Cross Training: Practicing Flexibility and Adaptability for Person-Centered Ministry By Christina Semmel

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1 Cross Training: Practicing Flexibility and Adaptability for Person-Centered Ministry By Christina Semmel Sometimes when I begin a training session, I ll ask the participants to stand in a circle and toss a ball to one another being conscious of who they toss it to and who they receive it from. After they have done it once, I tell them they have now formed a pattern and ask them to repeat that pattern while I time them. After announcing how long it took them, I explain that their task is now to toss the ball in that exact same pattern as fast as they can. After one or two frantic rounds, they can usually get the timing down quite a bit but I keep pushing for them to do better, always repeating that their task is to pass the ball in the exact same pattern as fast as they can. They ll try tightening the circle, they ll put their hands closer to the center of the circle, they ll help each other by yelling out who should get the ball next, until, finally, someone realizes if they just form a line (or circle) in the pattern order, they can pass the ball incredibly fast! (Often in only a few seconds.) The task always remained the same, but the strategy to accomplish it can change as needed. Catholic Youth Ministry has specific goals. The bishops have given us directives. Our pastors and parish boards have certain expectations. Young people don t want to be bored. And we hope they ll participate. But the approach and strategies we use to achieve those goals, directives, and expectations can be varied and creative. Ultimately, how we choose to do our ministry should be based on people, not programs. A young person may become a part of a sports team for the sense of camaraderie and team spirit, while someone else might get that same feeling from being part of a service mission. A youth may take up a particular sport for the exercise and to help keep in shape, but someone else can do the same thing by going to a health club or working at a very physical job. Someone may take up a sport because they are competitive and like to win, which might be exactly why someone else joined the chess club. Perhaps someone participates in a sport in hopes of a college scholarship, but someone else might have the same reason for joining the debate team. Just as trying to meet the needs and interests of all youth solely through a single sport is not effective, so too, is trying to minister to all youth solely through a single program model. In other words, while we ultimately have the same task/goal, we need a variety of different ways to achieve it depending on the person(s) involved. As youth ministers, we re called to be good at cross training offering a variety of ways for a variety of young people to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Page 1

2 In Chapter 10 of Matthew s Gospel, Jesus chooses and commissions his apostles to go into the world. He sends them to a specific group of people and tells them what he wants them to do there. He reminds them that some will hear what they have to say and accept Him, and others are not ready to hear. He cautions them that it won t be easy, but He continues by commanding them to be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16b, NAB). While we may never suffer physical persecution from those we have been called to minister to, Jesus could have been describing our call to youth ministry! Like the apostles, we have given a specific group to bring the message of Jesus Christ to, and we will meet varied responses. Like the apostles, we have been given specific tasks and we already know it can be hard! And like the apostles, we are commanded to be clever in how we accomplish those tasks. Like the ball toss at the beginning of this article, the task remains the same, but we need to adapt to the situations and people we encounter if we are to do what Jesus has entrusted us to do! Our Tasks Our tasks as Catholic youth ministry leaders are: 1) to empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world today 2) to draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Catholic faith community; and 3) to foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person. 1 These are our tasks, but HOW we accomplish them needs to be adaptable and flexible. Youth ministry needs flexible and adaptable program structures that address the changing needs and life situations of today s young people and their families 2 Not Program-Centered but People-Centered As youth ministers, we know what our tasks are. But the approach and strategies we employ do not depend on programs or ministry models, but on people. In peoplecentered ministry, we need to know the people to whom, for whom, and with whom we are ministering. Variety in youth ministry includes activities, groups, and involvements that can attend to youth who are at different levels of spiritual maturity and faith. 3 1 Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry (Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1997), p RTV, p East, Thomas, editor, Effective Practices for Dynamic Youth Ministry (Winona MN: Saint Mary s Press, 2004), p. 35. Page 2

