I recently read through about 80 evaluations from a day of formation offered on discipleship. One of the questions on the participant evaluation asked about specific struggles people had experienced in their discipleship efforts thus far . The most common responses had something to do with the busyness of individuals in the group or lack of commitment from group members. By far, the most popular comment described a tension between the desire of the discipleship leader to form the group members and the reality that this is impossible to do in the context of a one or two hour-long meeting each week.
I believe that one of the greatest misconceptions people have about discipleship groups is the idea that our responsibility is to form the youth as best we can in the context of that group, and only in the context of that group. Too often, leaders create extremely busy group schedules with a night of prayer here, a social night there, and “oh, don’t forget that we have to have at least one night where the parents are invited.” Especially for those who may be new to discipleship, it can be easy to conclude that as long we include something from each of the Four Areas of Formation in the planning, we have done all we can.
To clarify the point I want to make in this post, I’d like to give an example of a situation described in one of the reviews. On the question regarding struggles in discipleship, this person notes that she leads a group of 12th grade young women who are distracted by future graduation plans, and therefore not listening as closely to the content of the group studies as they should be.
I can totally understand this comment. I have led many groups where I felt like the youth were very distracted by other things. What I have come to learn, though, is that it is precisely these things (college discernment) that create the opportunities for real formation in a young person’s life. The irony of this situation is that I have spent the last six months actually discipling a youth through the process of discerning college. Viewing this as an opportunity to help her grow in prayer (spiritual formation), I was able teach (intellectual formation) on two great saints, St. Francis De Sales and St. Ignatius of Loyola, and their teachings on discernment and prayer. Throughout the discernment process, and in the tension of deadlines and peer pressure (human formation), this young person grew much in her relationship with Christ and her ability to listen and be guided by His voice, and the freedom she experienced in it has become something very attractive to others (pastoral formation).
I didn’t get through a curriculum, and if someone asked what this youth actually learned, it might not be the most concrete, “packaged” program, but in fourteen years of youth ministry, I’m confident that this way of thinking and the approach that flows from it is how formation most effectively takes place.
Here are a few additional tips I’ve learned that I hope will be helpful for you:
Learn to Observe
Any professional coach will tell you that in order to coach well, you must know your students well. Start by getting to know your group and discovering what it is that God may be wanting to do in their lives before deciding what you want to teach them.
Practice Getting Rid of the Resource
Resources are good but can actually hinder a leader from being able to lead well. Could you imagine a football coach relying solely on a resource to tell him what his team needs? A good resource should flow from good observation and good coaching and really be supplemental to what knowledge and experience you as a leader can provide.
Do Not Be Afraid to Go Slow
I truly believe that the reason a lot of discipleship leaders live in this tension is because some pressure (coming either from the parish or from their own self-expectations) causes them to think that they have to “get through” a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time.
God is desiring to do much in the lives of the youth that you work with and in you as well. Only when we begin to surrender our preconceived ideas and sometimes even the traditions that we are used to will we become aware of the things God desires to do in us and in those we serve.
In my last post, I was rather critical of programs. It’s not really programs that I struggle with but rather the inability of people to think outside of their programs. I struggle with this myself. It’s easy to fall into the falsehood that we will be able to meet all of the needs of the youth within a single or maybe even a few different programs. When I say program, I mean a regularly offered event (youth group, bible study, discipleship group, etc.) that is planned and available to anyone interested.
The shift that Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry aims to make is to look first at the needs of the youth instead of setting out to create the perfect program. In fact, the perfect program only exists when these ever-changing needs are understood, and the “program” responds to those needs. “Ever-changing” is the key phrase here. The problem is that often a youth leader’s job description and the direction given to them from their pastor is very program-driven as opposed to expecting the leader to observe the needs in a parish and do whatever it takes to respond to those needs.
The reality is that one program will never suffice, especially when the needs of youth are so diverse. I’m not really suggesting that all our programs need to change. The youth group in your parish may be just what many of the youth in your parish need at this point in their life. I’m suggesting that we begin to discover new ways to reach the youth where they are at and create the margin in the structures of our programming that will allow us to point and to direct the youth to all the different – and perhaps previously overlooked or unconsidered – opportunities in the parish.
To help explain this a bit, I thought I would share six “anti-programs” that are probably easier to pull off than you thought. These anti-programs actually are programs if viewed through a certain lens. In fact, you may already be doing these things without considering them in this light. Here they are:
I have to start with this one because I believe using it as an example will help my point make the most sense. If you are someone who “goes out for coffee” regularly with a specific person or group of people, “going out for coffee” is a program. You understand that going out for coffee helps you meet a need in the relationship or situation in a way that other things cannot. This example helps make the point that people who really do understand ministry naturally do things outside of programs (like going out for coffee) and do not even think about it.
If a discipleship group wanted to host a monthly dodgeball night in your parish hall or school gym, it might be an excellent, effective program. It’s the type of activity you could invite people to attend if you believed that whatever dodgeball does (builds community, makes competitive, athletic people feel more included, etc.) fills a specific need for ministry in your parish.
I truly believe that “temporary” programs are going to have a strong place in the future of youth ministry. If a group of youth are fired up about something specific at a certain point in their involvement of the parish, why not offer gasoline to fuel the fire? Imagine a young person desiring to grow in prayer and wanting to dive deeply into it with their friends. Why not offer a temporary program, maybe 4-5 sessions, just for that small group of people (although anyone who is interested could be invited) and fuel the flame? Embracing the concept of temporary programs makes addressing any relevant or timely area of formation possible if it can be done/taught over a short period of time.
This is something I have found myself wanting to do more of in my own parish. For those youth desiring to grow deeper in their spiritual life, having someone help them to do it is vital. It’s very difficult to offer what’s needed in this sort of mentorship through any program or even a small group. Having people who are available to assist young people in deepening their life of prayer and discernment is another “program” you can rely upon if needed but is not something that’s necessarily “organized” or even planned but is available as needed.
Monthly Adoration & Confessions
Setting up a consistent time each month for the youth to gather for a holy hour and confessions has truly been a success in the parishes I have seen try it. It’s not really a program, but again, it’s an organized activity that corresponds to the desires and needs of individual youth.
The “After Program” Program
Think about the hour after youth group. In my experience, many youth typically look forward to and engage more deeply in what’s available after youth group than youth group itself. Take advantage of this opportunity.
With these examples, I have just two final points to make. First, my intent is to help identify ways that youth ministry may already be happening in your parish “outside of programs.” Second, these examples are provided to inspire youth leaders to be more creative in looking at what types of “anti-programs” can exist in your parish. This is not necessarily at the cost of what your current programs already offer, but as a response to needs and desires that cannot be met within those programs.
I’d love to hear more ideas of what you might currently be doing or some ideas you have of other “anti-programs” that could be utilized in a parish.
This game was a huge success at our summer camps.
To start you will need one dozen eggs for every two teams. Seven of the eggs in each dozen should be boiled and five should not. Mix them up in the carton so you can't tell which ones are which.
We had the teams (small groups) send a representative up to challenge a representative from another team. They each selected one egg and (on a count of three) smashed it on their head. The first team to get three of the raw eggs lost.
Here is a video of Jimmy Fallon doing this with Ryan Reynolds:
Please share other ideas and stories of your experience of this game below!
Photo by Kate Remmer on Unsplash
I’ve been an Amazon customer since 2002 when pretty much the only thing that people used it for was to avoid going to the University bookstore and paying full price for college textbooks. Now Amazon seems to be the first place I look whenever I have need for anything!
To start off this new Catholic Youth Ministry Blog I’ve decided that for my first post I would go through the last 16 years of my Amazon orders and share with you the top 8 things I’ve purchased for youth ministry. Also, please note that if I were to give a true top 8, it would likely include 5-6 books. I’ve decided that I’ll stick to games, resources, supplies, etc. and I’ll devote another post to my favorite books. So here we go:
Please note: these are affiliate links that allow us to receive a portion of any sales made when you purchase these items by clicking through on our site. This "kickback" goes to support the work of the Catholic Youth Ministry Hub.
Poof Soccer Balls
We tried out three or four types of balls to use for dodge ball in our gym. These were by far the best ones we could find. They are soft enough, they last a long time, and more importantly it feels great when you zing that youth with one of them!
See it here.
