Archive for the Atlantic

Another Take on Millennials and Religious Vocations

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

priests Seminarians1-1024x660_theRecordTwo years ago a friend and researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University and I co-authored a scholarly article in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education on the statistical and theological significance of certain demographic shifts concerning Millennials and their affective religiosity, propensity to do volunteer work, and likelihood to study theology or religion in college. One thing that emerged from our research was the statistical evidence that suggested the breakout (the first five year cohort of a given generation) population of Millennials at Catholic institutions of higher education were more likely than their generational predecessors — notably, the Gen-Xers — to study theology, philosophy, or religion in college and volunteer. Yet, their affective religiosity was observably different from the generations that preceded them. Characteristic markers of typical religious affiliation appeared less relevant, a fact that comes as no surprise to those who parrot the “spiritual but not religious” line to describe young adults today.

What we found is that young adults are indeed religious, but perhaps not according to the standard markers of their Catholic generational seniors.

To look at this in an analogous way, lots of initial talk about Pope Francis’s seemingly “anti-liberation theology” talk as an Archbishop did not align with his expressed or affective behavior, discourse, and writing. On the contrary, the standard markers of who is and who is not “for” liberation theology (namely, those Catholic prelates who expressly say they are for or against it) do not really apply in the case of a man who so overtly lived and promoted by word and deed the tenets or principles of Catholic Social Teaching and liberation theology. We can draw a similar point about young adults — they might not poll the same on questions about eucharistic adoration or praying the rosary like their generational predecessors, but they are categorically more likely to identify service to the poor and other tenets of CST as constitutive of Christian living.

Ironically, if Jesus were a pollster, I have an intuitive feeling that he might be more apt to identify affective religiosity in terms Millennials recognize rather than how often one goes to daily mass (we could call it the “Matthew 25 Survey” or “The Statistical Significance of Sheep and Goats”).

I share these musings because I was reminded of them when a friend and classmate pointed me to a web article by Emma Green in The Atlantic Monthly titled, “Why Would a Millennial Become a Priest or a Nun?” For at least a couple reasons the title alone caught my attention: (a) I am a Millennial and (b) I am a priest. This should be interesting.

And interesting it was.

By and large, I was impressed with Green’s use of vocational, religious, and otherwise technical Catholic jargon, something rarely seen in the so-called “secular media.” The statistics, drawn from both CARA and the USCCB, are good. But, as I’ll get to in a minute, statistics are meaningless until interpreted (my sociologist friends would certainly agree), and the interpretation in Green’s piece is in need of some additional nuance that is all-too-often absent when discussions of vocations today appear.

Before getting to an observation about statistical interpretation, I want to comment on Green’s claim that Millennials who enter religious life or diocesan formation are exceptions to the clichés about my generation. Early in the piece we read:

There are a handful of young people across the country who have interpreted “calling” in perhaps the most literal way possible: By devoting their lives to the Church. The decision seems radical in the context of common stereotypes about millennials, a generation often accused of lack of discipline, skepticism bordering on snark, preference for a hook-up culture, and only the vaguest spiritual impulses. These millennials defy those clichés, taking lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God — and to the Catholic Church, which, especially in their lifetimes, has been regularly plagued by scandal. [emphasis added]

While it is true that the numbers of those entering religious life or diocesan formation does not rival the numbers of those entering fields of accounting, medicine, or law, that some Millennials are choosing to respond to “a call” to religious life is hardly defiance of projected clichés.

Additionally, old-cynical-fat clergy — we all know some — seem to fit Green’s depiction of the Millennial generation’s caricature as “a generation often accused of lack of discipline, skepticism bordering on snark” better than the young adults themselves. What is particularly unique about Millennials in this regard?

One way that they are unique is with regard to their expressive religious practices, all-too-frequently uncounted among those markers traditionally associated with über-religious Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (and hence Green’s cliché about their “vaguest spiritual impulses”). I, and some colleagues of mine, are convinced of quite the opposite: Millennials have especially heightened spiritual impulses — just ask program directors at organizations like Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) or Franciscan Volunteer Ministry (FVM) or campus ministers around the country. Millennial spirituality is alive and strong, but it doesn’t look and act like that of our parents or grandparents (an admitted challenge for the same program directors and ministers).

