Saturday, October 27, 2012

Young adult ministry

A friend recently brought the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to my attention. A program sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, ACE recruits and educates (at a reduced charge) talented young adults who agree to teach for two years for a minimal stipend in Roman Catholic schools. ACE teachers live in community, sharing life and their Christian commitment. In 19 years, ACE has produced 1600 teachers who fill a role similar to that previously filled by monks and nuns.

To digress briefly, is this an idea that the Episcopal Church could (should) adopt? We have a number of colleges, some with adequate financial resources. We have young adults, although their ranks are declining. Nevertheless, we still have committed young adults, some of whom now volunteer in other ways. We also have an extensive network of Episcopal affiliated elementary and high school schools.

These Episcopal schools have generally charged tuition and fees sufficient to cover all of their costs. Limited financial aid (if any) was available. Consequently, Episcopal schools, many noted for their excellence, have primarily enrolled children from reasonably affluent families. In the case of schools founded by a parish, time has tended to weaken the link with the parish and schools have generally had to be financially self-sufficient.

In other words, unlike some Roman Catholic schools located in poor neighborhoods able to offer parents an affordable alternative to public schools because of the low labor costs associated with monks and nuns working as teachers and administrators, Episcopal schools have necessarily targeted a different population. Attempting to change the focus and student composition of Episcopal schools is perhaps not the best possible mission for today’s church to undertake.

Teach for America is a secular program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved schools. The school district pays the teacher’s salary; the program assists with payments to cover past or future educational experiences. Teach for America has more applicants than it can place.

Perhaps the most important commonality between ACE and Teach for America, one religious and one secular, is not the most obvious, i.e., both recruit teachers for underserved schools. Arguably, the most important commonality is that both programs tap into a pool of young adults motivated by their ideals, belief in themselves, and optimism to imagine that they can change the world.

The good news is that The Episcopal Church (TEC) has two programs that offer service opportunities to our young adults. Currently, we have 18 volunteers in our Young Adult Service Corps, all of whom serve overseas. Also, the Episcopal Service Corps will sponsor 200 interns in 24 domestic programs this year.

The bad news is that interest in both programs exceeds present funding levels. Ironically, TEC bemoans its lack of young adult involvement. Yet when successful programs attract more interest than they can support, TEC acts in a very unbusinesslike (and, more to the point, an unmissionlike!) manner and does not immediately make increasing the funding for those programs an urgent top priority.

Illustratively, the Mormon Church recently changed some of the policies governing its mission emphasis for young adults to make that program more attractive. The program produces few converts. A missionary who returns home having converted even one or two people to Mormonism has been highly successful. The programs’ real importance, however, is the lifelong impact that the mission experience has on missionaries.

I suspect the same holds for both TEC’s Young Adult Service Corps and Episcopal Service Corps: generally the most substantial and enduring benefit to for TEC is in the lives of those who served. This assessment is in no way intended to demean the work of participants in both programs, but to recognize that ministry usually changes the minister at least as much as anyone to whom the person ministers.

TEC’s rhetoric says that it values young adults. Its actions make me wonder whether that really is the case.

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