3 In writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul said: Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law though I myself am not under the law to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law though I am not outside God s law but within the law of Christ to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. (1 Corinthians 10:19-22, NAB) Paul wasn t merely trying to blend in or pretend to be something he wasn t. What he meant was that he met people where they were and used activities and arguments that would be most persuasive to them. As youth ministers, we remember we are adults not youth, and we strive to reach out to young people in ways they can hear and understand. Strategizing for effective people-centered ministry does not begin with a youth ministry model or program, but with what people need. The most basic flow in planning occurs when we do not focus on the real needs of the people we aim to serve. Sometimes we focus on what we need as leaders or what we think people should need. Sometimes we get confused between wants (a particular way of doing something) and needs (basic human needs) You are on track of a real need when you focus on youth and families and their needs for community, spiritual growth, friendship, life skills, prayer and a chance to serve others. 4 A Metaphor to Explain the Difference Towards the end of the last century, two brothers took over the candle-making shop that their elderly father had begun. When they inherited the shop, it was a thriving business and provided all the candles for those living in and working in several of the surrounding counties. The business also provided a healthy livelihood for the brothers two families and their workers. Sometime later, the brothers split the company down the middle, each going his own way with his half of the candle-making business. 4 East, Thomas Responding to Youth originally published in Celebrate Youth: Parish Resource Manual (Gig Harbor WA: Center for Ministry Development, 1998), p. 23. Page 3

4 While they started off equal, within 25 years, their fortunes were quite different. One of the brothers had a small shop that could barely support his family and a few assistants; the other brother had an ever-growing factory, one of the larger employers in the small town. Both brothers were excellent candle-makers; both brothers worked very hard at their craft. What happened during those years? For one thing, electricity was introduced. What made the difference in the two businesses? Why was one thriving while the other was barely surviving? One brother was program (business) centered and saw the need as a need for more customers and spent all time and marketing strategies on making ways to get people to buy candles. (Perhaps like a program-centered youth minister who sees the need as a need to get more youth or adults involved and spend a lot of energy trying to get people to come to existing programs.) The other brother was people (customer) centered and saw the need as the people s need for illumination and so responded by making light bulbs along with candles. (Perhaps like the people-centered youth minister who sees the needs of youth and adults and tries to find a variety of ways to address those needs.) (Story adapted from Good News in New Forms. 5 ) In the real world of youth ministry, we see people-centered youth ministries begin to thrive and grow, and program-centered youth ministries begin to stagnate and die. People-Centered Ministry is Custom-Designed In the study on Exemplary Youth Ministry practices by Martinson, Black, and Roberto, the researchers were surprised to find that many of the practices and approaches used by churches with exemplary youth ministries were quiet ordinary. What made the difference in EYM congregations was that these practices might well be characterized as ordinary practices done extraordinarily well in response to the needs of youth in their communities. 6 The researchers went on to explain that what these churches did was custom-design ordinary youth ministry practices to fit the unique context of their church and youth. The exploration into custom-designed youth ministry practices and approaches reveals that developing a contextually unique expression of a long-standing common practice can bring fresh meaning and impact to youth ministry. By 5 Horan, Michael P. and Jane E. Regan. Good News in New Forms: A Companion to the General Directory for Catechesis (Chicago IL: Liturgy Training Press, 2001), p Martinson, Roland, Wes Black, and John Roberto. The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry: Leading Congregations toward Exemplary Youth Ministry (St. Paul MN: EYM Publishing, 2010), p Page 4

5 considering the unique needs and context of youth, leaders can contextualize common practices, making them distinctive and fresh. 7 Four Ways to Respond to People s Needs In his model of How to Make a Plan a Reality, Tom East lists four ways to creatively respond to an identified need: 8 1. Create a new program. Create something from scratch. An example of this would be creating a post-confirmation retreat for youth who want to continue to be challenged spiritually after Confirmation. 2. Link people to an existing program. Help people know about a program that already exists in the parish or community (including youth ministry programs currently being offered). An example of this would be connecting youth who want to do meaningful service with social service agencies in your community needing volunteers. 3. Change an existing program to meet a need in a more responsive way or for a different group of people. (This is what Martinson, Black, and Roberto were referring to when they wrote about contextually unique expressions of common practices. ) Don t just use a canned program or specific youth ministry model make it fit your people and parish. An example of this would be changing the scheduling of weekly high school religious education classes to focus group modules that ran fewer weeks, but for a longer time each meeting, in response to scheduling conflicts around stress times like holidays and exams. 4. Advocate for change. Not a program at all, but a strategy to meet the needs of people by promoting needed change in the parish, community, or even youth ministry program. An example of this would be advocating for youth to be able to participate in any of the parish ministries adults can (perhaps beginning with an adult mentor) in response to youth s desire for a voice and more active participation in the life of the parish. Within these four possible strategies to respond to people s needs is a vast array of options. In his article on the History of Catholic Youth Ministry in Leadership for Catholic Youth Ministry (Twenty-Third Publications, 2009), John Roberto summarized what Renewing the Vision (p. 25) meant by flexible and adaptable program structures: A diversity of program settings: age-specific programs, family-centered programs, intergenerational parish programs, and community-wide programs 7 Ibid. 8 Celebrate Youth, p. 23. Page 5

