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Should old people be Youth Directors?

This might not seem like a very important question. At first glance, we would probably respond that the Body of Christ is made up of a diversity of members do a diverse array of things and that one would expect to find all sorts of people fulfilling all sorts of roles within the Body. Thus, conventional wisdom would suggest that we should expect to find older folks working in youth ministry, and that there is nothing at all out of place with it.

However, when we note the vast crisis in Catholic youth apostolates today, and then also note the fact that the vast majority of Youth Directors in our diocesan parishes are older folks, we may have reason to at least pause and ask if these factors are related. Correlation does not always equal causation; but then again, sometimes it does. Should parishes hire allow older people to be Youth Directors?

Please do not think I am underestimating the number of old people working in youth apostolates. Shortly after I became Youth Director of my parish in 2007, I went to a meeting of all the Youth Directors in the whole diocese; I'd say probably 30 or 40 of them were there - only three were under 45. Probably a full 50% were not only over 45 but over 55. Not a few were actually elderly. Believe me, the world of Youth Directors is heavily populated with gray-haired individuals.

In the first place, we should probably come up with a working definition of "old." For the sake of this discussion, I would classify an "old" Youth Director as someone above age 40, but with special emphasis on those Youth Directors who are between the ages of 45-60, which are the bulk of Catholic Youth Directors in America. Yes I know that 40 is not really old in any other sense of the term, but I think it is a valuable cut off point for this discussion, as we will endeavor to demonstrate.

So then, are there downsides to employing folks in the 40-60 age range as Youth Directors?

Having been a Youth Director for three and a half years (and a very successful one at that), I do have a strong opinion on this matter. It seems to me that employing Youth Directors in the 40-60 range is not ideal for several reasons.

First and foremost, despite the fact that this can be overrated, I do think it is true that younger Youth Directors can more easily form a meaningful connection with young people. A Youth Director that is older than the teenagers by at least five or ten years but younger than their parents by the same amount is in that unique range to become a true mentor sort of figure who can form a very meaningful bond with his kids. I have formed many enduring friendships with my former youth group kids that have blossomed into beautiful adult relationships that will no doubt endure for many years. A younger person is simply more in tune with what teenagers think about and feel than a person on verge of being elderly or even an adult who might be twenty years removed from a teenager.

Older folks can certainly attempt to make meaningful connections with young people, but in my experience older people don't really know how to go about this, and it ends up becoming a superficial sort of connection based on the older Youth Director trying to become educated about teen pop culture and teen "issues" and ends up just looking silly; there is nothing more pathetic than an older person trying artificially to "speak to teens in their own language." Teens emphatically do not want to deal with an older person who tries to look and act like them for the sake of relevance. They want a mature adult who shows them what it means to be a grown up Catholic.

Related to this idea of connectivity is the concept that a Youth Director should be a type of role model. Now, of course, an older person can be a role model, too. We all have probably had older persons in our lives that we consider role models, either because we admire their achievements or would like to possess their virtues. But a Youth Director is not simply supposed to be a role model in general, but a specific sort of role model - a Youth Director is supposed to model what an adult mature in faith looks like. He is supposed to be someone that kids look at and can say, "That's what a grown-up Catholic acts like." In that sense, he or she is someone that a kid would like to grow up to be. Now, nobody looks at a 62 year old Youth Director and says "I'd like ti grow up to be like that." In that case, the growing up is already done and gone, and the Youth Director does not provide an exemplar of what a mature Catholic adult in the world looks like. Instead, you have an example of what a retired Catholic does in their spare time, and the connection is not as relevant.

In connection with the last point, it is worth mentioning that a Youth Director ought to be someone whom the kids can see is ahead of them on the journey of faith, but who nevertheless is still on that journey - someone who has walked a little ways ahead and can say, "Come up higher! Follow me over this hill and we will walk towards the City together." This is one advantage of Youth Directors who are in their late 20's to mid 30's: they are mature adults in faith, but they themselves are still on that journey and have a long way to go. They can thus serve as guides while at the same time being fellow travelers. We want people who are on the road, not those who are rapidly approaching the road's end.

