A Culture with Young Adult Catholics at the Leadership Table

Any transformation of Church culture must ensure a prominent leadership role for young adult Catholics that would amplify their voices through leadership positions on councils and boards and ensure their continuous growth through mentorship and accompaniment. Panelists noted that parishes have not always created a welcoming space for young adults who are in a transitional phase of their lives and have failed to bring on board young leaders who desire to serve the Church in ministerial roles but can’t because of the inability to earn a living wage or pay off student loans. For the waves of young adults who leave the Church, leaders must also learn to develop creative outreach programs where young adults thrive and feel essential.

Those messages rang loud and clear from the panel of young adult Catholic leaders. Jonathan Lewis, Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns at the Archdiocese of Washington, moderated the panel. He began by sharing a phrase he learned from the archdiocesan department for special needs: “Not about us, without us.” He said that the same is true for young adults. Young adults need to be an integral part of the conversation in our Church.

Nicole Perone, Archdiocesan Director of Adult Faith Formation with the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, said, “Engaging young people is a best practice and a responsibility that we have as a Church.” In searching for reasons behind the disaffiliation of so many young Catholics today, Perone, a delegate to the Vatican’s Pre-Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, cited what she called a “pay-your-dues mentality” that tells young adults they have to wait until they’re older to be part of the Church. She continued, the reality is “young people are disaffiliating as young as 13, so if we wait until they’re old enough to “pay their dues”, they are not going to be here to participate. So we have to own that they are protagonists now in this moment and engage them in this moment.” Ms. Perone added, “That doesn’t mean we have to cast aside anyone else to make room for young people….we are a big enough Church. Now is the time to help young people discern their gifts and to empower them. And for all of us to make a conscious effort to accompany young people… to develop a personal relationship with them and walk with them.”

Jonathan Lewis, Jennifer Baugh, Nicole Perone


Taking Advantage of Gateway Moments

The task of building an intergenerational Church needs to start by taking advantage of what several panelists described as “gateway moments,” when young people reach out to the Church to become involved or get married, for example. Which, in turn, raises the question, are they being received in a loving, welcoming way, or are they being coldly put off by rules and barriers? “If a young person is reaching out to the Church in some capacity…and we slam the door,” suggested Ms. Perone, “we’ve lost the biggest opportunity we could ever have to engage this young person.” We must learn to “embrace those gateway moments as evangelizing moments, as catechetical moments, as formational moments, as collaborative moments….”

Ms. Perone would go a significant step further. One of her dreams “is to have a young person on every single Church board, and every single parish council in the United States” she offered enthusiastically. “That sounds huge, but it’s not impossible.”

Jennifer Baugh set out a vision of how to reach more young adult Catholics through initiatives that foster Catholic identity, a sense of belonging, and a call to action. “With young adult ministries, we’re often reaching the same types of people over and over again,” said Ms. Baugh, Founder and National Executive Director of Young Catholic Professionals. “If we really want to extend this new culture of leadership, we have to be creative in the way we’re marketing our events so we can reach the people who would not normally come….” said Baugh.


What We Can Learn from Young Adult Programs

As part of his advice for creating a new culture with young leaders, Darius Villalobos, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, exhorted Catholic leaders to first recognize what existing programs are working for young people in the Church. He looks to programs like Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Franciscan Mission Service, ESTEEM, and other Catholic lay programs that marshall the services of young people to serve and grow into leadership – and to encourage more of them. “Young people are looking for places to live out their values….” and at the same time, he conceded, “a lot of young people don’t find a space in the traditional parish anymore because parishes are not built specifically for young people. Many parishes are there to serve families, and when you’re in that in-between space where you’re not quite sure what your vocation is calling you to… it’s hard to know where you fit in.” Instead, he pointed out that young Catholics are increasingly finding expression for their values, concerns, and their faith by gathering in small communities, like lay ecclesial movements, coffee houses, bars, and homes.

Darius Villalobos


Access to Formation

“We have to celebrate our diversity,” remarked Darius Villalobos, giving the example of cultural, socio-economic, and gender diversity. “We often see it as a challenge and a burden rather than something that makes us better and stronger…[but for young adult Catholics] diversity is their norm.” He also finds troubling the Church’s inability to draw qualified and passionate young people into the realm of ministry for lack of a just wage. “I’ve seen too many young adult ministers burn out and leave ministry and service to the Church because they can’t afford to stay,” he rued. “Budgets are moral documents…. If we are not willing to put the money aside so to make sure that these young people who are ready to lead, who are willing to lead, can actually be leaders in the Church, we are only doing a disservice to ourselves.”

Katie Diller Gleason touched on that issue by noting that investment in lay formation is critical. She lifted up places like University of Notre Dame and University of Dayton that each have graduate programs in theology and pastoral ministry that offer fully-funded scholarships “so that those coming out of these excellent programs are not crippled by debt.” Equally impressive to Ms. Diller Gleason, who is Coordinator of Campus Ministry for the Diocese of Lansing, is the fact that both advanced ministry programs integrate lay formation with clergy formation. “Clergy will always be the minority in the room… so it’s important to have their formation alongside lay men and women,” she said. “It helps establish a foundation of trust… built on shared language and mutual values for future collaboration and co-responsibility.” 