An excellent game to have sitting around in a youth room, at camp, etc. It’s a very common game that most know how to play and it can serve as an excellent ice breaker. It’s also extremely affordable and is great quality!
See it here.
This was another well known game that I discovered later on than most. Similar to Spike Ball (above) this is affordable, it’ll last forever, and most people can just pick it up and play it.
See it here.
Pharisees - The Party Game
This is the "Christian" version of the popular youth ministry game "Mafia". I often tell people it's the perfected version of the game.
See it here.
This is an older game but it’s one of those go-to games that is great for small groups. In larger groups it’s entertaining enough that observers have no problem just watching!
See it here.
Exploding Kittens Game
I have officially ordered 25 of these from Amazon. It is an awesome game that can be played in 3-5 minutes and rarely gets old. It’s another one of those games that observers enjoy watching. It can be expanded to take more players as well.
See it here.
I got tired of air mattresses and these have been an excellent replacement for when we need additional beds at camp or on retreat. They are durable, long lasting, and fairly inexpensive. They aren’t the most comfortable to sleep on but those who have them are usually grateful to have anything!
See it here.
Pope Francis Bobble Head
Definitely the coolest affordable prize that I have bought so far!
See it here.
I hope you've enjoyed this list! If you have other items you'd like to mention, please comment below!
A couple of years ago, I spoke with a mom in a local parish who was interested in leading a small discipleship group. She was excited because the parish was encouraging discipleship groups to begin as naturally as possible, so she immediately saw her daughter, her daughter’s friends, and a couple other youth as a great group to lead. This mom asked a friend to lead the group with her, and they began meeting in the fall.
About two months into leading the group, the pastor caught wind that this group was having a sleepover at the leader’s house and immediately put an end to it. His reasoning was that according to diocesan policy, sleepovers were not allowed. What bothered me about this situation is that two months prior, the pastor would’ve agreed that there really wasn’t anything wrong with this mother having a sleepover, and to be blunt, it wouldn’t really have been any concern of his. In fact, when talking with him later, he readily admitted this, and we agreed about how frustrating it is that the policy at times can actually inhibit us from just living life as a parish family.
Let me propose something a little crazy. What would happen if as a Church, the “program” we offered was not “discipleship groups” but the formation of the discipleship leaders? How would this impact this specific situation, and how would it play out overall with regard to discipleship focused youth ministry? Let me offer a few thoughts.
Evangelization would be lived rather than programmed
In some ways, this mother didn’t see her “sleepover” as an act of evangelization because she was simply being “mom,” and in simply being “mom” she was living out her call to “go and make more disciples.” We should begin to recognize that this sort of community and intentionality is an evangelizing activity that goes outside the walls of the Church (which is the goal, isn’t it?). The idea of this intentionality being recognized by the parish was attractive to her, but was it really necessary? In this situation, we recognize that by formalizing it, much of the freedoms she would have had before were stripped away.
Formalizing a “lived evangelization” increases risk and liability to the parish
I’m only looking at this one situation, but in this case, by formalizing this “group” as a parish group, the activities that they could previously have engaged in as a normal part of their life now have increased the liability of the parish, the diocese, etc., which is why they couldn’t have the sleepover. I understand that at the same time, bringing something under the umbrella of the parish will provide protections and assistance that someone like this mother might desire. For example, if she were to take her group on a trip or to a conference, she might appreciate the coverage that a diocese or parish could offer as far as insurance, legal protections, etc. In this specific situation, though, the mother would’ve rather taken on the liability of the sleepover than lose the ability to have the sleepover altogether.
Parishes could focus more on formation and less of administration
The greatest desire I hear from priests who want to be more pastoral is that they would not have to be so concerned about the administrative aspects of running a parish so that they could be more of a shepherd for their people in the spiritual life. This proposal would be along the same lines. If we focused more of our time on helping others do the work of evangelization (and administration), we would be focusing more on formation, which over time would build a stronger church family. If the discipleship group mentioned above were merely a project or effort of the mother (which is was before it was ever a discipleship group) and the parish “programs” existed to help that mother grow in her ability to lead these young women, the parish wouldn’t have to be so concerned about the details of the group. It would create a culture where parents and adults felt empowered to view their daily life as an opportunity to evangelize and would cling to the parish in order to receive the support and formation they needed to do it well.
I’m not proposing that all programs are bad. As indicated earlier, a parish leading a trip or an opportunity when it would be difficult or impossible for a group to do on their own would assist adults like this mom in their mission. I’m also not proposing that we do this simply to reduce the risk of liability to the parish. The mom mentioned above has a heart for the Church and a desire for her daughter and her daughter’s friends to be connected to the Church. I’m proposing that the systems that we have in place in order for that to happen can sometimes do more harm than good. I’m proposing that the programs we offer in our parishes be more focused on forming disciples to “go make disciples” and then send them to do so rather than thinking we also need to coordinate and micromanage the ways in which they do.
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.
One of the most difficult aspects of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is finding good leaders who are intentional disciples themselves. If you are already a discipleship leader, one of the greatest struggles is likely believing that you are or can be a good leader as well (don’t get discouraged, I’m sure you are!).
When I was first becoming familiar with a discipleship approach, I spent a lot of time seeking out people who were already in the business of discipleship. One of the questions I always asked was, “How do you know someone is ready to be a disciple-maker?” It seems each person has their own methods of discernment, but at least three people mentioned an acronym that I really appreciated. The acronym is F.A.C.T. (I believe it is commonly used by FOCUS) and it stands for:
F = Faithful
Is the person faithful to prayer and to the Sacraments? Is he or she faithful to the teachings of the Church and obedient to the vision of the parish and the expectations of the pastor?
A = Available
Does the person have the time to be a discipleship leader? Will the person have the time to be available to those whom he or she is investing in? Will the person be able to plan and communicate well?
C = Contagious
Is this someone whose joy in the faith is contagious? Is he or she able to create an atmosphere where the faith can be transmitted joyfully to those they are responsible for leading?
T = Teachable
Will this person take the time to learn from others? Will this person be able to attend the training and formation opportunities available to them? Can this person humbly accept criticism and be open to what the Lord may be doing in them through the discipleship process?
There is much more to being a discipleship leader than these four acronyms can articulate, but I believe they are core elements that can help any person understand what it takes to get started in discipleship.
Recently, I read an “off-the-cuff” address that Pope Francis gave to an audience of consecrated men and women. He spoke about a few different things, but the one that really struck me was the importance of identifying true vocations as opposed to simply letting anyone enter an order, join the seminary, etc. I thought about this in light of a parish finding discipleship leaders, and it really seems to make sense to me. So, I’d like to take an excerpt from his address and adapt it for our use as we consider the process for finding strong discipleship leaders. Here is my adaptation (the bold text is what I changed from vocation/consecrated terms to discipleship/parish terms):
One of the most common fears and frustrations of parish leaders who are desiring to cultivate an atmosphere of discipleship in their parish comes from the inability to find good discipleship leaders. Similar to a vocational calling, being a discipleship leader should be a calling. If we simply search for warm bodies to fill in spots in order to gain numbers, we are missing the point, and it is then that “problems begin to exist inside.”
Let us apply this patience and discipline that Pope Francis is asking of consecrated communities to our efforts in discipleship and pray with intensity. We are so trained to be in “program success” mode that we often forget that we should instead be in “person success” mode. May our work in the Church be focused on helping individuals discover the beauty of the spiritual life and growing in their ability to truly discern God’s will, and may we be willing to sacrifice the attractiveness of “successful” programming and the “security” of high attendance in order to do so.
My last blog post titled Stop Trying So Hard to Evangelize was a challenge to people like me who find it difficult at times to trust that God has things under control and realize that our role in evangelization may actually need to be minimized in order to be most effective. In light of this, I want to share a list I made a few years ago that keeps me focused on the more important aspects of ministry. In my desire and prayer for humility, this list of things that “I Can’t” do help me to be free to concentrate on the things that I should be doing. Here’s the list:
I Can’t Effectively Pass on the Faith Without Being an Intentional Disciple Myself.
In the book Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell writes:
Each day, let us recommit ourselves first to being a disciple of Christ so that we can be more effective in transmitting it to others.
I Can’t Pass on the Faith Effectively to Everyone All at Once.
This is a point that has been made repeatedly on this blog. Using a large group model as the only means of leading young people to Christ can be extremely ineffective. The youth of today are desiring authentic relationships and friendships. Each day, I come to realize more and more the need to invest in a few, which may sometimes require less energy and attention on pleasing others.
