Autumn 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 262-269.

David O'Rourke: Current Trends:
      Ministers from a Different World: Barriers to a Common Ministry

Fr. David O'Rourke, O.P., is professor of theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Well known as a counselor, writer and lecturer, his recent book, A Process Called Conversion, was published by Doubleday in 1985.

THE recent departure of a younger friend from the active ministry has led me to reflect on what he experienced as the unforgiving quality of his work. It was so very difficult. I recall the assessments that ran through his mind in the final months before he called it quits. They all had the same theme. Ministry is hard work, harder than he ever anticipated. Ultimately, he found it too hard.

Having spent a number of years helping newly ordained priests and unordained ministers move into ministry, I was prepared for the general outlines of his story. The human psychodynamics are much the same today as they were fifteen years ago. But the human context is much changed. The faith, the finances, the social roles, and the ways people relate have undergone major changes in the last decade. These changes are such that they have given new meaning to the idea of ministry.


Public service -- and ministry is a form of public service -- take its toll on the lives of the servants. That, of course, is nothing new. It is not new, either, that the toll is scaring people away, both before and after the decision for ministry is made. What is new is that the post-Vatican II church workers and church leaders currently calling the shots, and experienced in dealing with "burn-out" among their contemporaries, seem unable to make sense of the toll ministry takes on younger ministers.

The church in the United States, it seems, is not well equipped to help younger ministers survive the inevitable low points of ministry. In the past, religious symbols of sacrifice, social expectations, public esteem, and public pressure came together to support ministerial commitment when the individual's own strengths were drained away. We lack that today, and the lack seems part of a broader social reality. I have seen much the same reaction in the couples I have encountered in twenty years of marriage counseling. They can reach a point a few years into marriage when let-down with the present and fear for the future seem overwhelming. At that point each individual can feel alone, an outsider, the victim of a bad mistake. Then they fall into a solitary panic whose only remedy seems escape. The situation with people new in ministry is analogous. There appears to be a lack of usable symbols powerful enough to sustain the individual ministers when their own resources fail.

In the course of this article I want to look at the stress that is built into entering into the ministry. My focus here is not as much on the process of the entry as it is on the minister himself or herself. What happens to the man or woman who is leaving behind the private life of the 1980's to enter into the public life of the Church? I want to look at the apparently critical and often overwhelming dynamics taking place in that broad space between American private life and world of ministry.


There always has been a difference between the generous anonymity of private life and the glare of public service. I focus on this gap because it seems to be growing both deeper and wider. What is more, if we look at what our social scientists tell us the transition from private life to public life is probably going to become more rather than less difficult. Further, the Church's common response to the minister's plight, frequently a plaintive and puzzled moralizing, is less than helpful.

The characteristic of those in the generation now beginning ministry are being catalogued and analyzed by our social scientists, so we need not speak only in generalities. We can translate those characteristics into the world of the minister and of public ministry. The income probabilities, employment competition and opportunities, and the quality of personal relationships that make up the world of the young men and women in the generation making vocational decisions have been studied in some detail. We can describe the lengths and limits of support stemming from the different notions of church memberships today, and the effect these have on the individuals who must face the responsibility for institutional maintenance. The kinds of religious experience that support or even precipitate the vocational choice are known.

Life experiences give us the perspective that shapes what we see. The life experiences of the new ministers are very different from the life experiences of the generation currently running the Church. Consequently each generation is going to look at the same Church and see very different things. The older generation, formed in the extraordinary economic and social expansion following World War II, has had an experience of power. They can look at the post-Vatican II Church they have created and now control. The experiences of the younger ministers, to the contrary, are cumulatively immobilizing and isolating. Writing recently in the New York Times Book Review, Charles Newman of Washington University notes the "sense of diminishing control, loss of individual autonomy and generalized helplessness" that characterizes our current literature. The literature, in turn, reflects our world. This experience of powerlessness is a characteristic of our new ministers. It is experienced more sharply, even cruelly, when it runs up against the self-confident control of the older ministers.

With these introductory remarks in mind I want to go back to the characteristics of the younger generation in our society. To begin with there are the economic factors. In each of the decades after World War II until the mid 70's, the average young man could assume that his real income between the age of thirty and forty would rise substantially, from 35 percent to 60 percent. In the last decade, however, the decade of our new ministers, that economic expansion ended. That same statistical young man would experience no increase in real income between the ages thirty and forty. Put perhaps oversimply, the palmy days are over. The assumption that colored so much of our outlook, that our children will be better off than we are, is no longer true.

A decade ago the ranks of the "baby boomers" overwhelmed first our socializing institutions and then swelled the job market. As Senator Moynihan noted in Family and Nation, the group of fourteen to twenty-four year olds, which had grown by 12.5 million between 1890 and 1960, grew by nearly 14 million in the ten years of the 1960s. The effect of this growth was overwhelming for our institutions and equally hard on the members of the new generation themselves. For the first time since the Great Depression there were many more qualified job seekers than there were jobs. Peer competition became a fact of life at the cost of mutual support and trust.


