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  1. 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: Coffee 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. Monthly Dodgeball 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. Temporary Studies 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. Spiritual Mentorship 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. So you have been coaxed into invited to lead a discipleship group in your parish. When a good leader is just getting started with a new group, there can be some very frustrating moments. Perhaps you have no idea where to begin. Perhaps you have already encountered some obstacles and are thinking to yourself, “I was promised that this whole discipleship thing was going to be easier and better because I would be working with youth who had a desire to be there and a desire to grow in their faith. It should be easy, right?” The correct answer is NO! Starting a new discipleship group in any situation comes with its struggles. Here are ten tips for you to consider as you begin. Strive for the Four Earmarks First The Four Earmarks are the way you will know you have created a good atmosphere for discipleship. Be ok with doing less learning and study and spend time building intimacy in your group. Make Every Meeting Worth Their Time New groups often go through a “settling” time where youth are not extremely committed. One of the biggest mistakes is when a leader believes they can’t follow through with what they planned because one or two people couldn’t be there. Go into each meeting with a goal that you can achieve no matter how many people come, and if only some of them show up, meet that goal with them. Set a Strategic First Goal For new groups, a common first goal is to have a bigger faith experience together, something that can help bond and gel the group, as well as foster conversion. Find an event or an opportunity that you can look towards getting your entire group to attend. This could be your Diocesan Youth Conference, a summer mission trip, or even a lock-in. Get Feedback from the Committed Ones Discern who in your group is invested long-term, and find time to get their feedback. They will likely have a different perception of things and be able to give you some ideas as well. Start as Naturally as Possible Sometimes this is out of your control, but ideally every small group would develop naturally through already established friendships and common circles (This applies to both the teens with one another and the leaders with the teens.) If you were assigned a group and some of the members don’t know each other already, be sure to spend time breaking down those walls first. Get Their Families Involved Having the parents of your group members on board will make a huge impact on the commitment level and investment of the youth involved. Consider having a group potluck with all of the families in your group, be sure you have all of the parents included in your regular communication, and make sure they have access to you (phone, email, etc). Cling to Your Parish Coordinator If discipleship groups have been going on for some time in your parish, cling to your parish coordinator and other group leaders. Get feedback and share with them some of the things you are seeing and desiring, and they will be a wealth of wisdom for you. Learn About Your Group Before Teaching Your Group The goal of a discipleship leader is to form each young person in the Four Areas of Formation. Before you can do this, you must know where they are at. It’s sort of like a music teacher wanting to teach a lesson without first hearing what their musicians can do. Be Consistent As much as possible, be consistent with meeting times and places, especially in the beginning. Doing so will make it much easier for the youth and their parents to get comfortable and adjust their regular schedules to accommodate their new group. Have Fun Youth need fun and YOU need fun. Leading a discipleship group can be one of the most joyful experiences for an adult. If you are stressing out too much, something is out of balance, and it may be good to take a step back and look at things from the outside. Let your first goal be that the youth in your group develop meaningful memories of their discipleship group that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I’d like to leave you with a few final practical ideas for new groups. Obviously, remain a person of prayer and have a great trust in our Lord. Remember that your investment and sacrifice is a gift to these youth and to their parents. Good luck with your new group and may God richly bless your gift of self to these young people.
