Common Mistakes in Ministering with Late Adolescents

By B. J. Daly Horell

On World Youth Day in 1995, His Holiness Pope John Paul II challenged the Church to "become today the traveling companion of young people." (Youth: Sent to Proclaim True Liberation, World Youth Day 1995, Philippines) Two years later, the US Catholic Bishops invited the US Church to step up to the challenge, insisting that the Church be "concerned for the whole person, addressing the young people's spiritual needs in the context of his or her whole life." (Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry, p. 15)

Without a doubt, the wisdom of Church leadership is borne out in the practice of ministering with adolescents; youth ministry can soar or crash depending on whether ministers take seriously the ways adolescents view themselves, their journey, and their world. In general terms, late adolescents are journeying toward adulthood in three fluid and roughly progressive movements: (1) molding, (2) claiming, and (3) integrating an authentic sense of self. It’s no wonder, then, that, as adolescents see it, the cardinal sin is hypocrisy. Adolescents are merciless with peers who seem "two-faced" and with adults who seem "fake." Sins against identity (hypocrisy) are "high crimes."

By age 17 or so, young people begin to spend less time "molding" and more time "integrating" their identity. These "late adolescents" are forging a coherent sense of who they are in relation to the world around them. So when "who someone is" is at odds with "what someone does," late adolescents tend to withdraw.

Here are some common ways that hypocrisy "sinks" ministry with late adolescents:

  • Being too parental, or "talking down" A non-parental adult role model is an important resource for late adolescents. They need opportunities to "check" their new sense of self in the context of "objective" and respected adult points of view.
  • Claiming too much authority They insist you "know your stuff" but want to share their own insights and history. Recognize and thank them for the ways they are teaching you.
  • Acting like "one of the gang" Be especially careful about appropriating their language and mannerisms. The test: are you using the same language around your adult friends?
  • Being dishonest about what you think and believe Because they are on the cusp of adulthood, adolescents benefit from watching you balance what may seem to be opposing viewpoints. Show them the "fruitful tension" that often characterizes adult thinking and living.
  • Dominating the scene Turn the attention and questions back to them: "What do you think?" "What do you want to do about that?"

And keep in mind a couple of ways to avoid the "cardinal sin:"

  • Focus on integration, not information. Instead of "giving" a whole lot of information, help them "process" what they already know. Retreats, workshops, and ministry opportunities are good tools for encouraging this process.
  • Do things with them. Suggestion: Have late adolescents choose a ministry in church or community leadership. Help them connect their particular abilities and preferences with their choices. Then check in with them regularly: Ask them questions to help them reflect on how the ministry affects how they see themselves as a near-adult Catholic Christian.