6 A balanced mix of programs, activities, and strategies that address the eight components of comprehensive ministry A variety of approaches to reach all adolescents and their families including large-group gathered programs, small-group programs, home-based programs, one-on-one/mentoring programs, and independent programs A variety of scheduling options and program settings to respond to the reality of the busy lives and commitments of adolescents and their families. 9 For example, in our possible response for a post-confirmation retreat we could: Create one just for the last confirmation class; for all high school youth who have been confirmed; for youth and parents to experience together; for postconfirmation youth and their sponsors; for post-confirmation youth and parish leaders (mentors); for all the post-confirmation youth from several neighboring parishes, deanery, or diocese. We could design the retreat around any of the eight components of youth ministry (advocacy, catechesis, community life, evangelization, justice and service, leadership development, pastoral care, or prayer and worship) or any portion of any of those components (such as Catholic apologetics and how to defend your faith, or how to develop and strengthen your prayer life, or Matthew 25 and continuing service). We could design the retreat in a large-group rally-type format or in a smallgroup reflective format. We could provide at-home materials for a do-ityourself retreat or an interactive online retreat with other post-confirmation youth. We could offer one-on-one spiritual direction for continued faith growth after confirmation. We could offer the retreat on one weekend, stretched over several evenings (like a parish mission), one-day retreat or an afternoon of reflection. We could offer the retreat right at the parish (no traveling involved) or at a retreat center, state park, or hotel. We could offer it during spring break, on an institute day, or in the summer. The retreat can be facilitated by the youth minister, pastor, or other staff personnel, by several adult volunteers or peer ministers, or by a guest retreat facilitator. It may even be entirely possible that we offer a variety of combinations of these options. (After all, not all post-confirmation youth need, or will be attracted by, the same things.) 9 Roberto, John, History of Catholic Youth Ministry in Leadership for Catholic Youth Ministry. Thomas East, editor (New London CT: Twenty-third Publications, 2009), p. 38. Page 6

7 Retreats are certainly standard youth ministry practice, but should be designed for people and not merely to support programs. Creative and Innovative Strategies While this statement is nearly 30 years old, it is still one of my favorite quotes and continues to inspire me. This statement was made by Dr. Roland Martinson in his keynote address in 1982 at the National Youthworker Executive Summit: We face a marvelously exciting but crucial challenge. We are those persons in church who rigorously and deeply yearn, wonder, struggle, and celebrate about kids, those marvelous persons of God. These young persons, created out of the love of God s heart, the wisdom of God s mind, the intuition of God s creativity, can be a part of the organism we call the Body of Christ. I d like to suggest that facilitating this requires courage, creativity, and excellence. 10 When we adopt a people-centered approach to youth ministry, we recognize those marvelous persons of God and desire to give them the very best we can. This includes being creative and innovative in how to address their needs. While I don t have any statistical study to support my claim, personal observation after years of training youth ministers is that, by and large, we who are called to youth ministry are an incredibly creative bunch of people. Given an event to plan we can come up with a multitude of intriguing games, amazing decorating ideas, interesting and engaging prayer services, entertaining and informative object lessons, stories or simulations, attractive PowerPoint presentations, relevant video clips and contemporary songs, and pack them all into a fast-paced youth-friendly presentation. The challenge I present to us today is to use that same creativity and innovation we bring to planning an event or program to developing strategies and responses to doing youth ministry, not to just doing events. When we proceed from a people-centered perspective of ministry we focus on what people need and are challenged to find the best responses to those needs, and that may or may not be a gathered youth ministry program. In the 2004 study on Catholic youth ministry, Tom East found that centering on youth needs is very affirming to youth. Additionally, parishes that had dynamic youth ministry programs were innovative and creative in their responses to young people. When youth ministry responds to their real lives, needs, and interests, youth feel like 10 Martinson, Dr. Roland, keynote address. National Youth Workers Executive Summit, Denver CO, Page 7