  6. One of my favorite blogs to follow on Catholic Youth Ministry is written by Christopher Wesley, the director of student ministry at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. I was privileged to meet Chris for the first time this last December and learn about his new book which was published on March 9th. Before I talk about the book, I must mention that Ave Maria Press is actually sponsoring a little giveaway of this book through our website. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I got the review copy of the book. I don’t know a lot about Chris, and I have only skimmed through the Rebuilt books. I am familiar with Chris’ writing through his blog, but that is about it. Most of what I have heard about what Church of the Nativity is doing is through online forums and such, which typically don’t speak about the youth ministry there. In short, I was very curious. As the title of the book implies, the content covers ten strategies for youth ministry in parishes. It is broken into three sections: Answering the Call, Building a Foundation, and Planning for the Long Haul. Chris does an excellent job of taking a look at youth ministry through the lens of leadership, strategy, vision, etc. I strongly believe that one of the biggest holes we have in the Church today is a lack of leadership and strategic planning, and Chris gives a ton of practical insights for how to set up a youth ministry model that is structurally healthy and provides balance to the position of the youth minister. My favorite part of the book was Chapter 9 where Chris writes about how to ask the right questions. The first question that he proposes we ask is “How Does The Parish See Youth Ministry?” He goes on to talk about the tension that may exist because of a perception some have and how the perception alone may be cause for a lack of interest from the youth and the parents in the parish. We must strive to be aware of how the youth ministry in our parishes is perceived so that we can more appropriately engage each person in the parish where they are. This, along with strategies for finding and supporting volunteers, creating an atmosphere that is attractive to youth, and learning to build a trusting and valuable relationship with your pastor and other parish staff are all greats components for anyone in youth ministry. Chris tackles each one of these in this book. On the flip side, if we are really looking at “rebuilding” something, it’s essential to make sure our foundation is strong. While this book is probably one of the best I have read regarding good structures and balance in ministry, it doesn’t really give much insight into what direction the Church gives about our aim and approach for achieving it. The Church is the foundation and the rock from which we must build our ministries. This foundation and mission are given to us through the Church, the Holy Father, and the local bishop and are articulated well in the great treasury of documents we find in the Church today. If we are to rebuild youth ministry, we must be actively listening to and engaging in what the Church, especially through the Holy Father and the local Bishop, are asking us to do. The only mention of the Diocese in the book is regarding Safe Environment or other policies. When rebuilding anything, everyone should take the time to ensure the proper foundation is set in place first. I am not implying that I think Church of the Nativity has not done this already, but I wish I would’ve seen it articulated in the book (and maybe it’s in the other books that I haven’t read yet!). Overall, I think it’s a good read for anyone involved in or wanting to get involved in starting a youth ministry program. As the title states, it is really ten strategies that you can do with what you want. In regard to how it aligns with Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry, I just didn’t see much in the book that reflects the vision laid out in our site, but that doesn’t mean that what they are doing is not effective. Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is one model for building a youth ministry…there are many! On a scale of 1-10, I recommend you buy it and read it (yes that was intentional!), especially if you are new to youth ministry or you are using a traditional youth group model and are looking for ways to improve it. If you would like to buy a copy of the book, you can get it on Amazon here.
  7. In the story Shawshank Redemption, there is a character by the name of Brooks Hatlen. Brooks is well-known, well-liked, and has a great gig (relatively speaking) in the prison system. He has been there for so long that it has become his home. To help jog your memory, he is the one who is let out of prison part way through the movie and says, “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Long story short, he has such a difficult time facing the world when he is released that he ends up hanging himself. The world outside of prison is more of a punishment to him than prison itself. As youth ministry begins to shift, I am seeing more and more tension in the role of the youth minister in a parish. Whether it be the pastor, the youth minister, or even the parish itself, many people take great comfort in the life, structure, and discipline we have established in the Church today. Those who have not really thought too much about what it would be like outside of the box and have been living in it for so long struggle with the realities when change begins to hit. At the same time, we have people who have been engaging in discipleship for some time, and when they look at the walls of the common youth ministry structure in the Church (the jail), they are able to much more readily see the lack of freedom one has in them. It is going to take a new breed of youth minister to be able to shift youth ministry in the Church today. We need to be able to get comfortable outside of the walls and experience the