Connecting with Millennials

Connecting with Millennials

Effective programs for reaching out to youth

By James McVeigh O.S.F., c

As vocation ministers, we need to give special attention to the emerging generation—the Millennials. These young people have shown a renewed interest in religious life, having grown up in a church that has encouraged their active participation as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. The Millennials have been widely exposed to retreats, pro-life, environmental, and peace activities. Leadership programs have been sponsored to energize these young people. Their efforts have supported many different types of service, from Habitat for Humanity, to trips to Appalachia or the inner city. This age group has responded enthusiastically to TEC (Teens Encounter Christ), Life Teen Masses, Christian Awakening, Taize Prayer, Legion of Mary, and a myriad of other spiritual experiences. They choose to be visible and identified as Catholic, and they look to activities that were part of the Catholic experience, such as Marian and Eucharistic devotions. At the same time, they are highly socially conscious and concerned about how society treats people. Millennials look to ritual, sign and symbol as important ways to express their connection to the church.

It is important in working with this group that we not project our experience of church onto them, nor judge their experience, but rather assist them in discerning their place in the church. Key to working with the Millennials is looking for places to connect. This may mean “going outside the box.” It may mean going places and becoming involved in activities where we would not traditionally be. Where are the Millenials? That’s where we must be. Secondly, a young college student once said to me: “I’m not looking for a project or activity run by the brothers. I am looking to work side by side with the brothers.” Include me from the beginning, he was saying. Let me have a part in the planning, allow me to work as your partner. This, of course, does not refer to all young people. Some are perfectly content to become involved in activities and programs already established. However, the attitude and approach are key. Are we really interested in learning from those looking at us or do we expect them to just conform to who we are and what we do? Certainly, religious today learned from the wisdom of those who came before them. However, religious also shaped today. The next generation is willing to learn from us but it also has something to offer. The Spirit is guiding Millennials as they look to what religious life means to them. Will we enable them, or will we say, “This is how we’ve always done it”?

Sometimes, it just takes a new way of looking at things. What has been may very well still work. How can we look at our outreach efforts from a different perspective to make them more useful, more interactive with the Millennials, more inclusive? Retreats, “Come and See” programs, service projects, charism tours, motherhouse visits have all made an impact. How can we continue to revitalize what we have? How can we expand or adapt?

“Come and See” programs

Evenings of fraternity; “Come and See” days, evenings or weekends—all these provide an opportunity for young people to get a glimpse into the life of our communities. How can we maximize these events? Often, these events provide a wonderful experience for young people to interact with religious, but young people are still uneasy about sounding too interested or being labeled. The invitation, the event itself, and the follow up are closely intertwined. A breakdown or turn off at any of these inter-dependent steps can be seriously damaging to the success of our “Come and See.”

The invitation

This first step can make or break the event. The invitation comes best when it is extended by an individual religious to the young person. Whether or not young people have any interest at all, they are usually honored to be invited and appreciate that someone believed they have the qualities to be good religious. We should never be afraid to offer the invitation. Despite early resistance, an invitation can have a significant impact on a person’s openness later in life to considering religious life or inviting someone else to consider it. You can also ask others in the faith community to do the inviting. Sometimes it’s difficult to have individual religious or laity do the actual inviting, but they are willing to submit names. In this case, a simple invitation can be sent similar to the one shown here.



The event

Most communities already have in place some one-, two- or three-day “Come and See” type event. The style of these sessions is determined by the individual communities, but there are some basics that can and should be integral to gatherings of Millennials. First, make the young people feel welcome and comfortable. Avoid gathering in an austere, “churchy” type space. The warmer, more comfortable and inviting the space, the better.You want young people to unwind, relax and feel comfortable with religious. As time evolves, you can introduce them to the other spaces that we have. Relaxed conversations are more effective than wordy, lecture style approaches. When possible, have several religious included in the group. (What a blessing if you have younger religious in the group!) Be cautious not to have too many religious, which can overpower the individuals attending the “Come and See.” Balance the group not only in numbers, but in personality, interests, and opinions. Let them see that we are not all clones. Invite them to pray with you so that they see that the spiritual side of your life is integrated with ministry and community. It is important that they see us relate to each other in very human terms—sharing the laughs, teasing, vision and concerns of our lives. They want to know what we do be sides our ministry. What do we do for fun? How do we spend our time together? Apart? How do we maintain contact with our families and friends? How do we make a difference in the lives of others in the church and society? Setting a tone of welcoming and relaxed conversation will facilitate these discussions.