8 they matter. This dynamic needs to be innovative and creative, there is not one model, but rather a pattern of changing in order to be responsive to youth 11 The 2010 study on Catholic and Protestant youth ministry programs confirmed that the variety of approaches to meeting needs was one of the hallmarks of an exemplary youth ministry. [The findings] also revealed that the variety and scope of youth ministry practices is important. No one strategy will fit everyone. To reach and minister to a larger audience of youth means that the type of events, functions, and opportunities must be varied. 12 In the Effective Practices study it was found that most parishes that had dynamic youth ministry did have a primary ministry effort such as a youth group or religious education program for youth. But [t]his primary effort needs to be complemented by other ways that youth can be part of the parish and its youth ministry. 13 The study found that dynamic programs incorporated all of these elements: faith formation, extended trips, liturgy, retreats, and service opportunities, all in a multitude of options and forms. 14 In addition, much variety was also provided by making room for youth to participate side-by-side with adults in parish activities and ministries [and] the development of niche programs that respond to the needs and interests of youth. 15 Some Special Considerations for Creative People-Centered Responses When we focus on the needs of youth and their families instead of the needs of our programs and we allow ourselves to think in creative ways, the variety of possible responses can be limited only by what would work for the youth we minister to, with and for. But here are a few general strategies to keep in mind when looking for flexible and adaptable alternatives to having an event. 1. Consider Non-Gathered Ministry Responses Non-gathered ministry strategies provide church communities and their leaders opportunities to reach out to young people with the Good News of Jesus Christ through a variety of means that do not require face-to-face contact. Non-gathered ministry allows us to reach youth who do not attend programs (or even church). And non-gathered strategies allow us an additional form of contact to those who do EPDYM, p The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry, p EPDYM, p Ibid., pp Ibid., p Semmel, Christina. No Meeting Required: Strategies for Nongathered Ministry with Young People (Winona MN: Saint Mary s Press, 2007), p. 8. Page 8

9 For example: If responding to the need young people have for a more positive self-image, we could send out affirmation cards, write positive articles about youth for the parish bulletin, highlight youth contributions on a community bulletin board or local newspaper, or make a deliberate effort to tell them one-on-one that we see something special in them. 2. Utilize the Internet and Social Media The Internet and social media are the milieu in which our young people function and are a specialized format for non-gathered ministry efforts. In his address on the 45 th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict specifically called us all to utilize this media for the spread of the gospel: It is an even more commonly held opinion that, just as the Industrial Revolution in its day brought about a profound transformation in society by the modifications it introduced into the cycles of production and the lives of workers, so today the radical changes taking place in communications are guiding significant cultural and social developments 17 I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible. This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life. 18 Bishop Roland Herzog, in addressing the United States Catholic Bishops in 2010 stated: Because it is so different from mass media and mass communication, social media is creating a new culture on this Digital Continent. Young people use it as their first point of reference The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering... The Church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way. 19 Same task, different strategy. Social media can be one of the ways of meeting youth where they are. If we continue our example of promoting a positive self-image: We could help build a positive self-image in youth by asking their help with our websites and social media presence; we could post congratulations for achievements on our Facebook page; we could upload photos of youth making a difference on our websites; 17 Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the 45 th World Communications Day Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age (Vatican, June 5, 2011), p Ibid., pp Herzog, Bishop Ronald, address to U.S. Catholic Bishops on Social Media, As Great a Challenge as the Reformation: The Bishops on Social Media Nov. 15, 2010 (text found at Page 9

10 and we could youth special thanks for their contributions. [Of course, we are cautious of what personal information about youth we post on the Internet.] 3. Incorporate Family and Intergenerational Ministry Sometimes the best response to a youth need is to help those who have more access to them meet that need (i.e., parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, etc.) Consider strategies that incorporate intergenerational programming (where youth and parents, or adult mentors like sponsors, do things together) or designing programming specifically for the parents of youth. It is important to balance congregational integration of youth with age-level ministry practices, and support for their families Work Toward Becoming a Youth-Friendly Parish and Incorporate Parish Activities As mentioned earlier, much variety can also be provided by youth participating in parish activities alongside adult parishioners (such as attending the parish mission or training to be lector). Additionally, both studies cited the importance of the whole culture of the parish leadership and staff, youth ministry, the congregation, and families and households as important to effective youth ministry. Youth ministry approaches and practices do not stand alone. They are important, but they are part of an interconnected congregational culture that develops youth of vital Christian faith. 21 Thus, if we care about youth, we need to care about the parish as a whole. And sometimes our best strategy for responding to the needs of youth is to work on the parish. For example: To respond to the need for a positive self-image among youth, perhaps we need to work on the image the parish has of youth. If the culture of the parish views teenagers as problems to be solved, we need to become vocal advocates for the young church now. 5. Be Flexible and Adaptable in Scheduling One of the consistent laments of youth ministers is youth choosing school or sports events over youth ministry programs. (By the way, ever notice how effective sports programs are for meeting the needs of youth for such things as affirmation, camaraderie, a sense of accomplishment, belonging and being needed, etc.?) 20 The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry, p Ibid., p Page 10