great joy and freedom in doing youth ministry in a way that is truly NEW in order to fully enter into the New Evangelization. I am fortunate enough to be a part of youth ministry programs that are going outside of these walls. Here are some examples of what is working and how things are different on the “outside”: The Days of One Youth Group are Over The issue I found in having one large youth group is that it was nearly impossible to craft a plan that really met the needs of every youth that came. The parish youth group must become a community of communities in the parish – each community distinct and able to grow and shift as needed. A Greater Expectation of the Laity is Key I have heard some call youth ministry the “welfare system” of the Church. For too long, we have provided a crutch for parents and families without really having a plan for helping them get on their own feet. It is time to expect those who are able to step up and take on bigger roles in the Church. This doesn’t necessarily mean more time commitment, but definitely a greater responsibility in the formation of our youth. Formation of Leaders is Essential When volunteers are given a big responsibility and are truly being fed through their involvement in the Church, it will naturally draw out a deep desire to give even more. It’s time to start making the Church a place where volunteers are formed and can grow in the gifts that God has given them, feeding them in ways no one else can, instead of simply looking for people who can do things for us. Depth Wins Over Hype Immediately when we began small group discipleship in our parish, the walls of Catholic School vs. Public Schools were broken down. We have to believe and show that what the Church has to offer is more fulfilling than any other school commitment a youth can make. It’s not about how big or fun your programs are; it is about the depth they can reach. The reason sports and school activities are becoming so competitive is because of the depth of commitment expected from those involved. If our desire is greater results, why wouldn’t we expect a greater commitment and depth as well? We Have to be Ok If People Don’t Like Us For too long, our programs and ministries have been built to make everyone happy. The expectations are minimal and the teachings are vague. This doesn’t sound much like how Jesus did it at all. Jesus spoke the truth, invited people to “cast into the deep,” and did not make everyone happy. While his message is for everyone, he doesn’t force people to follow him but makes it well worth it for those who do. A Fruit of Discipleship is Evangelization When discipleship happens as it should, the result is a missionary heart. As youth enter into a discipleship setting where they are growing in their faith, they are willing to get out of their comfort zone and evangelize others. This is how we will reach those who are not yet engaged. It will not be through some production or fancy offering, but rather through the gentle invitation of their peers who are being changed because of their active relationship with Jesus Christ. These are just a few examples of the life outside of the walls that I am experiencing. It is a very exciting time in the Church. May the vision of the New Evangelization guide you as you break free and trust in the life that exists outside of the walls!
  8. Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is tough because it requires a more natural evolution than simply creating a program and getting people to become involved in it. As the earmark of mutual responsibility implies, discipleship is a two-way street. You need a rabbi (teacher) who is willing to invest themselves in a disciple, and you need a disciple who desires to be like the teacher. The reality is that we cannot force discipleship. In youth ministry, a youth must see something in an adult and develop a strong desire to be with them in order to become like them. In a discipleship group setting, a youth must see something good in a discipleship group, so much that they wish to be with the group and become like those in the group. My point is that this happens naturally, but a few key things are essential to making this take place. Have Solid Groups If you are a discipleship group leader, strive to make your group a place that is attractive to others. Fun is attractive, but depth is even more so (strive for both!). When someone comes to check out your discipleship group because their friend invited them, expose them to a group that is a living witness of authentic friendship and committed to growth. Have Solid Adults If discipleship groups are led by adults that are living witnesses of Christ’s love, it will attract youth that are seeking that love, and it will inspire parents as well. Look for adults that have humility, patience, and great care towards everyone they meet. Find adults who are committed to the daily sacrifice of following after Christ. A youth desiring to grow in their faith can spot an adult lacking in these things from a mile away. Create Opportunities to Connect It will be very difficult for youth to meet adults (and vice versa) unless there are opportunities to connect. The role of the parish leader oftentimes can be to play matchmaker, finding times where an adult might be able to meet a youth that they think may be a good match for a discipleship-focused relationship. An example would be to get an adult and several youth who you think might make a good discipleship group to all go on a trip together to a youth conference or mission trip. If they connect well, it can be an easy transition into a discipleship group afterwards, allowing them to continue building those relationships. Youth will be drawn to healthy and fruitful relationships and opportunities for growth. It may take time, but I encourage you to let things play out naturally. When we get in the way and try to force things, it can oftentimes do more harm than good.