I Can’t Lead Without Being a Learner.
It seems everyday I find myself using the recent knowledge and understanding I have gained of Christ in my life, youth ministry, discipleship, etc. to help others in their faith as well. It has taken time, but I realize now more than ever the importance of being a learner first and a leader second.
I Can’t Continue Doing Everything.
In order to truly grow in my own faith…In order to truly grow ministry initiatives in the parishes that I work with…In order to truly grow in my own family life…I have learned the importance of saying “NO.” For a tree or a plant to be able to grow, it needs room both above the ground and below. Over the past few years, I have made huge strides in my willingness to say “No” to people and things not only in my schedule, but also in those things that consume my thoughts, in order to make room for depth and growth in the things that are most important.
I Can’t Please Everyone.
It has taken me time, having some tough conversations, and facing some harsh realities to begin to understand that not everyone is going to like me. Being someone who is willing to question the way things have always been done puts a target on my back in so many ways. Although I tend to believe I am always right (my wife might argue that), I have learned that no matter how hard I try or do not try, someone will have something to say about it.
Each of these statements reflects a humble admittance of my own lacking and need for growth. They are hard things to swallow for those people who think they “can.” I pray that we can be a Church that recognizes our need for Christ to act in and through our efforts, making room for Him to be able by recognizing that we “can’t.”
I have been struck recently by the moments in which God is revealing to me how easy evangelization can actually be. In my work of discipleship and evangelization, it seems that too often, I am focused on “doing” things that I believe will make in an impact on others as I attempt to “fix” or “help” them to know Christ better. Over the last two weeks, I have been struck by three different experiences that appear to be challenging me in this mindset.
It all started with the Gospel reading from the Fourth Sunday of Advent:
Christ, living in Mary, was enough to fill Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit. So much so that she “cried out in a loud voice”. Mary simply went where Elizabeth was and greeted her. That seems pretty easy to me!
Ss. Perpetua and Felicity
The second instance that stood out to me comes from the Passions of Ss. Perpetua and Felicity. I had read it before but recently gave it to a youth I am mentoring, and so I wanted to refresh. In section 16.4 it reads:
Ss. Perpetua and Felicity, early martyrs of the Church, were so singularly focused on Christ and so eagerly gave their lives for Him that “even the warden” became a believer. It didn’t happen through their explicit preaching of the gospel message but rather through faithfully following Christ and being radical witnesses of His love.
The final experience hit me hard. It took place when I was meeting with the youth I mentioned earlier and her two sisters. I had asked them to share the most pivotal moments over the last few years that have helped them grow in their faith. One of them answered that it was a summer camp experience in the diocese. Another responded that it was the way in which she has seen her sister (the one I have been walking with for a couple of months) grow in her faith recently.
By way of follow-up, I asked her, “What was it that your sister did that made such an impact?” The beauty of her response was that she didn’t know; it was something to the effect of “she seems joy-filled and free.” Simply witnessing a change in her sister over the last few months had inspired her to want to know and love Christ more intimately as well. And her sister did nothing but witness to that love by dying to herself and taking on more of Christ!
The thing that strikes me about each of these situations is how it was not some valiant effort on the part of an individual to evangelize someone that made such an impact; it was the way in which they lived their lives. We can give all of the training in the world on evangelization, but in the end, it must all be so that Christ, living in us, can evangelize.
May we truly come to believe that we should “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” May we believe that Christ, living in us, is enough, and may we learn to follow Christ with such confidence that only God knows the ways in which our “yes” to Him sets the world on fire.
For anyone who follows this blog regularly, you have probably picked up on the fact that I don’t usually choose the theme or content based on the fads or trends of the season. To be blunt, I am ordinarily inspired more by conversations and experiences I have than the perennial rituals and practices of modern American culture.
That being said, I have recently been given the opportunity to re-think what I am doing and re-prioritize the ways in which I structure the flow of my own daily efforts in discipleship. Conveniently, it falls right during the New Year, which may doubly inspire you to accompany me as I strive to realize these desires for discipleship in 2016.
To “Be With” Others
I want to get out of the office more. I desire to spend more time with those that I serve. More specifically, I desire to “be with” them in their ministry. I desire to spend more time getting to know them as people, not through email or even simply conversation, but through experiences together. Also, not just to lead or guide, but simply to “be with.”
Be Busy Only In Response
I’ve made this commitment before. I’m a creative at heart, so I have a ton of ideas and could spend all day by myself creating things that I believe will be helpful. But, I must admit that those things that are not as easy for me are usually what will actually be more helpful (i.e. getting out my office and engaging in relationship with other people).
Help Individuals Rather Than Build Programs or Initiatives
Since I have been focusing specifically on discipleship, the Lord has made very clear to me how much He desires to work in each of us as a part of the journey. The initiatives and programs that I promote are good, but I often miss out on what the Lord is doing in the moment because I am more focused on the success of the programs than what they are doing in me and in those that I serve. And obviously, truly being there to support and help and individuals will hopefully expand their capacity to receive Christ and lead others.
Become More Aware of Reality
Another one of my deep desires is to be more in touch with the realities that exist in the parishes with which I work. Their struggles are real, and the situations are complex. In “being with” them and not hesitating to care enough to learn and ask questions, it will help everyone be more in tune with the realities we are facing, which will provide greater clarity about what the Lord may be desiring to do in and through each of us.
Live With Common Mind and Mission
Philippians 2:12 says “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
One of my greatest desires is to be more unified in mission and love with those whom I serve. Oftentimes, this gets obscured because an individual agenda becomes a roadblock to true unity (admittedly, too often on my own part). I hope over the next year that I can do much better in surrendering my own plans and timelines in order to more effectively unite my desires and life with those with whom I work.
I pray that as I share my hopes for 2016 and beyond, you will find them helpful for your own reflection. I believe that all of these “resolutions” will help me to grow in discipleship and become more aware of the ways in which Christ is desiring to give himself to me, and through me, to others.
Just about anyone involved in youth ministry has had the discussion about the importance of numbers in evaluating our efforts. Like a teacher, we can claim that much of the fruit of our labors will not be visible until many years later. We can also spend time talking about how many of the results that we are striving for will take time and that some of the programs we lead may not produce immediate results, but they have their place.
The reality is that a pastor, finance council, and parish council are responsible for being good stewards of the gifts that have been given to the parish, especially the financial gifts that have been made to support its various ministries. When push comes to shove, in any business model, areas that are not producing results will be cut. This often puts youth ministry in a tough situation, especially if a youth minister (frequently paid full-time) is perceived to be working with only a small percentage of the youth in the parish in what can appear from the outside to be a social club of sorts.
The powers that be are looking for numbers, and they have a right to. The difficulty is that they are often looking at the wrong numbers, and the person in charge of youth ministry is unsure of how to communicate the right numbers. So, what numbers should we be measuring? Here are a few questions I wouldn’t hesitate to ask my youth minister if I were a pastor:
How many adults have you helped to get involved in youth ministry this past year?
How many youth are currently engaged in intentional discipleship with adults from the parish community?
How many youth are engaged in deeper study of the Christian faith?
How many youth involved in the programs and youth ministry efforts in the parish are committed to daily prayer, Sunday Mass, regular Confession, and involvement in the parish community?
When there is a need in the parish, how often is it that the youth step up to help?
In what ways are the youth in our parish sharing their experience of the faith with others?
What percentage of youth that graduate from our parish remain committed to their faith after high school?
What are some of the biggest needs of our youth today, and how are we responding to them as a parish?
These are just a few ideas. As we look ahead to the next year and set goals for 2016, I would recommend looking at some of these questions and beginning to shape your efforts in a way that will bring about improvements in these different areas.
One of the most common struggles that I hear about from youth (and that I have experienced many times myself) is the after-effect of what is known as a retreat “high.” If you have never heard of it before, the retreat high is that time during and shortly after a retreat when someone is experiencing a great consolation in their faith. It’s known as a retreat high because not long afterward, they are hit with a great struggle in staying motivated in their faith (a “low”).