The young men and women making vocational choices today come from domestic situations substantially different from those of their parents' generation. During the years after World War II families lost many of the educational and recreational functions that formed such an important part of the socializing among the older generation. Watching television, essentially a solitary activity, became the most common American recreational practice. Marriage preparation specialists report that the first stages of marriage preparation involve a socialization of couples who have learned to watch TV together, but have not developed the ability to articulate and discuss. There is no reason to believe that candidates for ministry are socialized any differently from their peers.

The ways in which people relate to one another have also undergone real changes. Today the medium of exchange in human relationships is the human body. That is very hard coin. It is a coin taken from the individual's capacity to be anything more than an individual.

Historian Christopher Lasch maintains that increasingly adolescents are not accepting the values of the parental generation, substituting peer values for those of the older world. The adolescent "rejects the family not as the intermediary through which social demands are transmitted but, on the contrary, as an institution itself out of step with those demands." In addition, he notes, the growing separation of the nourishing from the disciplinary functions within the family, caused by the delegation of parenting to professionals, prepares the youngster to believe that the person who exercises authority is cold, distant, and aloof. This is especially serious for individuals trying to learn how to be the Church's official public representatives.

The characteristics of contemporary American religion are also well described for us. Assuming a familiarity with the work of Robert Bellah et al. (e.g., Habits of the Heart(1)) I will recall only that religion is increasingly seen in the U.S. as a single, personal, private, and subjective experience. Membership in a religious community, traditionally seen as an organic belonging handed down from a religious source or socializing generation or group, as in the Pauline metaphor of the mystical body of Christ, is now seen as rooted in an individual awakening coming from within. The ultimate norm against which religious goodness and truth are measured is the effect on the individual.


What does this tell us about the generation now beginning ministry? If the people currently trying to learn the arts of ministry in the field are representative of the younger population, if the descriptions of this age group by our social scientists are accurate, and if the characteristics of American society are what we have stated, we can anticipate how they will respond to the demands of public ministry. To begin with, they could be having a difficult time relating their own religious experience to the religious life of an institutional church. The sources of their own spirituality and the requirements of public religious ministry could be surprisingly disconnected.

They could also find that their peers, especially those not involved in ministry, including their siblings, while perhaps tolerant of their religious work, are really disinterested in it. The support my generation found in the strong social approval of our peers is not be found in an individualistic, competitive, and financially stressed generation. The latter often find that the public quality of their life -- public liturgies, public availability, public accountability, and public service, along with a real loss of privacy on many a level -- is more demanding than they ever anticipated. Finally, they are baffled by the collective responsibility placed on public figures. They find themselves identified with the Church's public stands and public leaders in a way which goes beyond anything they find fair or reasonable.

I am not proposing a way to help the new ministers deal with these stresses. That process is already well understood. My purpose here is more limited. I wish only to call attention to what I see to be the new elements in the old challenge of introducing new minsters to their work. The difference in the life experiences and perceptions of the new ministers is receiving relatively little attention, and that is one of their principal problems. It is a problem made almost inevitable by the way these two generations interact.

Each generation speaks in the language of its own experience. Because the experiences are different the languages will also be different. Each views church life, membership, and ministry using its own spirituality, a spirituality developed in the process of making sense of life. The spiritual principles, like the life experiences, are also different for each group.


At the beginning of this article we quoted a literary source on the prevalence of individualist forms in our language. I use the idea of language here in a broad sense. The question of literary form and of language is relevant to ministry. We described our ministry in the words we know. When the only language available is the language of individualism the discussion will be necessarily individualist. It is difficult to have a discussion of the minister's social significance in a language that does not appreciate social significance. Whether the new minister -- an essential person in the public life of the community -- makes it or not is being discussed by new ministers only as a single and personal matter because that is the context their language understands. The individual cries for help in individualist forms not because he does not need social support, but because the language of individualism is the only language he knows.

The present leadership generation has had the experience, rare in the life of the Church, of reforming the Church's worship, government, and ministry to comply with the decrees of a reforming council. This experience seems to have left its mark on that generation. Faced year in and year out with the need to make decisions reforming the life of the Church they are understandably unsympathetic to people whose experience is one of a "sense of diminishing control and... generalized helplessness."

The solutions discussed by the older generation for the problems of the younger miss the point. Suggesting, for example, that changes in clerical celibacy or a move toward greater congregationalism will resolve future problems does not address the younger mentality. It takes no great insight to see that the prospect of lifelong intimacy and continual public accountability will be stressful for individualist men and women with a history of short-term relationships and a distrust of public roles.

It serves little purpose to challenge experiential givens, yet that is what we are doing. Many new ministers do not see what the current leadership generation's apparent ease with being in charge was hard won, often at great personal cost. The current leaders, like many Americans, often underestimate how the social change of the last twenty years has produced a generation with a very different life experience and life outlook.

Because ministry is public, and because public leaders control access to their institutions the ball inevitably ends up in the older generation's court. The ministerial insiders whose assistance is necessary to help the younger ones also become insiders have a different religious language and spiritual starting point. Within that outlook the characteristics of the younger generation are viewed not simply as different. Often they seem morally inferior. That view is not only lacking in sympathy, it is also somewhat naive. Becoming familiar with the characteristics of a group is a more positive way to proceed. Learning how those characteristics will cause a group to see life is creative. I think that that creativity is one of our great spiritual needs.

  1. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.