  9. When I was kid, I remember my grandparents having a pendulum clock. I thought it was so cool that I could grab the pendulum to stop it from moving back and forth. When I let it go, it would slowly begin to build up momentum and start swinging again from side to side. This clock often comes to mind when I think about youth ministry and as I address questions regarding safe environment, oversight, etc. On the one hand we want to protect our youth, so we need to have guidelines and boundaries in place, but on the other, we don’t want so many limits that those involved have no freedom to do what they know needs to be done. It’s a difficult balance between too much control and too much freedom. Another example from my own life that illustrates this principle was when I was 16 and my dad told me that he was no longer going to give me a curfew. I did, however, have to tell him where I was going. He knew me and my tendencies well enough by that point, and he wanted me to know that he trusted me but that he still had the right as my father to speak into my life. This is an example of good oversight and accountability while still providing freedom and communicating trust. I am sure it was difficult for him to let go of the control, but he knew it would give me the freedom to truly grow up as I needed to. Discipleship will require a greater deal of trust on our part, but also the expectation of greater responsibility on the part of the adults involved. If we can have faith in the adults we are working with and give them opportunities to “grow up” in ministry, we will gain much ground in the work we do in the Church. Here are a few tips for creating the atmosphere of trust, accountability, and freedom. Keep The Rope Short At First Entrusting and delegating a vision and responsibility to others takes time. Do not be afraid to over-communicate and expect dialogue in the beginning stages of forming your leaders. At first, you might expect them to communicate every detail of what they are doing with their groups and how things are going, but as time goes on and you develop greater trust in your adults, you can lighten up and give away some control. Expect Growth Some leaders would actually prefer that you tell them what to do all the time. This can be a very bad thing. Your goal should be to equip leaders and give them the confidence they need to do it on their own. My dad, by forcing some responsibility on me, forced me to look at all of my decisions differently. Expect your leaders to learn how to observe situations and make decisions on their own rather than coming to you for everything. Helping them too much is not really helping at all. Do Not Be Afraid to Discipline While this post might seem to focus more on the necessity of giving adult leaders the freedoms they need to grow, I have often found it to be the case that many adults will require more control than they would like. Either they do not understand what is expected of them in this regard or they don’t respect your leadership. Do not be afraid to have conversations with these “rogue” adults. Like a child running into the street even after his father tells him not to, adults need to be formed. Lean in to this type of conflict and do not be afraid of it. In many situations, you may find it’s actually your own lack of leadership that is causing the leader to misunderstand what is expected. In situations where a leader is not receptive to authority over them, their freedoms should be taken away. The role of parish coordinator should look very much like me as a child holding the pendulum on the clock, working to find the balance of too much control and too much freedom. The right adults, truly desiring to serve our Lord through youth discipleship, will find great freedom when this type of balance is in place. Much like the child given the boundaries within which to play, they will experience great freedom in knowing what they can and cannot do.
