was people like Father Burke Masters; Sister Lovina Pammit, OSF; Sister Barb Kwiatkowski, OSF; Sister Claire Vandborg, IBVM and Brother James McDonald, CFC and the Joliet Area Vocations Association that did that for me when I came to work for the Diocese of Joliet. And thanks to their support, I am able to do so much more than otherwise for the young adults of our area.

If there is nothing labeled “young adult ministry” near you, consider working with nearby parishes or dioceses to help start something new. Stand as an advocate for young adults and for this ministry because, without it, who knows what the future holds? If you need help, connect with the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association (www., a nationwide organization dedicated to helping those who are passionate about outreach and ministry to men and women in their late teens, 20s and 30s.

Speaking of these young adults, one of the best ways for Catholics to make an impact is to pray. Pray for the young adults in their times of transition. Pray for the church that it may live up to its call for evangelization and ministry to this age group. Pray for the young adult ministry that does exist, that it continues to grow and touch the lives and hearts of young adults. Last but not least, pray for all of us engaged in this ministry, whether we are vocation directors or young adult ministers, that Christ may guide our actions and give direction to our work.

Know that many of us young adult ministers are on our own vocational journey: searching for identity as evangelists and ministers of the Gospel; searching for belonging among the other pastoral leaders of the church; searching for the purpose of our work in the face of the harsh reality of emptying pews; and searching for the meaning of the Reign of God, the direction we are all marching toward.

We aren’t that different after all, are we? Both vocation leaders and young adult ministers serve the young adults of the church. We are all sitting as disciples before the feet of Jesus, learning from the Master and going out as missionaries to preach the Gospel and set on fire the hearts of young adults. The next step is working hand in hand in His name.


1. Pew Research Center, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” February 2010.

2. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, January 2009.

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Delayed Childbearing: More Women are Having Their First Child Later in Life,” by T.J. Matthews, M.S., and Brady E. Hamilton, Ph.D., report from National Center for Health Statistics, Data Brief, no. 21, August 2009.

4. Pew Research Center, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” February 2010.

5. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” April 2008.

6. Hoge, Dean and Marti Jewell in The Next Generation of Pastoral Leaders: What the Church Needs to Know (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010).


Paul Jarzembowski is the executive director of the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association, a resource center and nationwide network for church leaders working with young adults. He is also an advisor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. In addition, he serves as the diocesan director of Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, IL and has served in young adult evangelization and ministry in parishes, regional clusters and in diocesan work for the past 10 years.


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