Use mini-surveys well

This year, in an attempt to link this event to follow-up activities, we tried a new approach. As the young people arrived, were greeted, and filled out name tags, we asked them to assist the brothers by completing a simple hand-out. The hand-out asked four questions.

1. When you think of the Franciscan Brothers, what are the first three words or statements that come to mind? This question engages the students in a process of naming what they think about us. Thus, before even becoming involved in discussions, they have a chance to reflect on who the brothers are. Later they share these thoughts in the discussion. Their written responses also provide valuable input to share with the brothers about what our students think of us. Many of the statements are quite affirming and encouraging. Sometimes this opportunity can also signal red flags that we should be attentive to in terms of our public perception. Other times, it can provide a wonderful opportunity for on-going dialogue with the individual.

2. What is it about the brothers that would cause you to consider our life or cause you to encourage someone else to consider the life of a Franciscan Brother? This question prompts immediate reflection on our religious lifestyle. It also is a non-threatening approach of looking at a religious vocation from the viewpoint of someone else. At the same time, it raises the important question of encouraging others and opens the door to discussing one’s attitudes about inviting others to consider religious life. Finally, it again surfaces valuable information for the community about why someone may be hesitant to invite someone to join our community. As an aside, this is always a challenging question to pursue with members of your own community as to why they may or may not invite others to join us.

3. What is it about the life of a religious brother that might discourage you from considering or encouraging another to become a Franciscan brother? While this question appears very negative, it provides an opportunity to dispel many of the myths which exist about the life of religious. It puts some of the difficult questions right on the table, allowing them to be addressed later in the group or individually.

4. On the reverse side of this sheet, list any questions that you might have about the life and ministry of the Franciscan Brothers. This provides the students with an opportunity to process some of their questions before the event even begins. It also gathers information that can be helpful to the religious community and vocation minister in the public perception of the community. After answering all four questions, the students are better prepared for the event and more focused on what they hope to learn and experience. Recognizing that in every group there are those who could be very interested but who are shy or intimidated by a group, this fourth question gives such individuals an opportunity to ask questions. Their written questions could be the beginning of dialogue with the vocation minister or one of the other brothers. Finally, everyone is given the opportunity to list an email address or phone number so that a response can be made to their questions.

This simple, one-page hand-out, completed while people are arriving and settling in for the event, provides them with an opportunity to reflect and focus before the event begins.

Toward the conclusion of the event, once again we try to involve the participants by having them complete a hand-out. We ask them for input to assist us in our ministry. We ask them:

  • To suggest slogans, clever ideas for posters and advertisements
  • To tell us what they would like to see or learn from a video about the brothers
  • To recommend how to make a video or Web site attractive, informative and inviting

By asking these questions, we connect with the young people, letting them know that we value their opinion. Again, we also gain some fresh, young input that will be helpful in our future work. Furthermore, we’ve put the young people in the mode of thinking about what would attract someone their age to religious life. The hand-out then continues: Would you be willing to serve on an Advisory Committee to the brothers to recommend ways to make more people aware of the brothers’ vocation in the church?