Time after time when I speak with youth who have had retreat highs repeatedly, it seems like they have become so dependent on them that these moments have become harmful to the way they practice their faith. The reality is that these types of retreat experiences are extraordinary. Like an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, they may be helpful, and it is certainly acceptable to utilize them. However, the preferred minister is the ordinary minister of the Eucharist, the priest or deacon. The life that we are called to live most of the time is the ordinary life. Extraordinary experiences in the faith should deepen our love for and the practice of the ordinary life. The “feeling” of a retreat high is not bad, just like the attraction between a couple on their wedding day and honeymoon is not bad, but the daily stability, foundation, and practice of love is the way in which we are called to live.
Over the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on the need for Initiatory Catechesis following these conversion-focused retreat opportunities. Initiatory Catechesis is that essential moment in the life of a Christian after they have said yes to Christ. It’s a period in their walk with Christ where they become “initiated” in the faith. The General Directory of Catechesis describes it in these ways:
an essential moment
a comprehensive and systematic formation in the faith
includes more than instruction: it is an apprenticeship of the entire Christian life, it is a complete Christian initiation, which promotes an authentic following of Christ
it looks at what is “common” for the Christian
See full description of Initiatory Catechesis in the GDC here (paragraphs 67-68)
This is the cure for dependence on the “retreat high.” This is the way in which the youth with whom we work with able to adjust and grow into mature disciples. I experienced this recently as I have been walking with a few youth from my own parish. I find it to be a common experience that many of these youth have encountered Christ and are excited about what Christ has done and can continue to do in their lives, but they struggle knowing how to do it. They struggle connecting this awesome reality of God’s love with their daily life. This is where Initiatory Catechesis comes into play and really where discipleship begins and why discipleship is so important.
The cure for the retreat high is NOT more retreats, but it is the process of discipleship which helps a youth give up their life and take up a new. While retreats are a helpful and important part of growing in our relationship with Christ, they exist to enhance, not replace, the ordinary life of a Christian.
What does this look like? Well, it looks different depending on the individual, but for everyone it is discipleship in some form. “Want to learn more?” Check out our new Discipleship Leader Boot Camp Course, in which we cover the fundamentals of discipleship.”
In the work that I do, I get the opportunity to hear about many different ways in which discipleship is being approached, especially in small group or one-on-one settings. One of my priorities in learning more about effective discipleship is talking with those who are actually participants in it. I get to hear about so many blessings and graces that are flowing through these initiatives, but I also come across many individuals who are frustrated because what they have been told is supposed to happen through discipleship is not actually happening. Over the past few years, I have seen several common mistakes, and I thought it would be helpful to share my observations in the hope that others can learn from them as well.
Here are some of the top mistakes I am seeing discipleship leaders make as they strive to foster an atmosphere of discipleship in their ministry to others:
They Make It “Just” a Weekly Commitment
Many leaders try to fit everything into their weekly meeting time. Discipleship is much more than a once-a-week commitment. It is a relationship and a journey with a disciple.
They Center It Around a Program or Curriculum
Programs and resources are ok, but I have yet to see a program or curriculum do what discipleship sets out to do. What a group does should start with the vision of discipleship, and the choice of a curriculum should flow from that.
They Cancel When Numbers are Low
One of the primary goals of a discipleship group is to get to know the members of the group. A leader may have to adjust their expectations a little, but should capitalize on opportunities for more intimate settings like these. When fewer show up it provides a unique opportunity to really dive in and get to know one another. While it may be uncomfortable, do not get discouraged. Know that the Lord will bless your perseverance as you remain faithful to those who do make the commitment to be there.
They Never Raise the Bar
Members of a good discipleship group should be growing. As a discipleship leader, strive to find moments where the group can intentionally deepen their commitment to the group. This can be done by making a deeper commitment to prayer, commitment to more openness and sharing within the group, or simply making individual commitments for growth.
They Don’t Include the Disciples In the Planning
As a discipleship leader looks ahead, they should be sure to stay in tune with where the group members are desiring to go as well. Be intentional each semester about inviting the group’s input into the planning and vision of the schedule.
They Let Things Get Too Big
Having more youth gain interest in being part of your group is a good thing, but when it gets too big, your group can easily begin to lose focus. Do not be afraid to have the harder conversations with the group and consider breaking off as needed in order to maintain the Four Earmarks.
They Participate Rather Than Coach
I’ve heard it said too many times, “My group is so great I just let them take control of it.” Can you imagine a football coach ever saying that about their team? As a discipleship leader, you have the responsibility to see things in a different light. Do not be afraid to look for ways in which the group can grow, and challenge them to do so.
They Don’t Take Time to Get to Know Their Disciples
It’s pretty hard to come up with a good plan for formation when you don’t know where a person is at. Many leaders feel pressure to get through content, but it’s important to note that in discipleship, you technically don’t even know what things you should be doing unless you first know the student.
They Don’t Plan
Planning is important for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that it communicates to the youth that you have been thinking about them and preparing for them. Again, imagine a football coach coming to a practice and just winging it. A good coach sets goals and benchmarks to meet those goals and never wastes a second of the time he has to help make his players better.
They Don’t Ask Questions
The best leaders are also the best students. Every discipleship leader should be committed to learning as well as praying on the ways in which they can lead their group. The challenges of leading a disciple should demand a deeper commitment to prayer and dependence on Christ.
These are just a few of the common mistakes that I am seeing. I believe that many of them are rooted in simply adapting to a new approach to ministry. As I said before, I am so grateful for the steps being taken to implement new methods of Evangelization. These observations hopefully shed some light on areas of growth that can make those efforts even more fruitful.
God has been doing some awesome things in my life. For the past few weeks, I have been in a place where I’ve truly felt as though I am walking with God every moment of my day. It has been a time of great consolation and peace that I pray never fades.
I decided to go to Confession even though I wasn’t sure if I had anything to confess (this rarely happens). The first thing I did was pick up a copy of the examination of conscience at the entrance of the Church. I don’t even like the one our parish uses, but I decided to take it anyway. As I knelt, I read the first line in the examination: “Pray that God would make you aware of your sins and that you would trust in his divine mercy.”
After some time of prayer, God began to open my heart to a pattern in my life that I had known to be a struggle but I had often avoided in my examination. As I stared at the cross, he began to reveal to me in a profound way the depth of his love and mercy for me. For the first time in several years, he was calling me to confess this area of my life that I knew I had not given over to him. Without a doubt, he was calling me to take that next big step of faith by inviting him into the struggle and entrusting it to him. For the first time, I felt absolutely ready to do so. I was ready to sacrifice a huge part of who I had been because in that moment, I was given a grace to see what was waiting for me on the other side.
As I have reflected on this experience, the call to discipleship has become much more real for me. A disciple is driven by a love for Jesus Christ that initiates a “dropping of the nets” in order to follow him. The reality behind my recent experience is that deep down inside, I knew for many years that what I was doing was going to have to change, but the Lord waited to give me that invitation until the time was right. He knows me and patiently loves me every moment of every day, and I am motivated to remain with him as a result.
May we be this patient and inviting to the youth with whom we work. May we model friendship and care in this way so that they may be driven to follow something greater than themselves and respond to a life of discipline and sacrifice with hearts full of peace and joy. God is truly alive and working in the Church, and I am most grateful to be able to be a part of it.
One of the things that I find myself doing frequently is looking at the youth in our parish and around our community and wondering what I can do- or really, what the Church might be able to do- in order to help them to know Jesus Christ if they do not know him already. For those who do, I wonder if they are engaged in growing and developing that relationship. It reminds me of a video produced by Dan Cathy from Chic-Fil-A entitled Every Life Has a Story.
Recently, we have featured a couple of blog posts (here and here) on how we cannot simply offer one program and expect that it will meet the needs of all of the youth in the parish. The reality is that everyone has unique needs, and we live in a world now where people demand a customized experience. I would argue that it is no different for our efforts in the Church. I thought it would be fun to brainstorm some of the different types of youth I have encountered who require a unique approach. This list is definitely not meant to be comprehensive, and I understand that youth cannot be categorized as simplistically as I have done here, but the purpose is to help us realize the many different approaches we need to consider in order to be more pastoral in our youth ministry efforts.
Here are 10 types of youth that you may not be reaching and some quick thoughts on how you can:
The Game Hater
This is the youth that won’t come to youth group or summer camp because they hate games. Believe me, it is possible (I was one of them). This youth is looking for opportunities to grow but would like to be involved in something that doesn’t waste their time with useless activities.
