Youth Ministers – More Than Meets the Eye

Most youth ministers who are worth their salt will happily and proudly tell you that they went into this field of work because they felt called to it.  And, I definitely agree.  Being a youth minister is 100% a vocation.  You have to have a deep understanding of the overall mission of the Church, believe in the young Church even when they seem like a lost cause, and want nothing more than to equip, empower, teach, and lead those “lost causes” into the arms of Christ.

I’ve made it 7 years w/o owning a clown, chicken, gorilla, or any other type of costume.

But, there is a huge, huge, HAAA-UUUGE misunderstanding about what youth ministers do, particularly for people who aren’t actively involved in youth ministry or who don’t have youth of their own.  And, not surprisingly, the teens don’t “see the forest for the trees” so to speak.  They (and many others) think that youth ministers spend a lot of time “hanging out with teens” or “going on fun trips” or “getting pies in their faces” or “eating pizza.”

While all those things are undoubtedly things that most of us have done (what youth group would be complete without pizza or messy games?), that’s not WHAT WE DO.  Those are things that happen that we participate in.  We don’t pursue this calling, this VOCATION, just to go to summer camp or water parks.

So, here is a very, very short list of some of the roles/jobs that are required of youth ministers…some of the things that people may not realize that we do on a regular basis.

1.) Teacher & Google

Our number one job is to catechize the youth of the Church.  We have a responsibility to teach them the truths & teachings of the Catholic faith in a orthodox way that they can understand, discuss, and process.  And, not only do we have to know and understand WHAT we’re teaching (and do so in a systematic way), but we have to be ready to be a human Google about any and all faith-related questions.  No matter how prepared you think you are, teens have an amazing talent of asking the most random, outside the box, unexpected questions that you DIDN’T plan for.  But, you’ve got to be ready to answer.



2.) Event Planner

Every single week, at least once a week and sometimes more than once, we have to event plan.  From food to engaging activities to handouts to prayers to atmosphere, every detail has to be lined up and ready to go.  We worry about enough to eat, the right lighting, the sound system working, the teens having a good time.  Every.Single.Week.  And, on top of that, there are ACTUAL parties we plan – Fall Kick Off, Advent Party, Retreats (at least 2-3 a year), Senior Dinners, etc.  We get really good at knowing how much food to bring and what kind of music sets the right mood.

 
3.) Spiritual Guide/Moral Compass
We are in constant conversation with the teens who are in the youth group (some more regularly than others).  And, that means constant questions about their spiritual lives, making moral choices, living rightly, etc. come up. Some teens are very open and keep you up to date on everything happening and want your advice practically daily.  Others will hit you up via text, phone call, Facebook message, etc. only when there’s a big problem or they feel confused, anxious, need prayers, lonely, sad, whatever emotion.  We have a huge responsibility to be in direct conversation with the Holy Spirit on a regular basis so that we can do our best to respond and guide these young people into the love of Christ.



4.) Supporter/Cheerleader
Games.  Concerts.  Performances.  Buying what they are selling for teams, choirs, groups, etc.  We are there as much as we can.  We are supporting them constantly via social media.  We have to be aware of big tests, auditions, games, college submissions, try-outs, whatever so that we can ask about it, cheer them on, and support them through the process.  We have to encourage them when those things take precedence over Church things (as they do, more often than not).  We feel their joy when they succeed and their hurt when they fail.

5.) Reference

If there’s a college scholarship, organization, group, or job that needs a reference letter for a teenager, we have probably written a recommendation, filled out a form, or answered questions over the phone.  If a kid is regularly involved in the youth group (and, heck, sometimes if they are not!), the youth minister is generally #1 on the list to ask for a recommendation.  And, boy, those things can be difficult to write sometimes!

6.) Confidant

On many occasions, we are brought into serious situations happening in teens‘ lives, families, and relationships.  And, I do mean serious.  From deaths of family members and friends to abuse in homes to suicide attempts to drug problems and teen pregnancies (just to name a few), we’ve all been there.  We’re often contacted first by the family or been told in confidence about something before a counselor or police officer.  We’ve lost sleep, cried, sought counsel, prayed and prayed and prayed some more.  We’ve watched pain unfold, seen teens leave the faith, and, thankfully, seen healing and growth, too.

Ultimately, the vocation of youth ministry is a call to LOVE a very specific group of people in ways that are very specific to their needs.  And, it’s anything but easy.  It’s an uphill battle 90% of the time.  It’s a thankless job where maybe 10 out of every 100 teens or families ever offers gratitude for what you’ve done.