All this to say that Millennials who enter religious life or diocesan formation are, in all honesty, not major exceptions to the generational rule. They are particular iterations of a growing trend that, I admit, can seem initially incongruent alongside other demographic and cultural characteristics. Nevertheless, generational cohort analysis is complex and never black-and-white. Millennials may be both more-likely to delay marriage (something Baby Boomer and Gen-Xer analysts frequently interpret as “lack of discipline” or “resistance to commitment”) and be more-likely to associate service, volunteering, and Sermon-on-the-Mount-esque action with the core of Christianity.

The second thing worth noting — and the reason my friend thought of me after reading the piece — is the absence of necessary contextualization of the vocation-numbers data so often presented in these types of articles. Like the Lake Placid Winter Olympics Ski Jumps, these charts often depict an impressively high number of young religious and seminarians in the 1950s & 1960s followed by a steep decline beginning in the 1970s & 1980s through today.

This, in itself, is misleading. As I mentioned above, statistics are worthless without interpretation and how one presents the data also shapes the popular interpretation (for more on this, check out the excellent book by Joel Best, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians and Activists).

Looking at the Vocational Ski Slope Charts, you might be inclined to think — as Green and others (including many Catholics and Catholic clergy) are — “Holy Smoke, Batman, the numbers have really decreased!!”

Yes. They have, relative to the 1950s and 1960s, which were aberrational decades for religious vocations in the United States. As the theologian Sandra Schneiders, in her three-volume work on religious life, and others have noted, there were very significant sociological, cultural, economic, and religious reasons in post-war United States for these artificially high numbers. This also helps to explain why, in the 1970s, “so many” women and men religious left religious life. There are many reasons why people join and many reasons why people leave religious life, but the 1950s & 1960s were very unique.

Both charts in The Atlantic Monthly piece begin in 1965 or 1967. A more accurate depiction of trends in religious vocational response in the United States should include a broader data selection, perhaps demonstrating the trends over the last century. Instead of Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumps, one might find a Mt. Rainer-esque peak centered around the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting aberration rather than a standard against which to judge the current state of affairs.

So where does that leave us? How are we to judge the state of religious life in numerical terms?

My suggestion begins with looking at our context today and not worrying about how 2013 compares with 1963. We do not live in the 1950s & 1960s, our world, our society, our church, our needs are different. The Holy Spirit provides, in every generation, women and men to live religious life. Let’s look at how the whole Body of Christ, which is the church, can serve and be served by each who is called by the Spirit in different ways…and stop wringing our hands that we cannot keep things going like it’s 1963.

Photo: The Record

Learning to Fail Well

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

There may be problems aheadIf you want to succeed, you need to learn to fail well. This counterintuitive bit of wisdom was emphasized yesterday as I listened to a radio program on one of Boston’s NPR stations in a segment titled, “Parents: Letting Your Kids Fail Will Make Their Lives Better.” And I think it’s generally good advice.

The basic premise was that many children, teenagers, and young adults today are crippled by the fear of failure, which arises from a number of factors and contributes to a number of problematic outcomes. Among some of the more immediate factors, especially for the younger members of the generation, is the way parents are increasingly “shielding” or attempting to shield their children from any experience of failure. This might manifest itself in terms of large-scale overprotection, but it usually appears as parents interrupting the normal sequence of childhood and young-adult coping with the daily difficulties of life. Everything from a disappointing grade on a math test to a run-of-the-mill childhood fight between best friends elicits parental intervention.

The effects of this sort of interventionism and ostensible “protection” (recall that the ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’) range from an inflated sense of entitlement and specialness to crippling fear of the most mundane forms of daily disappointment in school, in one’s career, and in personal relationships. If you’ve “never failed” then how would you ever know how to negotiate the little and big failures, rejections, and difficulties you will inevitably face?

Some of the experts on the NPR program, including Hara Estroff Marano, an editor at Psychology Today; Jessica Lahey, a teacher and journalist; and Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at Harvard’s grad school in education, expressed some serious concerns along these lines about students and young adults at various levels of their development and discussed some of the implications for a generation coming of age with these sorts of hangups.

