How to encourage more kids to be altar servers
"If things are not working, change needs to happen. New evangelisation means doing things in new ways. If kids are not volunteering or not showing up to their rostered commitments, you need to ask why that is...."
...If you want kids to show up at your training sessions, make it fun and worthwhile. ..
It seems that in the busyness of kids’ (and parents!) lives, it is getting more and more difficult to recruit and retain altar servers. In some parishes, commitment and retention in this ministry is a bigger issue than formation and training. There is a interesting paradox with young people's participation: doing less sometimes can make the activity less important in their list of priorities and events. Here are eight ideas that may help your community to encourage more young people to turn-up, and keep turning up!
1.Attend to safeguarding
It is critical that every meeting, every liturgy and every interaction with children is governed by the Archdiocese’s Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults Policy. Parishioners who are leading this ministry must ensure they understand the requirements of the Policy to guarantee the safety of children entrusted to their care and for the credibility of their ministry with parents and carers.
2.Listen and be prepared to work in new ways
If things are not working, change needs to happen. New evangelisation means doing old things in new ways. If kids are not volunteering or not showing up to their rostered commitments, you need to ask why that is. I am not talking about interrogating servers though! Sometimes the hardest questions are the ones we ask ourselves. Have we had a disposition of hospitality? Have we been positive and affirming? Has it been about building community or maintaining rules? A small forum of parents and senior servers can be a great way to listen to what issues there are in preventing kids from participating. Listen and be prepared to really engage in change. Don’t just concentrate on the negatives though: what are the strengths of your group and how can you build on them?
3.Work with family commitments and think outside the box!
You need to ensure that you are meeting regularly with servers. Crowded family timetables can be a difficult obstacle to coordinate though. Parents are the biggest reason for why kids come to Mass and participate in cocurricular activities. Establishing the best time to train servers can be an effective strategy in recruiting and maintaining members. Consider using an online meeting scheduler to allow families to communicate the best time that works for them. Consider less formal mini-meetings (small group meetings that you repeat several times to accommodate everyone’s timetable). When parents and carers arrive, make sure you care for their needs as well – a simple offer of afternoon tea and a space for them to work while you are meeting with servers can go a long way to getting parents’ and carers’ buy-in. If training sessions are proving difficult in-person, try a virtual training session where servers connect via a video conference service (note: this should only be done with parents present). Or, create a short video message about a particular training aspect that servers can watch with their parents (it doesn’t have to be a perfect video; just someone talking to camera is fine!)
4.Build community first and stand for something
Think back to your best learning experiences. It is often not the content we remember but how a teacher made us feel while we were learning. If you want kids to show up at your training sessions, make it fun and worthwhile. If you can, give some time to playing some ice-breaking games so that your volunteers get to know you and each other. Better yet, prepare your meetings so that they are activity-based, not just an adult talking to young people. Be clear with participants about why their participation is important in your community. Research indicates that over 75% of priests and religious started out as altar servers. Kids need to know that what they are doing is important, valued and contributes to the community in an authentic way, both now and in the future.
5.Contract using milestones
Do your servers commit to an indefinite period of time as an altar server in your community? An undefined commitment period may make it make it easier to “drop-out” at any time. There is a growing body of research to suggest secondary and tertiary students are better at committing to a project for a contracted period of time. Parents expect their kids to see out a sporting season because of the commitment they made at the start of the season. It could be helpful then for servers to commit to a 12 month roster (or something similar to a sporting season). Students could then re-commit after each year. With each year of commitment, servers could take on more responsibilities giving younger servers something to aspire to (bell-ringing perhaps?) If your parish can afford it, a name badge can be a great way of recongising servers and the seniority of their role.
6.Put tools in place to help kids feel confident in their role
Pilots with hundreds of hours of flying time use a checklist for every flight. Consider creating some checklists for each server’s position that could be reviewed before Mass. Even if kids learn about a particular aspect of serving at the last training session, the details may be a little fuzzy by Sunday. If kids think they are going to mess up or embarrass themselves (or mum!) in front of the congregation, they may be less inclined to show up. Having clear duties assigned to each role with clear instructions in language they will understand may increase confidence in servers. A laminated card on the sacristy wall with jobs for each server would allow a young person to remind themselves of their duties (Eg: Server 1…, Server 2….). Ensure unfamiliar words like ‘chalice’ and ‘ciborium’ are explained with a picture. Servers should be greeted well when they arrive for Mass and directed to do their ‘pre-flight’ checklist. Servers can then be invited to pray with other ministers before mass.
7.Positive over punitive
Kids are going to make mistakes. Expecting them to be perfect is unrealistic. When they make a mistake on the sanctuary, it is critical that their dignity is respected and they are not disciplined during Mass. A few cranky words or an irritated side-ways glance from a sacristan or parish priest can irreparably damage a relationship with a family and discourage any potential new servers seated in the assembly. If you need to address behaviour, include a parent or carer in the discussion after Mass and away from others. If the server requires feedback about an error or mistake, use a role check-list to review the duties with the server. Ask lots of questions to understand why the issue occurred to ensure you are treating the cause not the symptom!
8.Personal vs generic
When we need new servers, the common strategy is an ad in Sunday’s newsletter or perhaps a mention at the parish school assembly. Sometimes a personal invitation can work wonders! A quick chat over the pew on Sunday to a new family can be an effective way to invite a young person to consider ministry as a server. It allows the family to meet you and ask questions about being a server that directly relate to their context. Do I have to serve at 9am Mass each week? Can my sister be a server too? Personally inviting someone into ministry is also a wonderful affirmation and a recognition of their personal participation in your community.