"Where there is no vision, the people perish…" Proverbs 29:18
What's your vision for ministering with young people? I have been part of the interviewing group for hiring parish and diocesan youth ministry leaders and inevitably this question comes up. This is probably a question that we've been asked by a supervisor or by someone considering joining our ministry team. Vision is important. It guides our practice of ministry and helps shape our mission. The relationship between the vision and practice of ministry feels somewhat like a dance. On one foot, we take the time to talk about our context, values, and hopes. On the other, we jump in and minister using our intuition and the resources at hand.
I am reminded of a story that was shared in last week's homily. There was a group of American soldiers who were trapped in a storm in the Alps at the top of a mountain. They lost communications and the only thing to help them was a German map that they found. They weren't sure exactly where they were located, but they decided to start before they froze or starved. As they headed down the mountain, they had to readjust several times, but they kept on moving. Eventually, they came to a village and reunited with their unit. When they showed their commander the map that helped them, he was both puzzled and amused. It wasn't a map of the Alps, it was a map of the Pyrenees. It wasn't the right map, but it compelled them to keep moving, which ended up saving them. The priest compared this story to our situation in responding as disciples to current events. He stressed that vision and direction were important and that it was also important to get started, to put one foot in front of the other and go!
Renewing the Vision – A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry was approved and published in November 1997 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for the United States (now referred to as the USCCB). Since that time, this document has sold over 138,000 copies in print form in addition to hundreds of thousands of downloads. More importantly, the insights of this document have spread to parishes small and large throughout the United States and to most English-speaking nations around the world. Many people credit Renewing the Vision with strengthening and transforming Catholic youth ministry. This document provides a compelling vision for ministry with youth and for parish life that includes young people as full members of the community. It also provides a common language and framework for envisioning and building a ministry with youth that is responsive, inclusive, and comprehensive.
Over the last twenty years, Renewing the Vision has sparked dialogue, planning, and action in ministry. Looking at RTV today, it is striking how compelling, eloquent, and visionary this guiding document is. The vision for empowering young disciples, building inclusive parish communities, and providing a holistic response to ministry with youth resonates with the needs for vibrant ministry. Some sections and elements can feel dated as new documents and experiences have gone beyond the descriptions in RTV. There is also some disappointment: in the practice of youth ministry in the 19,000 parishes of the United States, much of this vision is not implemented.
There seems to be a new vision for youth ministry emerging, with a clear focus on engaging youth and their families in missionary discipleship. This process focuses on leading youth to encounters with Christ and forming them in the ways of discipleship. The preparatory document for the upcoming Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment seems to point the way to a new paradigm for ministry:
"…the Church has decided to examine herself on how she can lead young people to recognize and accept the call to the fullness of life and love, and to ask young people to help her in identifying the most effective ways to announce the Good News today." (Preparation Document, Page 1)
Some in youth ministry might think this is just another theme to acknowledge or that the Synod is just another meeting of Church leaders. I don't think so. I think this is a radical challenge to take a step back and really look at our stance and everything we do in ministry with youth. This is how I summarize the preparatory document:
God has begun a conversation with young people; our job is to pay attention to what God is doing and walk with youth as they grow in discipleship. We are called to accompany them as they discern their response to God's plan for their life.
It all starts with listening. Because we love young people and we long for them to experience the embrace of Christ as disciples, we focus our attention on helping youth listen to God with their "inner self." We help them notice what God is doing and notice their choices to see the possibilities for their life and for their life in Christ.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of Renewing the Vision, I continue to feel guided by this remarkable vision. I also feel compelled to integrate the new vision and directions that are emerging. Like a well-loved and well-read Bible, my copy of RTV is a bit tattered and marked up with highlights, notes in the margins and Post-It notes. I see RTV as a living vision. We continue to write the vision for youth ministry by living the vision, by ministering with youth, by putting one foot after another and by heading in a direction. RTV has been a steady and sure "map" to guide us and the enduring elements of the vision will help us as we integrate new directions. Guided by the vision, we listen to young people, we engage in ministry, and we learn, shift, and grow along the way. Steeped in vision, values, and mission, we put one foot in front of the other and go!