The Devout Soul
This youth has an active prayer life and is probably already doing most of the things you encourage youth to do in a large group setting. In order for them to be truly engaged, they will need to be challenged. Learn their charisms, and be upfront with them in the ways that you know they can still grow.
Every week, this youth struggles with the decision to either go to the church for youth stuff or stay home and play video games. Engage this youth by showing him the importance of authentic friendship. Have an adult begin spending time with him, and surround him with a community of youth who have fun but also don’t make him feel incredibly guilty for playing games.
The Church Hater
It is likely that you will have youth come to your programs who for various reasons are forced to attend. Or, this may also refer to those youth in the schools that you may only be able to reach through their friends who are in your programs . Simply doing fun activities or trying to impress them with entertainment will not be enough. Encouraging a missionary culture and simply being real with them are good first steps to become a bridge to Christ for these youth.
The Catholic School Student
Most of us have heard this statement before: “We send our kids to Catholic school, so we don’t need to have them involved in the parish programming.” I know too many situations where there is a clear divide between the public and private school students. A great start to bridging the gap is to offer larger events that will appeal to all (ski trips, amusement parks, youth conferences, etc).
The Busy Student
This student may be interested in the faith and want to get involved in the Church, but because you offer limited times and programs or it requires a greater commitment than they can make, they have to opt out. Ensure that you offer flexible programming and opportunities to commit at any level to encourage the involvement of these youth. Be creative in how you invest in them, and keep the communication lines open.
This youth was involved in one of your programs for some time but has since left because he or she didn’t feel welcome. You can prevent this by being attentive to those that are more distant, but also by ensuring that each and every youth is connected to on a personal level.
The hardest reality for this student is that he or she can only be regularly available and active during the off season. Programs that send a message that the program or the youth group is the most important part of being a Christian may make them feel “less Christian” when they can’t be committed. Encourage these youth by investing in them so that they know how to live out their faith during the busy times, and go where they are when they are busy.
The Younger Sibling
Younger siblings face a number of different challenges in a youth ministry setting. The most difficult part for them may be finding their identity as a member of the group. As much as possible, find ways to create unique experiences for them, but also encourage a dialogue between the siblings so that they can grow together.
This youth is only involved because it is worth the investment of his time. He typically prefers structure and will be very candid with you if he feels that what you are doing is not a good use of the group’s time. He also will require a setting that is customized for him. To reach this youth, strive to make every experience meaningful, but also encourage dialogue with adult leaders who can help the youth see why some things that may not seem important actually are.
This is just the beginning of a list, and I know there could be many more. The point is that the models and approach I recommend through Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry could really accommodate all of these youth, which is why I believe DFYM is gaining momentum in so many places. I would love to hear from others about the different types of youth that you encounter and creative ways that we can reach each and every one of them.
As promised in my post last week, I want to share with you how Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is impacting the way in which parents are engaged in youth ministry. By getting parents and other adults involved in a way that requires them to act as the youth ministers (actually planning and leading the formation opportunities for the youth), it brings about a deeper understanding of what youth ministry is and what is needed to connect with and build up young disciples in our church today.
As we begin to move towards a more discipleship focused youth ministry, I am observing several developments in regard to parents and how they are being engaged. Here are seven of them:
Parents are typically better at inviting other parents
When a youth minister tries to get parents involved, it can come across very much like “making a pitch” or “selling.” When another parent or adult volunteer solicits help it is more like a personal favor. Adults in the parish are much more likely to respond to an invitation to help if it comes from a friend, especially if that friend offers a testimony of the impact discipleship has had in their own life and the lives of individual youth.
Encouragement means more coming from a parent than a youth minister
When you have another mom or dad investing in your child as a volunteer and they speak highly of your child or your parenting, it means more than coming from someone who just “gets paid to say things like that.” Positive encouragement coming from a brother or sister in Christ builds a culture of love and affirmation that is difficult to find in a typical youth ministry program.
Parents are challenged and encouraged when being in community with other parents
Simply seeing other parents engaged in the formation of their children is challenging parents to get more involved. I’ll admit it, even with young children I look around to see what other parents are doing. If they are more engaged and active, then I will be, too. And to be honest, it’s more fun to be a part of your child’s activities if other parents and families are involved as well.
Parents are more likely to help when they more fully understand their responsibility
Because Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry offers a mentorship approach from the top down, adults are stepping into a more active role of learning to form the youth in the parish. Instead of the parish offering a program that may be received as the prescription that takes care of the necessary work of ministry, it promotes a culture of “we are all in this together” and everyone is learning, growing, and figuring things out together.
Parents are required to be more involved in choosing the right formation program for their child
When there are several opportunities in the parish for a youth to participate in, it requires a parent to be more involved in the process of deciding what to do. This provides a great opportunity to minister to the parents, discuss the child’s particular needs, and invite the parent to become a part of it.
Parents are more free to lead
The reality is that the right parents are typically more grounded and able to give of themselves more freely than a youth minister can. When parents and adult volunteers are doing things it takes much less effort and can happen more naturally because they are not bound by many of the rules or affected by some of the politics that a staff person may be. When brought into a program in the Church a simple relationship between family members can quickly be bogged down with new rules and requirements.
Parents are up for the challenge
One benefit of living in a time when many parents’ primary focus is taking their children from one thing to the next is that parents are used to serving and loving their children. One of the greatest benefits a parent has over any youth minister is the amount of time they get to spend with their child. Unlike a high school sports program, the faith is something that parents can participate and grow in with their children instead of just being a spectator.
It truly is a gift to partner with parents and give them the opportunity to be the youth minister to their children. Instead of trying to find someone who can do it for them, parents and other adults in the parish can come together as a parish family and raise their children together.
One of the most frequent topics of conversation at youth ministry meetings and conferences is how can we better engage parents in youth ministry. I’ve written about this before on the blog, especially in the post Stop Helping Youth and Start Helping Parents. One goal of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is not so directly focused on helping the youth, but more about helping those who help youth. I would argue that it’s not the youth minister’s job to minister to the youth but that it’s the entire parish community, primarily the parents.
The biggest mistake I believe we have made in the way youth ministry is done today is that parents treat the youth program like any other sport or extracurricular setting. If they want their kid to learn soccer, they sign them up for soccer. If they want their kid to learn music, they sign them for band. If they want their kid to learn about the faith, they sign them up for youth group. This might explain why youth tend to stop being involved in their faith after high school. I mean, how many adults stay in band or soccer after graduation?
More recently, however, those who organize activities like soccer and band have figured this out. We are beginning to see that in order for youth to sign up, is the parents have to invest their time and involvement as well. They understand that greater commitment from whole families will lead to a more successful team. If there are youth whose families have made it a priority to be involved in soccer, they will be involved and committed long-term, but they will also have greater potential to compete or perform well in the present, too.
If this is the case, why are we so afraid to demand that parents be involved in raising their kids in the practice of the faith as well?
When parents have to pick and choose the things to which they will give their time and we give them the option to not be involved, why would they be? By not requiring them to be involved, we essentially tell them that we’ve got it covered or we don’t necessarily “need” their help.
This is another reason why I advocate for a Discipleship Focused approach to youth ministry. Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry not only requires the involvement of parents and adults in order for youth ministry to happen, but it teaches them and forms them to do it themselves. This is crucial because without their committed involvement, I believe the results will not be statistically different than any other program for youth.
In closing, I should note that I understand that many parents are not and will not be involved in youth ministry in the Church. I am simply stating that I believe that the way we have been doing youth ministry is more of a “medicating the symptoms” approach than it is a solution to the problem because the solution to bring the whole family with us.
In my post next week, I will spend some time explaining how I have seen Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry bring about change and growth in the parents and families involved. Parents are being drawn in, parents are engaging other parents, and families are coming together to raise their children in the faith. Why? Because we are demanding it from them. Because without them our youth stand little chance (statistically speaking) of a lifelong commitment to faith.
One of the most common struggles parish leaders seem to have with discipleship involves trusting in the competence of their adults to truly lead the discipleship groups. This is one reason why I recommend that the actual “program” taking place in the parish be focused on forming, mentoring, and guiding adults to be disciple-makers. Such a program develops these leaders to have a missionary heart, which then naturally leads them to service in discipleship, youth groups, small discipleship groups, etc. The difficult part is that in this model, the actual youth ministers are volunteers.
