By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Write
Sunday, August 6, 2006
The philosophy of the youth ministry business these days is summed up by a recent cover story in Group magazine, the industry's must-read glossy: "Busting the 'Cool Leader' Myth."
The sarcastic cover photo -- a young, cute guy wearing a goatee and jeans, with a guitar slung across his back and tossing a Frisbee -- conjures up memories many adult Americans carry of the people who were assigned by their church, temple or mosque to be with them when they were young. Youth ministers or youth directors were likely barely out of their teens -- someone who organized softball and maybe led a simple Bible study.
That guy is passe.
Increasingly, a position once relegated to a low rung on the pay and respect scales is getting bumped up. Spurred by a new seriousness about young people's spiritual development, youth ministers and directors today have more education, are staying in their positions longer and are being paid more than they were a decade ago, according to statistics and interviews with researchers and industry groups. University classes and majors in youth ministry are becoming more common as the field becomes more professional and establishes standards. Attendance at conferences for youth ministers is doubling as such sessions as the psychology of faith, managing a volunteer force and sexual behavior are offered.
"Even a decade ago, the model was 'Hey, if you're faithful and good with kids, hop on board.' More and more now, there is a realization that you need to be skilled to do this; it's not just hanging out with youth. It's being able to manage budgets, deal with parents -- someone who can make this a living faith, not just something that's religious trivia," said Bob Rice, who helped create a youth ministry major at the Franciscan University of Steubenville two years ago. Today, it's the second-largest major at the Catholic school in Ohio.
The increased focus on youths plays out differently in various faith communities. For example, religious minorities such as Sikhs and Jews tend to make cultural identity and pride a key aspect of young people's programs. And the increased focus has evolved faster in some places than others. Although Catholic youth ministry experts say much of this is new, evangelical Protestants have been talking about it seriously for about 20 years, said Group's editor, Rick Lawrence.
That's when, he said, "the church recognized a profound truth, which is that 80 percent of people who become Christians do so before the age of 18. The church started to wake up to the reality that a lot of its work needs to be in youth ministry. The church began to take young people more seriously."
This thinking is feeding a fast-growing industry of software, videos, high-tech games, conferences and other programs created by such companies as Group, Youth Specialties, Simply Youth Ministry and Life Teen. For $42, youth ministers can buy "Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks," a CD with "lively and effective" parables and anecdotes for presentations to kids at camp or parents. For $625, they can sign up for a training conference in the fall with Life Teen, the company that created youth-oriented Mass programs that are attended by 120,000 teenagers throughout the country each Sunday. For $60, they can order a six-week teaching package called "The Power of Sex" by acclaimed youth minister Doug Fields.
"There is an avalanche of resources pouring in," Lawrence said.
The philosophy dominating the business today is "relational" ministry, which means not so much using teen lingo or dressing cool but spending quality time with young people and understanding the morally nuanced, complex world in which they live. That can require delving into painful and emotional dialogue, which is part of the daily fare for David Costanzo, a baby-faced 31-year-old who is one of the fast-rising Catholic youth ministers in Northern Virginia. The number of paid youth ministers such as Costanzo in the diocese has jumped from 25 to 47 in the past four years.
Costanzo said his "programming model" focuses on convincing young people of their divine worth and value, in part by relating to painful problems they might have, such as depression, substance abuse or self-mutilation. Having been abused as a child, contemplated suicide and experienced counseling, Costanzo said he can connect deeply with the teenagers he works with at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax Station.
"Most youth ministers I've gotten to know have been through something in life, and it's been a result of their relationship with Christ that's carried them through," he said.
Some say this thinking has spurred "postmodern" youth ministry, which means exploring God not only by focusing on the precise words of the Bible but through experiences, including poetry and other arts. This shift is controversial. "For some, this is stripping the message itself of its truth," Lawrence said.
The Rev. James Black, head of North American Youth Ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said the faith community realized in the past few years that old methods such as simple Bible classes weren't even close to working.
"As a society, one day we just woke up and realized we ran into a brick wall. What are we saying to these kids? If we don't keep up, we'll be left behind," he said. Although only 500 of the Adventist Church's 6,000 North American churches have full-time youth directors or youth ministers, he said, that number is rising. And this year, 3,000 to 5,000 people came to the denomination's youth ministry convention, up from 1,500 in previous years.
Part of this is possible because youth ministers are being paid more. The average salary and benefits package for a full-time youth minister has risen from $27,259 in 1990 to $36,696 in 2003 to $39,049 in 2005, according to the annual salary survey done by Group, which polls leaders from various Christian denominations.
"I think for a long time there was a perception that if you work in the nonprofit [faith] youth world, you'll live below subsistence levels. That's not the case anymore," said Sidney Abrams, director of human resources for BBYO, the largest nondenominational Jewish youth movement in North America.
Higher salaries are linked in part to the increased training and education youth ministers are bringing to the bargaining table. This is partly because of more university programs, a phenomenon that began in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the Association of Youth Ministers, which started with 28 people in 1994 and now has hundreds of members at 60 schools.
Although the young, "cool leader" image might be dated and waning, it's not completely dead. The voice-mail messages of people connected to youth ministry are very colloquial. Costanzo's says, "Have an awesome day!" On a recent Thursday, he was driving six teenagers to a pizza buffet in a van where jokes were flying about how he likes to rock to Christian music while driving, to the point of swaying the vehicle. When the conversation turns to "the partying circuit," however, he makes a point that he wasn't a partyer in high school.
"Look, it's complicated," he said of 21st-century "relational" youth ministry. For example, at his last ministry position, he wrestled with how to deal with members of his group putting up profiles on MySpace.com, a Web forum that has law enforcement officials, parents and others concerned that young people might reveal too much about themselves in a public place.
Costanzo certainly wasn't going to get anywhere by discouraging the Web posts, so he put up a MySpace profile as "another way to communicate."
He posted photos of himself with his wife and children and eventually began receiving messages there from young people at his church. "You have to meet kids where they are," he said.
"Scripture says we have to be as cunning as serpents but as gentle as lambs," he said as the group left the restaurant. "Youth ministry is like a game, a constant game of trying to balance."
Then he got back into the van and cranked up the music.