One of the most resonating narratives came from Lahey, whose recent article in The Atlantic reveals the truth and effects of this sort of parenting and student-fear-of-failure in the elementary-school and high-school classrooms. She summarizes, early in her piece, the gist of the phenomenon:

The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.

I come from a family of teachers (my mother used to teach in an elementary school and, for the last few years, has taught high-school english; my brother used to teach high-school math and now teaches math at the college level; both an aunt and uncle are elementary school teachers in New York) and a circle of friends that are teachers (one of my best friends from college is a rock-star elementary-school teacher in her district; another friend’s fiancé is a high-school teacher; another close friend teaches high school in one of the most difficult inner-city districts in the US; one of my college roommates is finishing his PhD in education from Cornell; and, of course, all of my colleagues in doctoral studies are preparing from some sort of education-related career) — my world is very much a world of education.

I’ve heard more anecdotal evidence over the years to support the first-hand accounts of what was discussed in this segment than I have time and space here to rehearse. The stories can be horrifying — not just because parents, especially at the elementary and high-school level, are so rude, demanding, and accusatory with teachers who really only want the best for the children and teenagers, but because in the process one knows — especially the teachers who spend 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week, most of the year, with these kids — how destructive and unhelpful it is by way of life-skill development and self-confidence building to “protect” kids from “failure.”

Many of you know that I’ve also had, since 2009, the great joy and privilege (and challenge) of teaching at the college level. Every year since the Fall of 2009 I’ve taught at least one course at a variety of universities — in a program at Trinity University in Washington, for a full academic year at Siena College, and in the summers of 2012 and 2013 in the department of theology at St. Bonaventure University. I’ve also had my fair share of the effects of this “protection from failure” playing out with interventionist parenting (which I do not indulge, stating to parents who call or email that it is against the law for me to talk about a 18+ old student’s academic performance, which it is thanks to FERPA, and always direct them to the academic vice president’s office if they have a concern). But that has actually been quite rare in my experience. More often than not it is the students themselves who exhibit the anxiety, fear, and paralyzing effects of the possibility that “they’ll get it wrong.” I even know quite a few adults and graduate students who also have these same concerns. Maybe you’re one of them.

All of this is to say that there is a real problem in our contemporary education and child-rearing culture that has dangerous psychological and emotional consequences for a large number of people. One of the things that I found most troubling about the data and narrative experience was the realization that one of the things that suffers most is creativity. It’s not so much that one’s inability to cope with the disproportionate anxiety from fear of failure makes somebody unintelligent or stupid, it’s that it makes them uncreative because they can never take the risk that comes with creativity.

If you want to be a successful painter, you will at-first fail on numerous canvases.

If you want to be a successful mathematician, you will at-first fail in solving the equations.

If you want to be a successful writer, your manuscripts will be rejected endlessly until one of them isn’t.

But…there will never come a point when you stop failing, because that’s what creativity is about. What works can only be known against the backdrop of what doesn’t — and if you’re too afraid to ever risk establishing that backdrop, personally and professionally, then you’ll never know what success is like.

There is a very Christian dimension to all of this, by the way. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are replete with failures — the disciple’s constant misunderstanding, Peter’s denials, the struggles Paul encounters with early Christian communities — not to mention Jesus’s Crucifixion, which we recognize and celebrate as something that is the greatest scandal and foolishness precisely because it is an objective failure.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we have the beautiful images in Jeremiah, for example, in the potter’s house where he comes to understand that even as Israel screws everything up over and over again — like a potter with clay in hand — God is patient and allows the remodeling to take place, to try again, to become the beautiful creation intended from the beginning.

If we cannot live because we fear failure, then we cannot be good Christians because it is a faith that is predicated on being oftentimes diametrically opposed to “worldly success.” Just as in the educational, social, and professional world, if you want to be successful, then you need to learn to fail well.

Photo: Stock

UPDATE: Just saw this story in the latest New York Times Magazine on a related theme: “Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart.”

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