To facilitate this type of training, and also in order to help parishes develop greater trust in their adults over time, I have outlined five levels of delegation that reflect the amount and type of responsibility for which individual adults are ready. This tool helps to identify the type of tasks each person can handle and what are some concrete steps a leader can take to encourage them in each phase of their growth. Helping adults progress through each of these levels will also help them build their own confidence to lead those with whom they are working.
Level 1 – I Create The Plan
Do exactly what I have asked you to do. I have a plan that often works for people getting started. Report back to me regularly as you do it, explaining what’s working and what isn’t. I want to help you succeed.
Level 2 – We Create the Plan
Let’s sit down and come up with a plan together. I want to help you grow as much as possible as a leader and help you to understand what should be considered as you plan for your group.
Level 3 – You Create the Plan and Run it By Me
Come up with a plan and present it to me. Explain to me how you came up with it . I want to have the opportunity to speak into your planning as needed and approve your plan before you share it with your group.
Level 4 – I Trust You
I trust you and want you to feel free to make decisions on your own because I believe that you understand the vision for discipleship and have the right intentions. I trust that you will keep me informed of what you are doing and will ask permission before doing anything out of the ordinary.
Level 5 – Help Me Help Others
I want you involved in helping other leaders do what I have done with you.
It will be through a process like this that a parish will be able to deepen the discipleship efforts with their leaders. Spending more time with those in the lower levels and letting go and trusting those in the higher levels will allow parish priests and staff and slowly grow a parish of leaders that not only are trusted but have been given what they need to lead with confidence.
One of my biggest frustrations with the way that youth ministry is done in the Church today is how it approaches the parents of the youth in the ministry. All too often, the language used focuses on getting parents involved in what we are doing rather than us helping the parents with what they are doing. I wrote a little about this in Stop Helping Youth and Start Helping Parents.
One of the most emphasized aspects of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is that instead of having one youth minister in the parish, the goal is to have one person who forms many youth ministers in the parish. I do not mean that we form several adults to do whatever the youth minister tells them to do, but instead to form, equip, and inspire parents and other adults in the parish who have the heart, vision, and passion of a youth minister to become youth ministers. We want parents and adults in the parish to believe it can be done and that they have what it takes to do it.
The reason this is hard is because for the last 40 years in the Church, we have not done this very well. When a youth minister is hired, it typically takes the pressure off of the parents and places it on the parish youth ministry program. We subsequently fail to form other adults to be youth ministers, limiting our capacity to reach more youth.
In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes about how people often attribute success to talent and believe that the average person doesn’t stand a chance at being good or great at something. The book proves by giving example after example of people like Mozart and Tiger Woods, whose success most would attribute to a God-given talent at birth, that in reality these people had practiced and had been given the opportunity to grow in their skills at an unusually early point in their life. He does not argue that talent in nothing, but that it is overrated.
Most people involved in youth ministry are good at it because they have been involved in and practiced at it for some time. Good youth ministry was modeled for them, and they simply learned the ropes from others. Though so many have themselves learned it through practice, they struggle to believe that others in the parish can become skilled at it that way as well.
I believe that in order for us to increase our effectiveness in youth ministry, we have to begin to provide opportunities for adults in the parish to practice being youth ministers. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes about “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice is how people like Mozart and Tiger Woods achieved such great heights in the utilization of their skills. I believe that we can begin to help adults in the Church become great not just in youth ministry but in discipleship and evangelization as a whole if we can set them up for success- just like the people involved in Mozart and Tiger Woods’ lives did for them.
Here are the four things that must be done for practice to be deliberate (as laid out by Colvins) and how I see them working in Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry.
Designed Specifically to Improve Performance
We must have a system in place that provides room for adults to practice and grow in being the youth minister. This means not only giving them a role in the ministry, but putting them in positions to practice actually doing what a youth minister does. The role of the parish is to be a place of formation where adults improve in their ability to evangelize. Rather than giving them simple tasks to complete, we must set them up to do things they never thought they could do but with deliberate practice can excel in.
Highly Demanding Mentally
We take the mental stress of youth ministry away from not only the parents but the other adults when we establish a program and pay an “expert” to come up with solutions. The customized approach of discipleship requires that the adults get to know youth and to learn how to form them based upon what they have learned. This is extremely mentally demanding for adults, again because it has not been asked of them for a long time.
It Can Be Repeated A Lot
The mentorship of a parish coordinator who is helping an adult become a youth minister can provide ongoing oversight and support for that adult to grow over time. Like a coach running a drill several times on the practice field, the adults should be given the space to try things over and over again until they get more comfortable with it.
Feedback on Results is Continually Available
This is where a parish coordinator or the involvement of the pastor is necessary. Adults who are striving to grow in youth ministry need feedback and support to continue growing. So while we want the adults to have the freedom to do ministry in the way they think is best, they also need feedback both to progress and to provide them with the support they need.
It is time for us stop doing youth ministry and teach others to do it instead. Let’s take the years that we have been learning to do youth ministry in the Church and turn from being “experts” to being coaches.
What is the New Evangelization?
For the first time in the history of the Church, we are in a situation where entire countries and civilizations that once claimed to be Christian no longer do. They accepted the Gospel and even strived to live Christian moral values for some time but have since rejected those values. We can see evidence of this in many ways that suggest we are not far from this situation in the United States. The New Evangelization is the Church calling us to understand that reaching people who have been exposed to the Gospel but have rejected it requires us to evangelize with a “new” approach. The great Saint John Paul II articulated this, defining the New Evangelization as new in ardor, method, and expression.
One of the most common analogies I have heard used to explain the New Evangelization is that of the flu vaccine. When someone gets the flu vaccine, they actually receive a diluted dose of the flu virus to help protect themselves from getting the flu. This seems a little silly when you think about it, but in order for one’s body to reject the virus, it must be exposed at least minimally so it can later reject it.
To give a practical example of this in a youth ministry context, imagine talking to a youth, and as you begin the conversation about Jesus Christ, they immediately respond, “Oh I know about that Jesus guy. My parents go to Church every week, but he hasn’t helped them at all; they fight every day. Why would I want anything to do with that?” Their exposure to the Gospel (or rather, what they think it is) actually leads them to reject it (like the flu vaccine). This is why the way in which we present the Gospel must be new in ardor, method, and expression: because we have new circumstances. This young person needs to experience the message of the Gospel in a way that is more accurate.
Another definition I love comes from the Lineamenta for the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. It says:
We must not be afraid to forge new paths. The image that comes to mind is what is known as a desire path (see image). The desire path is the one on the right. In my last post, I talked about how no program will be the magic pill that will solve everything. The problem is that the programs, in an effort to help us, are giving us new resources but these resources are not solving the problem. They do their best to make it as easy as possible for us so we don’t have to worry about the pains of taking the road less traveled. The New Evangelization is a call to respond in faith, to be formed by God and challenged through our efforts to grow. It dares us to go where we may not have everything we think we need but to trust in God’s providence .
It gives me great hope to know that there are many in the Church whom God has called down these desire paths. As the paths become more traveled, they become more clear. It will not be easy to have the faith to enter into the New Evangelization, but it will be an exciting time in the Church.
I truly believe that one of the greatest struggles we have in youth ministry today is the fear to look at things for what they truly are. I remember sitting in a meeting with several youth leaders, and we were taking a guess at the percentage of youth who leave our programs and continue to live out the faith in college. The consensus in the room was about 5%-10%. Unfortunately, the conversation did not progress towards a discussion on what could be done better; instead it focused on all of the outside factors that were the cause of these percentages.
While the majority of the people in that room believed the problem was the negative effects of culture and the difficulty of transitioning into college, I disagreed. I believe the challenges associated with these things are both legitimate and substantial, but they are symptoms of the real problem. If teens had the muscle to handle these struggles, the success rate would be much higher. The problem is that we as a Church have failed to help them build that muscle.
This is where Accountability to Life Change comes in. The reality is that we can’t make someone else build the muscle that will give them the strength to overcome the things they will come up against; they must choose to do it themselves. We can only encourage them to do so. Fostering Accountability to Life Change in Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry starts by recognizing that we are not able to do in the 90-120 minutes a week all that needs to be done. If we are going to have ministry that truly helps youth, it will need to begin requiring more than simply attending our programming.
The difficult part is knowing how to do this. Here are a few tips:
Expect Change or Stop Meeting
This can be difficult, but make it clear as you meet with youth that it’s pointless to meet if it is not bringing about change. I believe this alone will inspire change because they understand that you are there for them and not there just for the program.