We could also note that, on a very natural level, older folks lack the energy possessed by younger people. If there is one thing I can say with certainty from my experience, it is that being a successful Youth Director takes almost boundless energy - and not because you have to do all sorts of wacky stuff like break dancing, riding a zip line or sword fighting (though I did all those things), but just because effectively governing and engaging a group of high school kids for several hours is HARD WORK. One of the reasons I left youth work was because in the beginning of my fourth year with the parish I had to have major surgery on my heart. I don't want to go into the details, but the surgery took about three or four years off my life and left me with much less energy than before. I could no longer keep up with the kids, and I recognized this immediately. Not wanting to shortchange the kids on their experience, I put in my my notice. There were other factors that went into the decision as well, but this was a big factor. I was only 29.

Teenagers, in a way, feed off the energy that a Youth Director will pour into the group. A dynamic and energetic Youth Director will reap enthusiastic and engaged kids. A Youth Director needs to be able to bring that latent energy out of the kids and direct it towards pious objectives. Can an older person accomplish this effectively? Can a Youth Director 58 years old keep up with the kids and inspire them with his or her own boundless energy and love of the Faith? I do not deny that they may be inspiring, but I do deny that they will be able to invest as much energy into the kids as a younger Youth Director, say of age 25-30.

There is also the problem of discipline. Almost without exception, every youth group I have ever been to or heard about that was managed by an older person had terrible discipline problems. Kids routinely were unsupervised or got away with things behind the Youth Director's back. In youth groups with a good moral foundation, this might be innocuous sort of behavior like getting into the parish freezer and stealing ice cream sandwiches; in the more worldly (and sadly more typical) youth group, this behavior could be drug use or even sexual activity. While the misbehavior might be anywhere on the spectrum from mildly naughty to downright sinful, it has always found in youth groups with older directors, in my experience. It does not mean younger Youth Directors will always be strict disciplinarians; I have known young directors who can't maintain discipline, too - but I have never ever seen an older Youth Director who is capable of effectively managing the teens and keeping discipline, and I think this is a consequence of the energy issue discussed above.

Finally, I should add a point my pastor has stressed in the past: being a Youth Director is not a life-time career that someone can live off of. Pay for a full-time Youth Director in most dioceses is around $27,000; if you are part time, it is probably around $15,000. Neither of these salaries are sufficient for the head of a family. My pastor was generous and I made a little more than $27K, but even so, it was not the sort of salary one can raise a family on over several years, and my pastor wanted to make sure that I saw the position as a "stepping stone" job that would give me skills and experience to move up into some other job. He frequently decried the phenomenon of "life time Youth Directors" who spent 25 years in the position making a mediocre salary, increasingly lost their relevance with the young as time went by and finally retired from youth ministry at age 60 or 62 with no real retirement so to speak of and no other real industry one can go into.

Perhaps one reason the demographic of Youth Directors is so heavily slanted towards older people and women is because of the poor pay; it might not be ideal for pastoral reasons to hire older folks as Youth Directors, but the low pay may give rise to a situation in which only retired, semi-retired or women whose husbands work can afford to do the job for such low pay. I did it for three and a half years, but I could not afford to go back and do it now even if I wanted to. Thus we get women and old people. This does lead into the secondary question of whether or not women make good Youth Directors, but I will leave that discussion for another time.

Thus, the first thing that parishes and dioceses should do if they want to attract younger, male Youth Directors is to start obeying the Church's teaching and offer a living wage. $27,000 for a full time Youth Director job is not sufficient to attract twenty-somethings, who probably have at least that much in student loan debt from college.

At any rate, it is my opinion that parishes should do all in their power to make sure that Youth Directors are younger people, age 22-35, full of zeal, energy and mature love for the Faith. If we want well-formed youth and vibrant youth apostolates, we need to have the right sort of people leading them.