Today’s Leaders

Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission

What began in the Spring of 2008 as a series of conversations about the future of the Church is now the primary leadership formation program for young-adult Catholics at more than 20 college and university campuses across the United States.

Known as ESTEEM (Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission), the program provides a “crash course” for young adults on college campuses in topics such as ecclesiology, liturgy, and more, while pairing students with mentors to develop their leadership within the parish community. And in the past year, ESTEEM has more than doubled the number of campus sites in the program.


Planting the Seed

The idea of ESTEEM began in 2008 with a deep concern about the future of the Catholic Church following the exodus of so many young adult Catholics. Listening to college graduates as they shared anecdotes about the challenges they faced moving from leadership roles in vibrant campus ministries to the complicated terrain of parish life was revealing.

Out of these conversations came ESTEEM— a partnership between Leadership Roundtable and Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University that supports, encourages, and affirms the leadership of young adults in the Catholic Church and assists in their transition into parish life through education, community, faith formation, and mentorship.

ESTEEM is not intended to serve as religious education or catechesis, nor is it intended to offer training in youth or young adult ministry. Rather, it is aimed at developing Church leaders who are young-adult Catholics already knowledgeable and committed to the Church, who command notice for their intellectual acumen, their innate leadership qualities, their passion for excellence and desire for an adult life of faith. ESTEEM aims to identify those young adults while in college, cultivate their desire for service to the Church, provide a curriculum that encourages their leadership — especially in the temporal affairs of the Church — and offer opportunities for such service, thus developing a network of talented, actively engaged young adult leaders serving the Church.

Today, ESTEEM’s focus is two-tier: first, it prepares young adults for the transition from college campus ministries to post-graduate faith communities; second, it holds up a vision of faithful, ecclesially engaged young adults serving on parish and diocesan pastoral and finance councils and boards of trustees of Catholic organizations across the country.

ESTEEM holds one particular truth as sacred: That young people, by virtue of their baptism and vocations, do not need to wait for a future date to be leaders in the Church and their local faith communities, but should be so engaged now.

“To me, ESTEEM has long been a hallmark of the best the Church has to offer the world: Cohorts of well-formed, brilliant, thoughtful, young adults prepared to manifest their vocations well, and engage their secular skills in service to the Church they love,” said Nicole Perone, National Coordinator for ESTEEM.

“We are inspired by Pope Francis’ encouragement in his apostolic exhortation ‘Christus Vivit’ that young people ‘do not wait until tomorrow to contribute [their] energy, [their] audacity and [their] creativity to changing our world … [They] are the now of God, and he wants [them] to bear fruit.’ ESTEEM honors its sacred obligation to form young adults to answer that call,” she said.


Nurturing Growth

In the past year, the number of ESTEEM sites has more than doubled, including an expansion beyond the boundaries of the United States to welcome the first international site in the Bahamas.

Today, ESTEEM’s partnerships include Catholic and non-Catholic universities as well as diocesan campus ministries at more than 20 college and university campuses with more scheduled to come on board in future years.

ESTEEM participants take part in the annual Capstone Conference.

Leading in the Church

ESTEEM alumni are not only blessed with secular skills developed through their education, but are actively giving of those gifts in service to their faith communities.

In a recent survey of ESTEEM alumni, 85% of ESTEEM alumni worship at a parish regularly, and 57% of ESTEEM alumni are involved in parish life beyond Mass attendance (such as serving on a parish council or finance council, volunteering as a catechist, serving in liturgical ministries, etc.).

“The impact that ESTEEM is having is extraordinarily heartening in a time when the realities of disaffiliation, disconnection, and limited engagement with the Church are more commonly identified,” said Kerry Robinson, who oversees the program through her role as Executive Partner at Leadership Roundtable. “ESTEEM cultivates in young adults a spirit of connection to the life of the Church and provides a practical foundation for how to do so in an authentic, accessible way. It gives me and so many hope for the future of our Church.”


This piece was originally published in Leadership Roundtable’s 2021 Annual Impact Report.

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