Jennifer Baugh, Nicole M. Perone, Darius Villalobos



Structures for Including Young Adults in Leadership Positions

  • Appoint young adults from diverse demographics to leadership positions on diocesan councils, parish councils, and Catholic nonprofit boards; provide orientation and support for their leadership development
  • Make a public commitment with benchmarks to ensure young adult representation on boards and councils on an ongoing basis
  • Recruit leaders of different ages at the diocesan and parish levels who reflect the demographics of the local Church
  • Create an ongoing process in order to listen to and solicit feedback from a diverse group of young people in multiple formats such as in-person meetings, social media, surveys, etc.
  • Provide formal mentorship opportunities and accompaniment to equip young adult Catholics for leadership positions in the Church and world
  • Involve more young adult leaders in Catholic media and ensure their participation at the decision-making table


Support for Emerging Catholic Leaders


  • Provide leadership development for young adult Catholics in a variety of settings such as colleges and parishes to prepare them for roles in parish and diocesan life
  • Include servant leadership, faithful stewardship, intercultural competencies, collaborative ministry, etc. in leadership development trainings
  • Provide equal financial resources for the ministerial education of young lay ministers and clergy; consider a national scholarship fund or loan forgiveness program
  • Invest in the education and ongoing formation of young Latino/a leaders and other cultural groups who are not adequately represented in ministerial leadership
  • Educate seminarians with their lay peers; look at best practices among religious communities and consider use of Catholic higher education partnerships



  • Hire personnel for young adult ministry or share resources between parishes
  • Provide a living wage, robust benefits, and other support for lay leaders so young adults can afford to work for the Church
  • Offer scholarships to train and empower ministers in places where there is a lack of funds for youth and young adult ministry
  • Make succession plans to include young adults in leadership positions so that ministries and the broader mission continues


Gateway Moments and Attention to Diversity


  • Extend ministries to meet the spiritual, social, and physical needs of young adults
  • Provide pastoral care for young adults at different life stages (i.e. college, workforce, single, married, married with children) and at key transitional moments (i.e. moving from college to parish or to a new town)
  • Make gateway moments positive encounters (i.e. new parish registration, RCIA, baptism, wedding, funeral) and equip all parish staff to lead with welcome rather than barriers
  • Engage young adults, both the affiliated and unaffiliated, through works of justice, the intellectual tradition, missionary evangelization, etc.
  • Designate a parish to provide robust young adult ministry if individual parishes in the area do not have the capacity or resources to do so



  • Ensure young adult ministry serves a broad range of people, including those at community college, those who do not attend college, those who hold multiple jobs, etc.
  • Minister to diverse cultural communities and those on the peripheries
  • Provide pastoral care to young adults who have been hurt inside or outside the Church
  • Make Masses and ministries more accessible at times that work for those who may have varying commitments with school, work, or family
  • Equip Catholic leaders to deepen their understanding of the issues that young adults face around the environment, race, immigration, gender, LGBTQ matters, etc.
  • Create a safe space for dialogue about the real and often painful differences in the Church, as well as struggles and questions that young adults have
  • Explore ways to help young adults feel valued and that they have gifts and diverse perspectives to contribute to the Church


Ministry with, for, and by Young Adults


  • Invest in innovative approaches that engage young adults; involve them in creation and implementation of the ministries
  • Promote a culture of hospitality so as to welcome and listen to young adults; get to know them by name and personally invite them to socialize, learn, pray, and share their gifts with others
  • Equip parents, youth ministers, catechists, teachers, and others with the skills necessary for effective youth ministry in order to help youth flourish later as young adults
  • Integrate social media and other online communication methods into young adult ministry
  • Expand campus ministry to all colleges and community colleges, through individual campus ministry centers or through partner parishes



  • Accompany young adults in their faith journey and help them to encounter Christ in new ways and experience community
  • Form small faith groups and peer-to-peer groups, both within and outside the parish
  • Provide service opportunities
  • Connect young adults to resources for spiritual development, as well as vocational and professional discernment
  • Support young adults in living out their Catholic identity and values in secular professions
  • Share information about one-year volunteer programs, missionary opportunities, lay apostolates and ecclesial movements, and other young adult service or ministry programs



  • Survey existing young adult leadership development programs to determine best practices
  • Commission research on salaries, benefits, and educational debt among young pastoral staff at the parish and diocesan levels and create a roadmap for just policies and practices
  • Continue to invest in research on young adult Catholic engagement such as the “Young Catholic America” study by Christian Smith and the “Going, Going, Gone” study by Saint Mary’s Press and Springtide Research
  • Commission research on successful retention practices from other sectors to address disaffiliation trends among young people in the Church
Meghan Meros, John Carr


Casey Stanton, Sr. Carol Zinn, SSJ


This piece was originally published in Leadership Roundtable’s 2020 Summit Report.


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