  10. One of the things I find most difficult in what I do is being able to explain to others how discipleship is not a program. Any programming in your parish, including discipleship groups, should be done in order to foster and build a culture for discipleship. If a program is not helping build up discipleship or draw new youth into discipleship, then I would take time to seriously consider why it even exists. On the other hand, programming is a very important part of building a discipleship focused youth ministry in your parish. There are plenty of things you can do on a bigger scale that will bring discipleship groups together and will be an opportunity to draw others in as well. Here are a few parameters I have developed that will help evaluate programs as being helpful in a discipleship focused youth ministry. Coordinate Things That Require More Than a Small Group It’s hard to play a game of softball with a small group of 4-6 youth. Work towards offering opportunities in the parish that small groups could not do by themselves. Compensate for What Your Leaders May Lack Your leaders may have agreed to lead a group of young people in their faith, but they may not be experienced retreat leaders or engaging teachers. Consider planning a retreat that is an opportunity for your groups to attend and do the work of providing quality content that is presented well. Take the “Work” Out of Being a Disciple Leader Many leaders are great at mentoring and walking with the youth in their journey of faith. They may be more than willing to go on a camping trip with their group, but they may not have the skills or time to figure out the details. If the parish makes opportunities like this easy for their groups, they are more likely going to do them. Bring Communities Together Discipleship groups should be part of a greater community. Doing things that allow a group to continue being a group, while also exposing them to other groups and other youth in the parish will continue to foster growth as they are opened up to other people and possibilities. Inspire Involvement In Diocesan/National Events Similar to the tip above, exposing the youth in your parish to the Church community outside of your parish will provide a better understanding to the youth of the bigger picture of the Church that they are a part of in their discipleship groups. Provide a Bridge to Outreach & Mission Discipleship groups tend to be very inward-focused, but the goal is that they would be a light to the world and be sent to build up the Body of Christ (the Church). The parish should provide opportunities that make it easier to practice outreach and share the fruits of what is happening in their group. I should end by saying that in each case, these opportunities are ideas that should be offered, not required, for those in small groups. If the parish has programming in place and no one wants to be a part of it, then stop doing it. People will go where they are fed and formed and the programming is helping them move forward. Be sure to have ongoing dialogue with your discipleship group leaders about what things the parish can do to help build up the small groups and inspire them to a missionary initiative.
  11. Back in 2011, I wrote a blog article titled Down With Youth Groups. I recently did a little research into the popularity of my past posts, and that article has been by far the most read of all I have written in the past seven years of blogging. I remember immediately after publishing that post receiving several emails and messages asking me for more insight on starting to work outside of the youth group model. To be blunt, I’m not sure what advice I gave at the time, but with this new focus on Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry, it has become much clearer to me why I was so frustrated with my own experience of leading a youth group and how a Discipleship Focused approach responds to some of these frustrations. Let me use the Four Earmarks of Discipleship to explain this in a little bit more detail. Intimacy When I was leading a youth group, the reality was that my goal was to make the youth group bigger. Once I had grown the group from 4-6 youth to 30-40 youth, I missed the intimacy we had shared in our smaller group setting. Instead of reaching 4-6 youth well, it seemed like I was reaching no one at all. While a larger group model can provide a different sense of community and allow you to do things that a small group can not, Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry strives for an intimacy that is more accommodating to depth and authentic friendships. Mutual Responsibility One of the most difficult situations for me to accept in a youth group model was when a teen would come for a few weeks and then we would never see them again. The youth group model tends to focus attention more on the number of youth in the youth group than on the individuals that comprised it. I could have 40 youth one week and two of them would never show up again, but 5 more would join the next week, so I was supposedly doing well because now we have 43 total. But what about those two youth that we lost? Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry demands a responsibility and commitment from the youth and the adult leader that facilitates growth in mature Christian discipleship. Customization Some youth love games, others hate them. Some youth would prefer to spend over an hour in Eucharistic Adoration while others would rather play dodge ball. There was always tension for me in balancing fun and depth in my planning for a large group. With Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry we are able to craft a more customized plan for each youth involved. We meet them where they are at and no longer offer just one program that is generally for everyone, hoping everyone will get something out of it. Accountability to Life Change The single most common question I hear in youth ministry is, “How do I get more adult volunteers?” I would argue that this earmark provides the answer that the youth ministry world has been looking for. When adults see the change and the impact that their sacrifice of time and energy is giving them in return, they will continue to give. If adults are showing up simply out of obligation or even just to “help out,” it is not nearly as motivating because anyone could do what they are doing, and if they don’t do it, someone else will. But when an adult is directly involved in assisting a youth to have an encounter with Christ, they are hooked…not necessarily because they did anything grand, but because seeing something like that happen changes who we are. Putting adults with youth who are truly desiring to grow will change the culture of “adult volunteers” in your parish for good! So, returning to my past post, looking back saying that having a youth group is a bad thing. I think the definition of “youth group” is rather vague, anyway. My point is that the first instinct when youth start to become interested in spiritual growth is usually to start a youth group. I would argue that focusing on these earmarks as the means to teaching them the faith is the better way to go.
