Kathleen Peterson

a disciple along the way

The Elephant and Discipleship

2 Words:

  • Catholic
  • Pennsylvania

Actually, the elephant is no longer in the room. Everyone is talking about the violence against our children and youth by those affiliated with the Catholic church. There have been many articles written about these scandals; I’d like to offer a different perspective.

After 20 years in youth ministry, I’ve experienced first-hand, the evolution of child protection in the Diocese of Erie. From simple release forms that needed parents signatures to full blown online courses, state background checks (beginning at age 12!) and FBI fingerprinting.

I have personally been yelled at by parents who thought medical and confidential release forms were too much to ask. Catechists and other volunteers have scolded me saying they shouldn’t have to pay 10.00 (back ‘then’) for their background check.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve had to explain that the release forms and permission slips were required in order to protect the children, and I’ve countered to catechists and volunteers that working with youth is a privilege not a right.

Any youth leader or director of religious education will tell you how tedious the administrative end of ministry can be. They live with anxiety that the i’s aren’t dotted or their t’s crossed; and panic attacks ripple when the word ‘audit’ is heard.

Leaders from large parishes worry that volunteers from their vast offering of programs might not be up-to-date, especially when child protection laws are rapidly changing.

And, leaders from small parishes are concerned that they won’t have enough adult volunteers to run their programs. They fear that youth will slip through the spiritual cracks because a lack of volunteers means cancelling those programs.

I’ve been a DRE and youth director in a very small parish of under 170 families and I’ve been the youth and family ministry director for the largest parish in our diocese. I’ve also served on the diocesan end as a youth and young adult ministry coordinator for 6 years. I can speak first hand about the issue of compliance; I’ve taught it, administrated it, feared it, and argued for it.

Not only do lay ministry leaders, worry about their own parish-based events and programming, it’s a whole other ballgame when taking kids off-site in your own diocese. And, you almost need a specialized degree when taking kids to another diocese for a national event.

2017 Bus Trip to NCYC – the National Catholic Youth Conference – filled with amazing priests, lay ministry leaders and youth from all over the Erie Diocese.

You’d have to be mental to work in youth ministry today with all the ‘red tape’. But, those of us called to this ministry do it…

  • because we love these children and youth as if they were our own;
  • because we desperately love Jesus and want our youth to know & love Him too;
  • because we want to keep children safe, to be their advocate and protector.

There have been movements in youth ministry:

  • from event and program-based ministry to that of authentic discipling;
  • from large groups to small groups;
  • from on-site ministry to off-site mentoring.

Over the past few years, the national discussion has renewed it’s focus on what the term ‘youth ministry’ means, what youth really need, and how the culture has changed the way we must interact with young people.

Teens no longer have ‘white space’ on their calendars; they are over scheduled & stressed. Just ask them – they’ll tell you.

Parents are burned out taking their kids to sporting events, dance classes, scout camps, etc. In many schools, academics have become the new sport due to the competition for college scholarships. Families are torn apart, parents who are still married are rare, and the anxiety level in most homes is off the charts.

Recognizing these stresses helps those ministering to youth understand that changes need to be made. Leaders need to meet youth when and where it’s most convenient for the family. The parish calendar or room availability should never dictate discipleship.

The latest national conversations on this topic focuses on ministry outside of the parish campus. We must allow for gatherings in homes and places such as coffee shops, parks, and other public areas.

I’m not suggesting that we toss out our child protection policies; the welfare of the student and the dignity of the human person is above all else.

My frustration and fear is that due to the horrible crimes against children and youth which have been recently revealed, parish leaders who do not understand the paradigm shift in youth ministry will hold tighter to old practices making true discipleship for young people almost impossible.

I’ll explore the idea of authentic discipleship for youth and families in future blogs.

For now, my prayer is that parish and other ministry leaders will not allow the sins of a few sick men and women (they were not all priests, nor all men) to roadblock new avenues of walking with our young people in order to bring them closer to Christ. If this happens, we could consider these youth as “secondary victims” – young people who might not have anyone to walk the journey with them due to fear from church leadership.

Please join me in praying for the primary victims… and for the possible, future secondary victims.

May our Church act with justice, and move forward with courage!

Know of my prayers for you.

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