This article is featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Voices from the Vineyard.
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The Young Adult Initiative is a program of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology that began with an awareness of a serious problem: young people are leaving the Church and they are not coming back.
Michal Horace, director, and Kami Knies, administrative and research assistant through December 2019, staff this project and were tasked with selecting Catholic parishes to innovatively engage young adults, ages 23-29, both within and outside their congregation. The Young Adult Initiative is funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.
Knowing this challenge has many complex components, Horace selected parishes that were motivated to innovate and share ideas, not necessarily expecting to “fix their young adult problem.” “No one has the end-all-be-all to this, but together we have found so much about young adults and what makes a parish inviting and considerate to this population,” Horace says.
Knies, who did behind-the-scenes work on the initiative, saw great strides from the parishes. “At the gatherings, you hear ideas that seem so simple, but so many parishes have to realize that simple step before improving their ministry with young adults.”
Each of the 15 parishes selected for the program sends a parish contact, usually a youth and young adult minister or parish associate, and their core team members, made of parishioners of all ages, to Saint Meinrad for gatherings. During the gatherings, held twice a year, experts give talks about aspects of ministry to young adults and best practices in general ministry.
The initiative is at its halfway point of a five-year, five-phase process. The initial phases pertain to gathering people, resources and information. Some parishes have even begun implementing what they have learned through collaborative conversations. Parishes are given a stipend from the initiative’s Lilly grant: $5,000 twice a year.
Horace sees the money being used creatively in places like St. Clare Catholic Church in O’Fallon, IL, where the parish helps young adults with children pay for babysitters. “We found those with families can’t come to an evening Bible study if they struggle with paying for a sitter,” says Matthew Flynn, director of adult faith formation and mission. “It’s a small thing, but it shows we care about them.”
Flynn has no personal connection to Saint Meinrad, but both the pastor and a deacon from his parish are well connected to Saint Meinrad. When the email about the initiative was brought to Matt and the parish staff, they knew it would be worth their while. “We just wanted to see our parish grow as missionary disciples,” says Flynn, who is four years into his ministry in O’Fallon.
The purpose of the initiative is narrowed to “young adults” – those 23 to 29 years old. However, the takeaways so far have been about much more. “We had to realize that this whole thing was about building relationships in our community between all generations and integrating young adults into the life of the parish – not just creating a young adult group,” says Flynn. “Moreover, some of the young adults we try to reach today may not be ‘young’ adults when they feel ready to come back to church – and we have to be okay with that.”
Flynn’s reflections are echoed by another partnering parish. Tom Yost has been in parish ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Albany, IN, for 38 years. As an oblate of Saint Meinrad and one who works with seminarians from Saint Meinrad year to year, Yost knew the potential of working with a place forming the next generation of pastors. So far, he has learned that hospitality in ministry is just as much about “going out” than saying “come in.”
“We have talked about where young adults gather and it is not at church anymore. So, how do we not only sponsor events that meet them where they are, but how do we best practice accompaniment and one-to-one outreach in their personal lives?” he asks. Yost says it takes a multi-front effort to bring people back to the Church. It is also about the young adults who are already “in the doors” and giving them room to express their ideas. “Not just tell them what we think they want,” Tom says, referencing the core team of young adults he meets with regularly.
Overall, the consensus of this program is not based on numbers, but the lessons that have begun to inform and transform day-to-day ministry at the parish level. A parish may not have the draw to begin a large young adult-themed night, but is the parish making the effort to go out and meet with young adults, or even to learn about their experiences, troubles, joys?
The Young Adult Initiative is funded for two more years. Horace currently is putting together information to share about the initiative and has been grateful for the response of the partnering parishes. See the winter issue of On the Hill newsletter for more on what the initiative has learned. If your parish is involved, ask and see how you can be of help or learn more. If your parish is not, go to https://www.saintmeinradyai.org/ for news, resources and ways to learn more about the initiative.