  12. For about the first ten years that I was involved in youth ministry, I remember asking some of the same questions I see many asking today… “How do I get more adult volunteers to help in my ministry?” “How can I better engage the parents of the youth in my programs?” “How do I train and support the leaders in my ministry to make sure they are well-equipped to work with the youth?” “How do I know when I can trust the volunteers in my programs to take on more responsibility?” It wasn’t until the last few years that the questions I was asking started to shift. I started really focusing on how much responsibility I should be taking on for the formation of the youth. Besides, it seemed like no matter what I was doing, it was still a gamble as to whether or not each youth involved in my programs was going to continue living their faith out after high school anyway. Recently in my own prayer, God has revealed something else to me. He reminded me who the responsibility of forming the youth really belongs to. We have heard it said a million times that the primary people responsible for the formation of the youth are their parents. The Church doesn’t have a secondary role in their formation, as if it’s only when the parents are doing it poorly, but it shares in this responsibility. What God revealed to me in my time of prayer is that my role should be less about having parents help me, but more about how I can help parents. I am beginning to see youth ministry more as a social service for parents, coming alongside them and aiding them as they are in need, as opposed to a rescue service for youth who are in need. Here are the questions I am asking now: “How can I get more parents who have the wisdom to share in the formation of youth to share it with other parents who may not?” “What am I doing to reach out to and encourage parents who are in need?” “How do I equip families to share their experience of the faith with other families in the parish and community?” “How can I foster a culture in our parish where families are inspired, encouraged, and welcomed into a community where their gifts can be fostered and grown in order to support one another?” It really seems to me that the more effective way of helping families is not through any formal program or group, but really through close, personal relationships and authentic community with others who are walking the same difficult path that they are. While programs can be helpful in bringing this about, I’m afraid we too easily make the program the focal point for what we are trying to achieve. Without a personal connection to someone already in the community, many parents probably won’t respond to programs anyway. This means that we will likely have to go seek parents out and draw them in rather than waiting for them to come to us. So, while the title states that we should stop helping youth, what I really mean is that I am realizing more and more that the only way to truly help the youth is to help their parents and the communities that they belong to.
  13. 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: Prayer 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. Spiritual Director 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. Diocesan Director 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. Your Pastor 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. Mastermind Groups 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. Online Communities 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. If you’ve spent some time on this site, you know that the Four Earmarks of Discipleship are qualities or characteristics that help us understand what discipleship looks like and evaluate its effectiveness. Discipleship is a way of teaching and forming another person. All too often, we in the Church approach the task of formation like we should just be able to instruct on something and others will automatically do it. The reality is that we live in a culture that is so relativistic and distrusting of authority that it will take much more to inspire others to do something than simply telling them to do it. Only love for another will motivate a person to freely adopt a new way of thinking and acting. This love and the trust that corresponds to it will increase with growth in intimacy. Developing intimacy in discipleship can take time, and discipleship will deepen intimacy over time. But how do we begin to work on intimacy in discipleship and through our discipleship groups? I thought I would share some ideas from my own experience. Spend Time Together Time together will help to build intimacy. In fact, intimacy requires time. Spending time doing study and talking about the faith is important, but be sure to spend time just enjoying each other’s presence as well. Have Fun When you experience joy together, it will deepen the desire to be with each other. Have Purpose Every relationship needs to be going somewhere. When your group has a purpose that is clearly communicated, it creates a strong sense of support and belonging, which leads to a more faithful commitment to discipleship. Be Honest A key part of intimacy is trust. Do not be afraid to speak honestly. Be prudent and humble in your sharing, but do not hesitate to be honest, and expect honesty from those in your group as well. Share Each Other Be sure your relationships are being shared with others. When you see the other person proud and excited to be with you and share you with others, it will deepen the trust and care you have for each other. Talk About Each Other In your discipleship group, do not be afraid to talk about yourself and address personal questions to each of the others. Get to know the youth you work with, and do not be afraid to step outside of programming and curriculum. Always make your time centered upon each person and not the curriculum or study. Pray For and With Each Other Bring your relationships to Christ. Pray daily for the youth you work with, and remember to keep prayer a central component of your group meetings. Be Faithful Youth have people coming in and out of their lives all of the time. When they discover someone who will make more than a program or a simple time commitment, it will inspire more faith in that relationship. Ensuring you are consistent with your time, attention, and care for the youth in your group will also build intimacy in your group. Say Sorry Lastly, do not be afraid to say you’re sorry for the times where you may have let the youth in your group down. The patience and trust the youth have for you will grow because you have expressed a desire to love better. If we can foster intimacy among the youth we are working with, it will be hard for the other things in their life to compete. Youth are hungry for intimate and healthy relationships that inspire commitment, sacrifice, and growth. Do not be afraid to truly give of yourself to the youth you are serving and receive the love that they have to give as well.