11 We, who make the schedules, assure that youth ministry programs do not conflict with what we consider important events such as other parish activities or our own personal and family events, but youth and their families do not make up our schedules. In our people-centered ministry, we should become more aware of those events in the school and the community that can cause conflicts and plan around them (not every basketball practice, but certainly big events like homecoming or the high school musical). For those mandatory programs like Confirmation retreats, whenever possible, we should offer multiple date options so that families don t have to choose between grandma s birthday and the retreat; or, have a plan for a make-up option for those who can t make the date. Youth s lives are often filled with competing commitments and demands on their time. The family schedule for the week is complicated and sometimes overwhelming. Youth Ministry can work with youth and families to provide different ways to be involved. These differences can include the timing, schedule, or group size. Some programs can be offered as individualized or family-based approaches. Others can be offered as part of a weekly gathering or on a retreat weekend The key is to have a variety of ways that youth and their families can be involved. 22 For example: If you decide that doing a series of programs on self-esteem building would be the best response to the need for a positive self-image, you might consider creative options for scheduling. Instead of every Sunday night, could it be an extended session on one weekend, a Monday morning breakfast gathering, or a Thursday night at Starbucks? Is it possible to meet on school holidays or at the school during lunch? Might it be possible to have two groups that meet at different times? Could you meet for a short time before or after another regularly scheduled event? Also, consider whether or not you really need to meet in a gathered program. 6. Definitely Include Extended Trips Extended trips such as leadership camps, diocesan and national conferences, work camps and service missions, and World Youth Day are particularly meaningful to youth and an incredibly impactful form of ministry. The Effective Practices study found several benefits from youth participation in these programs: Being a part of a large, Catholic event helped the young people feel pride and enthusiasm in being Catholic A deep sense of community is built between youth who didn t previously know each other and between youth and their leaders 22 LCYM, p. 18. Page 11

12 The event creates opportunities for youth and adults to take on leadership roles and grow in their leadership abilities Young people are awestruck by the larger sense of Church and the large number of Catholic youth they are connected with across the nation and across the globe. 23 Additionally, the study found that participation in Christian service had a powerful impact on the faith life of Catholic teens. Some of these included: Changes in a young person s perspective on the poor Broadens their awareness of the causes of social injustice Creates empathy for other Helps young people feel valuable, that they can make a difference 24 In regards to extended programs as a means to meet the needs of young people, the study concluded with a powerful statement: Particularly, when it comes to retreats, extended trips, and service camps the research suggests that these program elements are so powerful in changing lives and providing young people with significant faith experiences that they must find the time and money to be able to offer them. 25 In regards to our example about fostering positive self-image, it is obvious that extended trips are particularly impactful in helping youth feel proud and excited about being Catholic (a part of who they are), developing leadership skills (on a variety of levels), and instilling a strong belief that they are valuable and can make a real difference. In Conclusion Exemplary and dynamic youth ministry programs are people-centered and customdesigned for the needs of those they serve. Effective, dynamic Catholic youth ministry provides numerous, varied activities that enable young people to be engaged in the youth ministry programs and parish life. It balances the social, educational, formational, sacramental, and service dimensions. It is permeable, which means there are no boundaries or protected turf that prevent youth from participating in different aspects of youth ministry and parish life. Effective parishes provide many opportunities for young people to get involved in youth 23 EPDYM, pp Ibid., p Ibid., pp Page 12

13 ministry and parish life on a variety of different levels, with a variety of activities and experiences, encouraging greater participation. 26 To be flexible and adaptable means to abandon the one size fits all mentality and envision ourselves as cross trainers, helping young people follow Jesus through a variety of ways. Christina Semmel is the director of youth ministry at SS. Peter & Paul Parish in Cary, Illinois. Chris also teaches the Evangelization & Catechesis and Practices in Youth Ministry courses for the Certificate in Youth Ministry Studies Program. 26 EPDYM, p. 34. Page 13

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