But, we don’t say “yes” because it’s easy and we don’t do it to be told “thanks”.  We do it because it’s part of the mission of the Church – it’s OUR part of the mission.  Though my time as a youth minister will soon be coming to an end, my love for the young Church has not and will not ever change.  Being a youth minister has formed me into the adult, wife, mother, and friend that I am.  I am thankful I was called to it.

Social Media Can Foster Real, Meaningful Relationships

“Teenagers today don’t even know how to form a complete sentence because of technology.”

“People who use social media all the time don’t know how to engage in ‘real’ relationships.”

“He took his own life because of Facebook.”

“140 characters of evangelization? More like 140 characters of narcissism.”

I recently attended an in-service about using technology to pass on our faith and I was more shocked than I should have been at the vitriol (sorry, sometimes the English major in me really cannot pass up a great vocab word) that poured forth from my peers.

I shouldn’t have been shocked because I’m aware it’s out there – I hear it occasionally from parents, parish staff members and other adults I know. I was shocked partly because I’m so immersed into the culture of the inter-webs (as my grandmother still calls it) and social media that I can often be blind to its downfalls, but also partly because I just flat out disagree with so much of the criticism.

Authenticity

One critique I hear is that the anonymity of the Internet allows us to try on different personas and different attitudes in different places. This may have been true even 2 or 3 years ago, but today? Today, my Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked to my blog. My LinkedIn account talks to Google+ and any photo I take with Instagram gets posted on all my social networking sites. In other words, today it’s all connected.

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Morality part 2 – Peer Pressure can be AWESOME

Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series on helping empower teens to make moral decisions.  The series introduction can be found here, and part 1 can be found here.

As you’re probably aware of by now, I’m a Catholic.  It’s not just a fitting-in sort of label for me, like a 3rd generation 20% Irish-person around St. Patrick’s Day.  (Yeah, I said that.)  My being a Catholic is part of who I am, how I define myself, how I hope to portray myself.  I strive for it to affect literally every part of my life – the fact that I fail constantly is irrelevant here.  As I try to live out my faith and my identity as a Catholic, I am always on the lookout for that community of Catholics to share my life with – friends who share our faith, values and priorities.  I want to know I’m not alone in my challenge, and I can be there to support and lift up others who are trying to navigate the narrow road.  Having a community of Catholic men, women and families around us has been a humongous blessing & help to myself and my wife – and of course it is!

We all know how important friends are to teenagers.  This is the time of life when teens are beginning to break from their family.  They like to believe they are independent, but they are so, so far from real independence from family and parents.  (see part 1 for how important adults are)  A huge part of this break is the friends teens have.  Teens quite often list friends as more important than family.  This may or may not be the case – and that doesn’t really matter for this discussion – the apparent truth of it matters.

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Lean on Me – Morality, Part 1

Note: This is part 1 of a 3 part series on morality in teens – introduction & explanation can be found here.

We want to be independent. Or rather, we think we want to be independent. But in reality, none of us wants true independence – we want others to depend upon us, and we want others to be there for us to depend upon. Though we have this romanticized view of independence, we don’t really want that.

And neither do teens. More than us, probably, they want to feel a part of something – they want to know they’re not going it alone.

More than teens realize, and more than adults know – teens need us. And I don’t mean that we are needed for our money or housing or food or clothing. I’m talking about being that reliable, safe, trustworthy, accountable, old-steady, even-steven sort of partner for a teen.

Teens need at least one adult they can rely upon and trust.

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Oversimplified morality – in 3 parts

Working in youth ministry with junior high and high school students over the past I don’t know how many years has given me lots of things.  First, it’s given me an incredible amount of failures.  It’s given me a lot of entertainment and laughs.  It’s given me gray hair.  It’s given me headaches and sleepless nights.  It’s given me countless privileges to walk on a faith journey with a young person.  It’s given me lots of tears, stress, extra hours of prayer, challenges, successes, awesome retreats… ok I could go on.

One other thing is that it has given me a little bit of insight into the heart and ind of a teenager.  I’m not claiming to have all the answers – I’m not claiming to be very smart – I’m claiming that my experience with teens over the last 12 years has given me a little bit of insight with teens.

I hope that isn’t too much of a stretch.

Ok, why all this?  Because, morality. There are so many well-meaning people at our parish, at other parishes, and from who knows where telling me we need to do more things to teach morality to our teens – but it all sounds and feels more like “you need to crack open their heads and brainwash them into thinking this one thing that I think is the end all be all issue and it needs to be this.”

And we do morality nights – on chastity, on obeying God, on pro-life, on stealing, on cheating… etc.  Do I expect a big turnaround in the life of teens based upon these nights?  Heck no.  It can start a discussion or get them thinking, but if convincing others of the truth were as easy as one 90 minute youth night, well, we probably wouldn’t have too many youth nights.