As youth do struggle and make mistakes, be patient and merciful in your response to them. Knowing that they will have the support to get up and continue moving forward will bring about a greater sense of personal responsibility, as well as accountability to you as their mentor.
Set the Standard For Your Group
As a group, set standards for behavior as a member of the group. Commit to daily prayer, Sacraments, etc. When you ask the question “How is everyone doing?”, it’s a question aimed at how they are doing in keeping these commitments and not so much casual conversation about school, homework, etc.
Provide Opportunities to Grow
Always have a plan in mind for how to encourage the youth to grow. Make your meetings more of a huddle that prepares them for the specific opportunities they will have for growth that following week.
Teach the Disciplines
Instead of just waiting around for things to happen and then responding to them, teach the youth the different disciplines they can grow in each week. Spend some of the time in your meetings actually practicing them, and give them the tools to keep doing it when they leave.
Learn to Observe Growth
One difficult thing as a discipleship leader is learning to observe the life of a youth and being able to articulate what it is they are needing to grow in, as well as how much they are growing in it. This comes by developing the ability to ask the right questions and looking for certain responses.
Be Patient In Your Speech
As a discipleship leader, it is extremely important to speak positively about people and be hopeful rather than negative in your speech. Youth will be more inspired to grow if they believe that you truly think that they can do it. If you spend time talking about others in a way that communicates that you are never satisfied, the youth you are working with will believe that they will never satisfy you as well.
Be Growing Yourself
The best teacher is a good witness. The greatest inspiration for growth will be through the witness of what God is doing in your life as their leader.
In conclusion, I want to return briefly to the first point, Expect Change or Stop Meeting. Our programs in the Church have become so “Catholic nice” that we have neglected making them places of growth. For those who do truly need accountability, we do them an injustice by making things too accepting. It should go without saying that this friendly and overly-accepting mentality that requires no Accountability to Life Change is far from how Christ taught his disciples to follow him. Like Christ, let us be honest and upfront about the expectations and demands required to follow after him and never hesitate to call those desiring growth on to greatness while being patient and merciful at the same time.
“What do you think about Alpha?” This is a question I was asked by four different people over the course of three days while I was speaking at a series of diocesan events covering the fundamentals and practice of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry.
In the past two years, I have probably been asked or heard the question asked “What do you think of Chosen?” over 50 times. I won’t even attempt to count the number of times I’ve been asked about Decision Point.
My opinion of these programs is irrelevant because the point I want to make is this: these are “programs,” and my response to these and any other programs you may ask me about will be that ________ is NOT the “magic pill.” John Paul II alluded to this in his document Novo Millennio Ineunte when he said,
The problem that I see in the way many parishes are trying to do youth ministry is that they select one of these programs and make it the center of all that they do. Programs like Chosen and Decision Point are used as the curriculum for a class, and that class is the sum total of all that is offered to the youth. While these programs can be effective in doing some things, they will never be able to respond to all of the needs of every individual youth. Thus, they are not the magic pill; they cannot and will not solve all our youth ministry problems.
I do believe that these programs have a place and can be a tremendous resource in helping to form our young people. However, I have yet to meet a young person whose only means of formation is one of these programs who is thrilled about the impact it’s making on their life.
I pray that this post is not received as a criticism of great resources like Chosen and Decision Point, but rather a challenge to those responsible for choosing the programs and resources used to form our young people. Do not start with the program; start with a vision that is focused on the whole person and will provide opportunities for the youth to grow where they are at. If that leads you to offer Chosen in your parish, awesome! If Chosen would be great for 80% of the kids but not the others, do not settle by making that your only option. Instead discover ways to reach the other 20%, and do those things as well.
We must shift our mindset from figuring how to have the best program to how can we help each youth seek after the face of Christ. That is our program, and that is the magic pill.
Getting back into the school year is always exciting for me. While I enjoy the summer months very much, I look forward to the routine that comes with the school year. Since moving to a more Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry approach, summer has always been sort of a wildcard. Some groups continue to meet regularly during those months; others hardly meet at all. Some youth have experiences that have helped them grow in their faith; others may have taken a few steps backward in their spiritual disciplines and are looking forward to renewing their efforts with the support and accountability of their group.
With all of the variables that come with an approach as messy as Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry it, can be difficult for a parish coordinator to know how to respond. I thought it would be helpful to share just a few things I have seen a parish coordinator do well that can help support and encourage the discipleship in the parish as the new year begins.
Lay the Foundation for the Year
Start first by talking with your pastor about his hopes for the year. Work towards setting one or two major goals for the year and focusing your parish programming and offerings around those goals. Give your group leaders the top things that they should know and include in the planning for their teens (annual conference, parish bazaar, mission trips, etc.) and ,be ready to communicate the goals your parish has and how these things will be helpful to them in encouraging their groups in those goals.
Host a Back to School Party
Invite all of your discipleship group leaders and those they lead to a gathering hosted by the parish. Keep it simple. Play some games, do a simple welcome, talk briefly about some things to look forward to this year, and pray together. I have seen this type of event used as the official restart time for many groups, especially those groups that have been meeting less or not at all throughout the summer.
Reconnect With Your Leaders
Just as leaders may have found it difficult to have consistency with their groups, it’s likely a parish coordinator will have had similar difficulty with their leaders. I strongly recommend having a meeting each fall to bring your discipleship leaders together, recap the vision and mission of discipleship in the parish, and lay out the expectations and hopes for the coming semester or year. This meeting should inspire your leaders to look forward to going deeper in their own faith and give them what they need to dive into discipleship with the youth with whom they work.
Have a Plan for Your Own Discipleship
The two most important things you can do in your parish to foster a culture of discipleship are 1) be a disciple yourself and 2) model discipleship in how you lead those in your parish. Be sure you are going into this year with a plan for how you hope to grow. You can find a mentor, spiritual director, or even a strong mastermind group to join. Commit to reading one book a month and have that list of books planned out for the year.
Modeling discipleship in how you lead others is extremely important. Discern which leaders you are called to invest in over the coming year and who you might seek out that is not yet committed to discipleship. Make discipleship a priority for your own ministry and do not be afraid to cut other things out of your plans for the year if you think they will prevent you from the discipleship ministry you can offer your leaders.
One of the most powerful aspects of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry that truly sets it apart from other approaches is the call for a customized plan for each and every student. When I led a youth group, I remember the constant tension between boring those who wanted to go deeper with too many games and doing less games but losing those who were not yet interested in more. Having one option or one program for the youth in a parish is like taking a football team and making them all spend an entire practice punting. It wouldn’t take long for the individual players to begin losing interest and, in the long run, they wouldn’t make a very good team.
Discipleship is an apprenticeship that requires the time and focus of a teacher to observe and help a student where he or she needs to grow the most. It is the watchful eye and specialized instruction of the teacher that helps the student rise to a new level of excellence. A master carpenter, for example, can teach a student to see how he or she sees things. This is what makes it possible for the student to build items of greater quality and craftsmanship than any factory could ever produce. What the teacher teaches is based upon what the disciple knows and what he or she needs to learn.
Looking at things this way helps us to see how a customized plan, crafted through careful observation, will create the best outcome in helping a young person grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Here are a few ideas for how to work towards this customized approach in your ministry or small group:
Allow The Group Leaders To Create The Plan
From what I have seen, the norm in most parishes is to present everyone with the same information, content, or “program,” and the opportunity for customization typically happens through guided small group discussion that has to fit within a 20-30 minute timeframe. We must teach our small group leaders to vision and plan for their own groups and give them the freedom to step out of the programs we provide if they are not meeting the needs of their groups. In fact, parish programming should only exist if it is a response to the needs in the groups anyway (read more about that here).
Observe, Observe, Observe
The reality is that if you are really going to teach someone well, you must observe them in action. Take time doing things with the youth in your groups, and watch how they respond. Ask difficult questions that challenge the way they think about things, and spend time each and every time you meet catching up on the most difficult challenges they are facing in their family, school, and work.
Keep Groups Small
In order for your group to really be able to give each person the individual opportunities they need, you must keep the groups small. I typically recommend groups of 4-6 youth with two adults. Mathematically, this means each adult leader can invest deeply in 2-3 youth or at least be responsible for observing them and ensuring they are engaged in what the group is doing.