  18. Have you ever wondered why fitness center memberships can be so expensive or why they require you to have a certain length of contract? Many fitness centers would actually say that charging a higher rate and expecting a commitment from their customers will actually make the customers happier. People use their services because they have a strong desire to be healthy, which motivates them to seek help. Therefore, they are actually helping customers follow through with their resolutions and achieve their goals more effectively by asking for a bigger commitment and charging a higher price. It’s quite a concept. The call for mutual responsibility by the disciple and the teacher in Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is a similar concept. If you truly want to grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ, it requires commitment and sacrifice. If you really want to be a disciple, you must drop your nets and follow after Christ, or “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow.” I understand that not everyone is ready for this type of sacrifice and commitment (or, in the case of the fitness center membership, maybe can’t afford it). This is one of the biggest ways discipleship is different than what is most commonly done in the Church. Typically, a Church will offer the same programs to everyone, and every program is so general in nature that it’s not really offering anything substantial to any one demographic. In discipleship, where the process and content are focused on the particular needs of each individual, there will be specific moments that challenge and call the individual to an even deeper commitment. It is in making these commitments that a disciple is able to truly grow. Here are a few ideas to help you establish mutual responsibility in your discipleship group setting. Be a Committed Leader It is important to note that this is “mutual” responsibility. When asking the youth to make a commitment for themselves, they must be given the confidence that you will be committed to this journey together. Communicate The Expectations As a leader, be sure you are communicating what the expectations are for meetings, spiritual disciplines, commitments outside of the regular meetings, etc. Do not be afraid to make a covenant of sorts that communicates what you are both committing to. Writing these expectations down will do wonders in establishing a good understanding among everyone involved. Call Each Other Out When the expectations are not being met, do not be afraid to call each other out. As a leader, be ok with the youth calling you out when you are moving towards being less committed. Practice patience and gentleness in challenging those you are working with to keep their commitments as well. Be Consistent Especially in a group setting, it is important to hold each person accountable to the standards your group has decided to set. When one or two people are slacking in their commitments to the group, it can be a parasite to the culture you have spent time building so far. Re-Evaluate Responsibilities Regularly Once or twice a year (or more often if needed), go through what you previously agreed to and decide as a group if it looks good or if things need to be adjusted. Ideally, you will be able to set higher expectations over time, especially if they are more specific in practice.
  19. 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!
  20. “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, “It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new program’. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a program which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This program for all times is our program for the Third Millennium.” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 29) 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.
  21. 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. Extend Mercy 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.
  22. 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: “The new evangelization is not a matter of redoing something which has been inadequately done or has not achieved its purpose, as if the new activity were an implicit judgment on the failure of the first evangelization. Nor is the new evangelization taking up the first evangelization again, or simply repeating the past. Instead, it is the courage to forge new paths in responding to the changing circumstances and conditions facing the Church in her call to proclaim and live the Gospel today.” 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
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