All-Girl Server Corps: Myth or Local Failure

If you read the conservative Catholic commentariat, you’ll be aware of the argument that allowing girls to serve at the altar has chased away all the boys. Or most of the boys. Or the good potential priests. You have only to read through the comments here to get a sense of the argument, or lack thereof.

A person were to approach me and say, “My parish has hardly any boys as altar servers. What’s wrong?” I’d be willing to entertain a dialogue on that point. But first let me spell out how I would see the ideal parish’s altar server ministry:

1. Servers would not be recruited broadly. I would not have announcements in the bulletin or newsletters. If a fifth or sixth grader is old enough to ask on their own initiative, they should be accepted for training. I’ve always had more servers than the schedule could handle, and I’d prefer to get self-motivated and assertive children speak up for what they want to do.

2. I would train in small groups no larger than the actual crew assigned to a Mass: two to four. Ideally one adult (possibly the priest) would be assisted by one or two of the best older servers. Many of the tasks are a choreography with the priest, so repetitive rehearsals on all procedures are best. I would leave time for questions. I would send the kids home with an outline of the procedures, perhaps a vocabulary list, and an agreement for the parents to sign. Any session longer than 75 minutes is a waste of time.

3. The agreement would recommend weekly Mass attendance (mom and dad), a commitment to the schedule (the family), a willingness to procure substitutes when needed (the server), and a personal commitment to study and pay attention.

4. I would add servers at select times in the existing schedule, serving with trusted older girls and boys who could be trusted to teach and mentor them.

5. Once the new server had a few Masses under her or his belt, I would administer a simple test, combining written and oral elements. Once I had received an agreement signed by child and parents, the young person would be included in the regular schedule.

6. I would sprinkle the year with fun and formation events: a picnic and outside fun day, a more formal appreciation dinner, perhaps a field trip to the cathedral or some other pilgrimage site.

7. I think clergy involvement is essential. I don’t think the priest needs to be in charge of all the fine details. It may be better that he’s not. Ideally, the pastor would serve as the pastor: encouraging vocations, providing positive feedback for jobs well done, fine-tuning procedures, and rehearsing for big events.
8. Parents have a high degree of motivation to take some leadership. Those I’ve known have overseen training, chaperoned trips, organized dinners and events, and involved their peers in parish life. Altar serving can become a family event–and that’s always a plus for busy American households.

9. Older servers should be included in leadership roles. All of these elements: clergy (and liturgist), parents, and kids, working well produce an example in microcosm of a functional faith community. The inclusion of respected older servers in administration shows all the children the role of server is a serious one. It also builds self-confidence and develops ownership. Younger kids inclined to be slackers seem to respond better to peer pressure when parental cajoling is tuned out.

If a parish’s boys aren’t serving in equal numbers (and I’ve never worked in a parish where the balance was ever far from 50-50) I would look to the parish priest: Is he involved? What about parish dads? Are they on board with training, events, and personal presence?

Anybody else with some comments on parish altar servers?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to All-Girl Server Corps: Myth or Local Failure

  1. Gavin says:

    I’ve always found the “boys don’t want to serve with girls” argument to be trash. If I had a son who didn’t want to do X “because girls do that”, well, I don’t know what I’d do but I’d give him some sort of severe discipline. And he’d be forced to do it anyway.

    Furthermore, I can think of a much more “sexist” activity: singing. Young boys don’t sing because it’s seen as “girly”. The same could be said of men. Anyone yet suggest that girls should be forbidden from singing lest they discourage the boys? Actually I do know some people who advocate that boys and girls should receive separate music educations – not a bad idea, I suppose. But I can see a lot of schools not wanting to “waste” the time with two music classes…

  2. Anne says:

    I like all your suggestions except #5. Why a written test? Sure to put fear into some children. Observing them during a trial period should be enough IMO. I do believe in on-going formation.

  3. FrMichael says:

    Todd, you and I have something in common: we aren’t fathers of boys. So I’ll go easy on you with this.

    Older pre-teen and young teenage boys generally don’t want to be associated with “girly” activities. So if the altar server corps becomes identified as a feminine group, it becomes difficult to keep the older boys involved. You can recruit younger ones, but they will drop out in large numbers once they get older.

    I don’t know what the magic percentage is that causes the precipitous decline. But I don’t allow the altar servers to become majority female, which means sometimes that girls have to recruit their brothers. So be it.

  4. Anne says:

    Excuse me, but why should it matter if the girls outnumber the boys? Boys who are interested will serve, no matter what. Boys who won’t serve because there are girls involved need to grow up.

  5. Jimmy Mac says:

    Anne, Anne, Anne: it’s because girls can’t be priests and we don’t want them to get any ideas. They need to remain in the pews early on in life so that uppityness doesn’t become part of their religious inquisitiveness.

  6. Todd says:

    “I don’t know what the magic percentage is that causes the precipitous decline.”

    I don’t either, because I’ve never seen it. Nor have my colleagues (most of whom–but not all are on the progressive side). I do have swings of 60% on either side, more due to the predominance of girls or boys in a newly eligible grade level. Last year 18 of 21 new servers were boys, a bit extreme from the 65% males in that grade level. My daughter’s grade has an all-girl class, plus two 50-50’s, and the balance has shifted back to 50-50 in the corps.

    I’ve seen the myth perpetuated, but nobody ever says it happens in their parish, nor do they have any concrete evidence it’s happened elsewhere.

    If it has happened anywhere, my inclination would be to blame the priest for a lack of interest.

  7. Marilyn says:

    my 12 (then 11)-year old son agreed to serve when he found out he could be scheduled with “Rachel”…he’ll still serve with Rachel anytime …I liked it when our pastor invited and trained all 5th graders, then scheduled those who requested to be altar servers. Many decided AFTER training they wanted to continue and the younger students have the most enthusiasm…on a side note…it’s really a neglect when an adult “emcee” scurries around assisting the priest with work the servers could/should be doing as we had going on last night…because the action of the ministry evangelizes the students.

  8. Gavin says:

    I’d also add that if a girl develops an interest in liturgy after serving, that’s not a bad thing. There are many ways, besides ordination, that she could apply her interest in liturgy such as music, liturgical studies, architecture, etc. I know one girl in the school who is a very pious and careful server and has a love of music. Future music director? Let’s hope so. Also there’s some exceptional male servers. Are they all destined to the priesthood? Not necessarily, but many of them could wind up as fine liturgists for a church that needs one. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a couple more laymen with an intimate knowledge of the liturgy. Seems to me if there’s decent (or even moderately bad) catechesis, the issue of female altar servers wanting to be ordained isn’t a problem.

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