Allow Groups To Be Formed Naturally
Once discipleship groups begin to form in your parish, they will tend to take on unique characteristics , especially if your group is active and present in the parish community. People will desire to join a group or may even leave one group for another if they see what a certain group is focused on. Allow youth to go where they will be challenged and will be fed right where they are at.
Make It Less About The Small Group
It doesn’t matter how many times your small group meets or what types of things your group has accomplished. What matters most is that every person in your group is given the opportunity to be formed as a disciple and has someone helping them as needed. Do not be afraid to throw out the agenda if you find something specific that needs to be worked on.
These are just a few ideas. One way you could test if you are customizing your efforts would be to answer the question: “If you swapped out all of the youth in your group and had new ones come in, would you keep doing the same thing?” If so, this is likely an earmark that you can work on!
I am praying that this doesn’t become my most read blog on the site (totally kidding…except not really).
It happens to the best of us. The week flies by, you forget your group is meeting tomorrow, and you need ideas that require little preparation but will still be engaging for your group. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here are five ideas you can use today.
Study This Week’s Gospel
Spend your meeting reading through the upcoming readings for Sunday Mass or diving into the readings from last Sunday. There are several sites that even give you good discussion questions for each week. One that I recommend would be the reflections from the USCCB.
Practice Lectio Divina
You can pick any passage from Scripture. Spend time actually teaching what Lectio Divina is, and then spend some time actually doing it. You can find some instructions on Lectio Divina here.
Go Through The Discipleship Roadmap
FOCUS has a couple of great tools that you can use to facilitate discussion for a single meeting or use as ongoing support towards challenging your group to live the call of discipleship. I recommend the Discipleship Roadmap or the Depth Chart.
Go on a Rosary Walk
Walk and pray a rosary together, then simply spend time talking and enjoying fellowship with one another.
Watch a YouTube Video and Discuss
This may need a little prep, but if you know some of the places to look, it can be pretty easy to find a good video to watch that can spark excellent discussion. A few I recommend checking out are VCAT, Skit Guys, OutsidedaBox, Catholic Youth Ministry Hub Videos, One Time Blind and Chris Stefanick.
No, I don’t recommend that you take the summer off from your discipleship group. The reason is because discipleship is not just about meeting in a group; it’s about taking on and sharing the responsibility of forming another person, which is not a nine-month commitment. I think the best approach to the summer months is to accept that discipleship will just look different than it does during the school year. Summer makes things a bit more difficult, but it also offers opportunities for things that are not as easily done during the school year.
Here are 7 realities that will hit when summer kicks in full force.
Meetings Will Be Inconsistent
During the summer, group members will be gone on vacations or to summer camps, and it will be less likely that you will find and be able to commit to a regular weekly time to meet. Be careful not to try forcing consistency. When you do and it’s not working out, it becomes frustrating for everyone involved.
People Are Typically More Relaxed
You should be able to let up on some of the expectations for your group and be comfortable letting things happen more naturally in the summer. Youth will be more eager to simply hang out, and parents will be more relaxed and disposed to just let their child be with others.
Youth Are More Available At Unique Times
This opens up opportunities that you don’t have during the school year, especially during the daytime. If you’re able, consider getting together for coffee during the mid-morning, working on a house project together, or volunteering at an organization that you normally wouldn’t be able to.
It’s Prime Time For Outdoor Fun
Summer offers many opportunities to just enjoy life, especially through nature. Be sure to take time simply experiencing the beauty of summer with your group, and have fun with them outdoors.
There WIll Be Unique Opportunities For Growth
It can be very difficult for youth to adjust to the challenges that summer brings. Maintaining friendships can be difficult, staying committed to prayer is a struggle, and handling many of the pressures that come when youth have so much free time creates opportunities for you as a discipleship leader to encourage them and help their summer be one of greater growth in maturity.
Summer Events = Time as a Group
The one thing that summer brings for most groups is more time to just be together. To find a full day or even a few hours during the school year can be difficult. Take advantage of the times where you can have a bonfire, go on walks, hold a movie night, etc.
Scheduling Is Still Important
While you may be tempted to just see how things play out, the reality is that in a very short while, the summer will already be gone. Make some commitments as a group beforehand, and establish a few key times throughout the summer when you know you will get together (daily Mass, summer camp, family picnic/potluck, etc.). Regular contact with one another will foster everyone’s excitement to gather in between those times. Scheduling is also important because it helps parents to be able to plan ahead and be more supportive of what your group is doing.
Please do look forward to summer and taking a break. But while it may be tempting to take a complete break because of the sacrifices you have made during the year to plan for and keep a group going, the investment you make in the summers will multiply your efforts throughout the rest of the year. It will give you opportunities to build upon real human relationships that, in reality, will likely change you more than it will them.
In ministry, we usually focus on helping others grow in discipleship, but lets face it: it can be very difficult for a youth leader to find good mentorship for him or herself. Naturally, it would seem that the Diocesan Director is the one who should be mentoring and forming parish youth coordinators, but the reality is that many times they have 10 other hats they are wearing, or their roles are more of authority and program coordination than mentorship. Plus, there are likely more parish youth leaders than any single Diocesan Director would be able to reach by themselves anyway.
One of the most fundamental aspects of discipleship is that a disciple is striving to be like their rabbi and do what their rabbi does. What I have found in youth ministry is that most youth directors don’t really have a specific person whom they follow or way of doing things to which they ascribe. There are numerous online communities and websites that peg themselves as “youth ministers helping youth ministers.” However, the danger of this is that there is no authority or leader who is driving things. To put it bluntly, the right thing to do often becomes “what everyone else is doing.” It’s almost like a football team without a coach, just trying to be the best football team they can be.
Even though I didn’t really experience formal mentorship in youth ministry up until a few years ago, I do feel like many of my strengths have come from finding mentorship in other ways. I thought I would share with you 10 different ways I have found mentorship not just in ministry, but in family, finances, marriage, etc. Here they are:
God is our greatest mentor and has been by far the greatest guide to me in every aspect of my life. Never underestimate the power of spending time with God in daily quiet prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and finding him in community and friendship with others.
I would argue that most, if not every, leader in ministry should have a spiritual director. There are many resources out there on helping you figure who would be a good spiritual director, how to find one, etc. I meet with my spiritual director every 4-5 weeks.
Veteran Youth Coordinators
Find someone who has been in ministry longer than you who you think you could learn a lot from. Do not just look at the amount of their experience;look at they way they view and do ministry, and ask them to meet with you on a regular basis.
In many dioceses, there is someone hired or appointed to act as the support to parish youth leaders. Find out who this person is and meet with them, especially if you are new. Typically this person will have a good knowledge of the diocese, people you can connect with, and opportunities available for you to be fed.
Ideally in any working environment, your boss would be a mentor to you. Strive to follow the vision and guidance of your pastor. If your situation allows, set up a regular meeting with him, simply to keep the lines of communication open and to help you grow in your understanding of your role in the parish.
Read Authoritative Documents
There is a great treasure of wisdom and guidance that can be found in the documents of the Church. Be sure you are familiar with the documents specifically focused on evangelization and catechesis. Also, talk to your diocese about any guidance that has been given from the local level of the Church in regard to evangelization.
Read Books and Blogs
I love reading books and following blogs. In some ways, I would say that I am a follower or disciple of many different authors and speakers online. I recently updated my reading list on the site and added books and blogs focused on different areas in which I am striving to grow. Find a few people you desire to emulate, and soak in everything they have to offer.
Listen to Podcasts
I am also a big fan of podcasts. Many of the people I follow online and look up to in various aspects of life have a podcast. I listen to them while I run, on my way to/from work, and while I travel.
Finding a youth ministry mastermind group is one of the newest ways I have found to receive and be a great help to others. It’s a way of working and growing with people on the same level as you, but committed to a more specific area of growth. I will have more on this in a future post. In short, the goal is to network on a regular basis with a few others striving to grow in similar ways that you are.
Finding an online community of people desiring to grow in specific areas is also a great way to be led. We have a group specifically focused on Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry on Facebook. While it is peers learning from peers, there is at least a common vision and shared practice that everyone is striving towards.
These are just some of the ways that I am working to become more like the people I desire to be like. Sirach 6:36 says, “If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him; let your foot wear out his doorstep.” I encourage you to be a disciple; yes, a disciple of Jesus Christ, but also stri other people in your life whom you look up to as well.