So you want to work for the church ...

by Heidi Schlumpf

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Given today's job market and the fact that younger workers are looking for meaningful work, you would think job openings in the church would attract deluges of resumes from recent college grads.

You would be wrong.

Although studies have shown that Catholic youth and young adults are interested in a life of ministry, the number of young people working in the church continues to decrease. Helping to "pass on the flame" of ministry to the next generation was the topic of several speakers at the National Association for Lay Ministry conference May 27-31 at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The theme of the conference was "The Fire Within: Lay Ministry in Today's Church."

Current lay ministers in the church need to have "the right kind of heartburn" -- the kind felt by the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus and rekindled by Vatican II, said keynote speaker Joe Paprocki, a catechetical expert and author of several books.

"Imagination is at the heart of keeping that fire alive and spreading that fire," Paprocki said, offering tips on how to rekindle your own imagination (meditation, music, art, the Eucharist) as well as trips for helping the message of Jesus "go viral" (touch the heart, connect to everyday life, communicate in the context of a story).

Workshop presenter Paul Jarzembowski also encouraged current lay ministers to be '"fired up" about their jobs, as a way to attract younger folks to consider church employment as their life's work. Jarzembowski works on youth and young adult concerns for the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

If -- as a 2011 report commissioned by the Career Advisory Board found -- that the No. 1 factor young adults ages 21 to 31 want in a successful career is a sense of meaning, why aren't they flocking to ministry jobs? I believe a career with a Catholic parish, diocese and even school is unattractive to younger folks for a number of reasons.

Low pay has been a chronic issue. Of course, no one is going to get rich working for the church or any other service organization. But educators, for example, have long preferred public-sector jobs to Catholic schools because of the pay discrepancy.

Job security -- or lack of it -- is another problem that most acutely affects parish workers, who are guaranteed that their immediate boss will change regularly. Horror stories about new pastors "cleaning house" of the previous priest's employees are too common.

Yet low pay and poor job security don't keep young graduates from pursuing careers in, say, journalism or teaching -- especially given the high rates of unemployment in this recession.

So why do younger people avoid working for the institutional church? The key word, I believe, is "institutional." Younger Catholics still see the institutional church as an out-of-touch employer run by old men who "don't get it." Media reports about employees having to sign "morality agreements" don't help. Nor do ones about people getting fired for supporting gay marriage or women's ordination -- issues most younger folks believe should be already resolved.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, the feminist theologian and academic who notably taught at Methodist seminary, once told me never to rely on the church for a paycheck. She knew her academic freedom -- or even her personal conscience -- could be at risk with a Catholic employer.

She was right. This is unfortunate, because the millennial generation is idealistic about service -- even more so than the previous generation. It's to bad the church may not be the beneficiary of that idealism and enthusiasm. The "Francis effect" can only do so much. If younger workers want to choose a career based on their values, they are unlikely to compromise those same values to work for the church.

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