One of the most common scenarios I observe in youth ministry today (and one that I have been guilty of fostering as well) happens when a youth encounters Christ at a retreat, comes back excited about their experience, and the youth minister or DRE feels the need to put them in some form of leadership position.

In these same circumstances, however, I often find that when a youth comes home excited about their experience at a camp or retreat, their parents peg it as “temporary” and don’t get nearly as excited as I do. I am beginning to understand why these two very different reactions exist and have come to realize that both are appropriate. Let me explain.

The faith life of an individual can be compared to the growth of a plant. The reality is that when a youth first encounters Christ at a retreat or camp, the seeds of faith have just been planted. The problem is that we often mistake these “planted seeds” for “fruit,” and we jump right into wanting these youth to share that fruit with others when they really do not yet have anything to give. Parents understand this because they see their children excited about many things that often do not turn into much of anything. They have the patience to let it develop over time and the understanding that it must be the youth that takes ownership of it for it to grow authentically.

This is where discipleship comes in. If you look at the Process of Evangelization, excitedly throwing a youth who has just become interested in the faith into a leadership position is making them jump from Initial Conversion right into Missionary Initiative. In my experience, this helps explain why some of these youth that were so interested in their faith in high school so easily left the faith in college. When a plant has no roots or those roots are not planted in fertile soil, it will too easily be blown away. The problem with putting youth in leadership roles so quickly is that they do not yet have the foundation in and disciplines of the faith to truly be able to lead. It tends to feed the ego more than actually bringing about authentic growth.

The USCCB document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord says, “The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of formation” (52). Our goal if we are to truly help youth become leaders in the faith is to help them “cultivate a special devotion and complete openness to the Holy Spirit,” so that “the power of Pentecost will be alive in their hearts” and work through them in their leadership role. In order to do this fruitfully, faithfully, and with true discernment, they must learn how to pray.

I recently interviewed a young woman for a summer missionary position, and I can’t stop thinking about the analogy she used in regard to her experience of being taught to pray in high school. She said that all of the events and classes she was able to participate in throughout those years were like kindling which served as preparation for a fire. It wasn’t until she learned to pray that the fire was lit and her faith began to explode.

In order to be well formed in pastoral formation, we must be well formed in spiritual formation. A good leader must not only know how to pray but must also pray. Let us be as excited as youth ministers but as patient as parents. Let us learn to cultivate an atmosphere of discipleship in our parishes so that when seeds of faith are planted, they have a place to sink their roots into the ground and grow deeply. It is then that we can focus on how to live and distribute the fruits (leadership formation) that are flowing from this life in Christ.