Do you have any special talents or interests that could assist us in promoting the brothers vocation? Artist_______ musician_______ photographer_______ videographer_______ Web site wizard________ graphic designer_______

The best way to contact me is: ___________________

The follow-up

Building bridges is essential after your community’s “Come and See” event. You will have young people leaving the event at all different levels of interest, from none to keen. No matter their interest, every one of the participants plays a key role in your future efforts. Whether or not they are interested, they may influence others. Find ways to keep them all in the loop, whether it be mailing lists for newsletters, invites to future events, or an occasional call or note. Depending on the level of interest, the level of contact would be more specific, such as ministry experiences, CONTACT Program, Affiliates/Associates, retreats etc. These are just some of the ways that you can follow-up. The hand-outs that you had them fill out during the event will create opportunities for you to make contact with those who are willing to assist you. This creates a non-threatening way for them to keep in touch with you and your community as an advisor, rather than being labeled or singled out. Getting to know you and working with you may nurture the beginnings of a vocation. Many Millennials are quite comfortable telling their peers about their interest in religious life, but there are still some who may be concerned about peer pressure.

School visits

In my early days as a vocation director, I made a point of visiting many classes, but soon realized that while these visits promoted awareness and hopefully planted the seeds for vocation discernment, if there was not some formal follow-up, the visits had limited success. It is most important that teachers and religious on staff continue to promote vocations and are involved in ongoing contact. What I’ve found helpful after visiting classes is to ask the teacher(s) to give me the name of a number of students who they feel might be open to a religious vocation. Normal peer pressure and a fear of being identified as someone who might have a religious vocation makes it difficult for the young person to ask questions or seek out the vocation director. Using a back door approach, I send for the students previously named. I tell them that I have asked them to help me by evaluating my presentation. What clicked with them? What did I say that might put young people off? I ask them to help me by evaluating the presentation. Then I ask them if they have ever considered religious life themselves and do they have any questions? Often this opens up an excellent conversation that can be the start of a discernment process. The student can return to class and honestly say that he was asked to evaluate the presentation. Meanwhile, you may set in motion a healthy discernment process.

Side by side

Millennials want to see up close who we are. They want to experience what we do to better understand our lifestyle. They want to see us enjoy each other, work well together, and share in the prayer life of the church together. For the Millennials, the key word is “together.” They can serve God and the church alone. As singles or as married people, they can be involved in their parishes. They can pray alone. They can have a happy life without joining a religious order. However, many of them want to make a difference as part of a larger group—religious who are bonded together with a sense of communal concern, whose prayer life together strengthens their individual spiritual journey, whose corporate witness speaks volumes to others as men and women of service who are first and foremost members of a religious order. Whether it be Eucharist, a vigil for a social justice issue, Eucharistic adoration, Taize Prayer, the rosary—these are seen as ways of encountering Jesus and the Blessed Mother with others in religious life. The service/ministry is the effect of a strong religious life motivated by the Gospel and accomplished in community. Our task is to look for opportunities to engage the Millennials and our community members in experiences that will cause the Millennials to seriously consider our lifestyle. These do not have to be elaborate, costly projects. Many communities have experiences of service where they will take their young people to Appalachia, or perhaps even Central America or South America to immerse them in an experience of the poor and give them an opportunity to work side by side with religious working in the missions.

Some communities may not have the resources or personnel for these extended programs, but there are still ways to provide the opportunity to young people and involve your community members as well. One approach that we used was the “Franciscan Mid-Winter Alternative,” a program that allowed our local students and brothers to participate while involving our students back home from a distance. Collaboration with other religious congregations made this co-ed project a success.

Franciscan Mid-Winter Alternative

During the February break, 22 junior and senior students from Franciscan Brothers’ Secondary Schools participated in the first Mid-Winter Alternative Experience. It was sponsored by the Franciscan Brothers. The students traveled from North Carolina, Missouri, and four counties in New York. These students gave up their break to participate in an experience of community and to serve in the inner city of Brooklyn. Project Director Brother Damian Novello, OSF was assisted by myself and Richard Contino, OSF. Agnes Penny, campus minister from Cardinal Gibbons in North Carolina, also participated. Numerous brothers assisted by cooking, serving, escorting the students to ministry sites and showing them New York City.

The students spent the week sharing community, prayer, and service to the poor. Each day provided an opportunity to minister to a different group—the hungry, the homeless, the handicapped and underprivileged children. They had time for reflecting on and discussing each experience. The students journaled and brought those they served to prayer. Many of the students came from suburban or rural areas. Sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags in classrooms, using the gym showers and bathrooms, having to cook, clean up and set up for meals was a new experience for many of them. Having to work together with different personalities was also a learning experience. But they were quick learners, and community building happened early in the week. From board games, to videos, to playing in the gym, the students enjoyed each other’s company in the evenings. Guest speakers gave input on the experience of the needy in New York. In addition to seeing their ministry sites, the young people also toured some of the poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A trip to New York’s Chinatown gave them another opportunity to experience the cultural diversity of the city. Attending an Hispanic liturgy gave them an opportunity to see the diversity of liturgical experience in the church in New York. Playtime was also built into the schedule—excursions to Manhattan and a Broadway show (“Les Miserables”) rounded out the New York experience for all.

The students were broken into ministry teams so that each day they would rotate to a new experience. A special treat was devised for Washington’s Birthday as some of the sites were not open that day. When school is closed, many inner city youth are confined to small apartments during the day because it’s not safe to play outside. We picked up a group of 40 children, ages 7- 12, from St. Lucy/St. Patrick Parish. The older students were the kids’ mentors and entertained them on the bus while traveling to Bishop Ford High School. Shortly after arrival we showed an animated videotape on the life of Francis of Assisi. This made the children and their mentors aware of the necessity of caring for each other. Then the whole group broke into smaller groups where the mentors did some group activities and games with the younger children. Lunch followed, with everyone charging to the gym afterward for ice cream. The noise level rose rapidly as the boys and girls engaged in a variety of activities and games. The youngsters and their mentors bonded quickly, and as they left for their bus ride home many were very sad. That first day of ministry was one that would be talked about all week. During the remainder of the week, the high school students assisted at various social service agencies, lending a hand at soup kitchens, a half-way house, a food and clothing pantry, and a facility for the handicapped.

Throughout the experience, brothers interacted with the young people. The brothers who lived in the friary attached to the school were most hospitable and welcoming, offering everything from furniture to kitchen utensils to assist in the project. Senior brothers joined us for meals and prayers. Brothers came from many friaries and volunteered to cook, shop, clean, prepare prayer, drive groups to their sites, join in on a tour, dinner or prayer. The entire experience was situated within a prayerful missioning from beginning to end.

Brother Kevin Smith, OSF, Superior General of the Franciscan Brothers, commissioned the students as Franciscan Volunteers on the first evening and I, as vocation director, conducted a “Continuing the Mission Prayer Service” as the students evaluated the week’s activities. The final evening was topped off with a Karaoke night as the students prepared to return to their homes. The response was very positive as the young people spoke of the impact of community, prayer and service and their outreach to the poor. Many spoke of the experience as life changing. Some immediately signed up to help at a Camp for Children with AIDS while others signed up to help at a camp for children with special needs. For the brothers, the Mid-Winter Alternative was an opportunity to share their charism with youth.

Student vocation advisory groups

These groups can also be another “back door entry” to those students who could potentially be discerning a vocation. Gather a group of student advisors from youth groups or Catholic high school classes.

Ask the students to assist you with your vocation ministry. Invite them to find out more about religious life so that they can help in your work. Their task should be simple: What do they need to do to be sure that their peers become better informed about religious life and its function in the church? What will work at that particular parish/school to raise consciousness about religious life and create a culture of vocational discernment? These young people can serve as your “experts” in relating to Millennials. Being invited to serve on this committee will be seen as an honor and the young people should feel excited about playing a significant role in the church by giving their advice and participating in the planning of events. Invite their opinion on how you advertise, how you set up your Web site, your brochures, posters, video, retreats, etc. Ask them how to connect with other Millennials, how to appeal to this age group. As they create, they will need input on the essence of religious life. They will need to learn what are the essentials of a vowed life lived in prayer, community and ministry.

They will want to know about our day-to-day living out of community, ministry and prayer. They will want to know what we do for fun. How do we relax? What is it like to live a life of service? They will learn as they advise and have a better understanding of religious life, and who knows how the Spirit will move?

Look beyond your community

We must look to the larger church and involve the church in developing a culture of vocation. Invite parents, teachers, youth workers, and young adults to participate in your work. Invite them to serve on an Advisory Committee. Whether we are talking about the Millennials themselves, their parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents—all must recognize the crucial role they play in encouraging people to ask the question: Would I make a good brother, sister, deacon, priest? Could God be calling me? Among the many options open to them, they must also explore that they may have been called to a church vocation. Since Vatican II we have been blessed with a recognition that the laity play an important role in the church. There are many ways that married and single persons can participate in the life of the church. They are fulfilling many significant roles today. This does not mean however that there is not a continued need for religious brothers and sisters, deacons and priests. The ministries are different, the calls are different, but all play an important role in God’s plan. Therefore, we must help the laity to understand better the role of the ordained and consecrated life in the church today. We must also invite them to play a significant role in developing a culture of vocation and discernment. In many cases the laity can be instrumental in building bridges between us and the young people in our parishes and schools. Have them introduce you to the young people in youth groups, parish or school activities.

Charism experiences

Many communities have organized pilgrimages and visits to motherhouses. If you are visiting your community schools, one way of involving the younger high school kids (ninth and tenth graders) is by taking them on a tour of the convent, friary, or residence for the religious. This could be accomplished during a class period, and it does not have to be done only by the vocation minister. It allows the students to see how we live and to ask questions about our life. They begin to see our human side as they see where and how we live outside our ministry. This same process could be used with youth groups and religious education classes. It may start young people thinking so that by the time they get to the upper grades, they will be better prepared to listen on a deeper level and ask more sophisticated questions as you invite them to consider contact experiences.

Perhaps you no longer have a big motherhouse or a shrine to take young people to visit. There are still other options. Perhaps a charism tour could focus on the stained glass windows in a series of the places you live or minister. Often these windows, tapestries, mosaics, etc. tell the story of your community and what is important in your charism. Use it as an exercise to share with others the basis of your charism, your founder or foundress. This is another way to expose young people to what makes us tick. This could be done in collaboration with fine arts classes or a cultural tour—another back door introduction to religious life.

Youth groups could spend a session on the music that relates to the theme of “call.” Using the alphabet, you could identify individual religious or ministries for each letter celebrating the diversity of interests of a religious as well as their ministries. Let the young know that Sister, Father, Brother enjoy skiing, participate in marathons, enjoy music. Besides teaching, religious may serve as an overnight supervisor at a group home, or deliver meals on wheels. The more that we show that we have full, enjoyable, challenging lives, the more that Millennials will be open to considering our way of life. Other youth groups or religious education activities that appeal to youth are the TV show, Real World and music videos. These media attractions can be used to involve young people in creating video/ music experiences for which they need to get accurate information about religious life in order to tape.

Journalism can be another vehicle to involve Millennials. Have them write a feature story on a religious. Art projects such as murals, mosaics, or paintings that capture what it is to be a religious involve them on a sensory level. Leadership camps and seminars provide a perfect opportunity to stress the role of a Christian leader in society. They give young people a chance to explore the many ways of serving as leaders in the church.

Vocation ministers must look for ways to insert themselves into the lives of the Millennials. We cannot sit back and wait for them to come to us. We must also invite the members of our congregations to make a preferential option for the young. Responding to our call, we generously invite all who serve God as married or single, ordained or consecrated to develop a culture of vocation. Together, we will continue to spread the Gospel as we fulfill our special mission within the church. St. Paul reminds us of the many gifts of the church. We are aware of the needs of the church. Let us be sure that Millennials look to the many options before them and that they ask the question: Is God calling me to be a religious brother, or sister, deacon or priest?

James McVeigh, OSF is the vocation director for the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn and a member of the NRVC board and the Advisory Board for the National Vocation Awareness Division of the J.S. Paluch Company. Brother James is a former teacher, principal, school supervisor, county superintendent and Director of Religious Activities and Retreats.

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