I’ve come up with a bit of a theory here – and it is that teens essentially need 3 things to really be empowered to make good moral choices in their life.  All three of these things are important, none of them is a quick fix, and they all take efforts from the teens, the parents and the Church.

So this, I guess, is a 4 part series – and you’ve just read part one.  Congratulations!  And I realize, this told you nothing more than – Hey, I’m writing a morality series!  Parts 2-4 will come out about every other day for the next week or so – so stick with me.

Again, I’m not claiming this is the end all – be all.  And I’m not claiming that this closes the book on teen morality – this is my discussion starter – based on my experiences loving, being rejected by, listening to, supporting, praying for, praying with and observing teenagers.

Jesus Trusts ME?!?

This morning at the Wednesday morning Mass with some of the teens from our youth group, Fr. Joy made a very interesting point in his homily.  He said that Jesus had to trust his apostles and disciples, that they would carry out the mission he had left for them.

Jesus had to trust others.  He had to trust those he was teaching and guiding.



Jesus had to trust.

Trusting is a very human thing.  It’s something that we have to constantly work on and make a concerted effort to have.  We work to have trustworthy friends and spouses.  We pray that we might be able to trust in the Lord, in His plan for our lives.  Many of us struggle with trusting due to things that have happened to us throughout our life that have broken our ability to easily trust.

And, yet, Jesus had to trust, too.  Jesus, who was God, who knew how it would all turn out, had to work on the very human act of trusting in his followers. Read More

Why I’m Not Giving Up Facebook or Twitter for Lent

When I started out on Twitter a little over a year ago, I had one goal – to be witty. Just about everything I posted was hoping for a re-tweet, a reply, or at least a laugh.

Facebook was different because I’m a youth minister, and Facebook is my primary mode of communication with teens.  I have lots of teens and former teens who are friends on Facebook, so I am always careful to watch what I say and how I say it.

But Twitter, well, Twitter was my “adult” world.  I could be a little more snarky and sarcastic and push the envelope a little more because all my followers (at that time) were adults.  I didn’t even tell my teens that I had Twitter because I didn’t want them to follow me – I didn’t want to have to watch what I said all the time.  I wanted to be witty and funny and flirt with the line of appropriateness.

Tweets that make me laugh. Now, when you're done reading this blog, go read a book...

Last March, someone I look up to and admire greatly said to me, “I love following you on Twitter – you’re always so funny!” The euphoric pride I felt was quickly (and thankfully) smashed by a spiritual director who asked me how the Twitter persona I had so carefully crafted was leading me closer to God.

So, when Lent rolled around last year, I decided to give up Twitter and spend some time re-evaluating how I was using this particular social media tool. I was back full force after Easter (hopefully) still witty, but also much more conscious about how I was using this technology to bring glory to God rather than to myself.  It wasn’t hard to do, and the Lenten fast served it’s purpose – with unexpected benefits.  I found myself being much more open about my personal faith on both Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately, the change also had some unexpected drawbacks.  I don’t get re-tweeted as much any more or get very many funny replies to my tweets – though those are relatively minor consequences and have become less important to me.  No, the biggest and most unexpected drawback has been the rejection I’ve experienced.

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Are you getting in God’s way?

Are you shielding God from working?

Last night, as I was tucking in my three year old, and singing (if I can generously call it that) Ba-Ba-Black Sheep to her like I do every night, I was interrupted by her.  She was very upset all of a sudden, and I had to stop singing to hear what was going on.  “We forgot to pray tonight! We forgot to pray tonight!”  Here I was, not being particularly patient, trying to put my kid to bed so that I coud just go eat some cookies and milk and veg out downstairs a bit.  But my haste, my lack of patience, and my desire to just shut off my brain pushed me to forget probably the most important 8 minutes with my family of every day…

Us adults think we’re so smart.  We’ve got it all figured out, and we’ve got our busy lives with our busy schedules, and our grand plans.  And quite often,those grand plans get in God’s way – even if our goal is to teach our faith in Christ to other people. Read More

Tom Brady is Overweight (but better than Aaron Rodgers)

The day after the Super Bowl, all the sports writers and radio hosts were busy trying to put perspective on the game.  Every year, it seems, we hear about how this was one of the 10 best of all time, or this quarterback sealed his Hall of Fame bid, or that quarterback choked.  There was an awesome awesome article (actually, it was terrible, and ridiculously hyperbolic) on Monday blaming the entirety of the loss on Tom Brady – that he was fully to blame, and that the prince has turned into a joke.

(Yes, that is really Tom Brady to the right.)

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Hell hath frosted over

Hell must have frozen over because I have seen some things lately that probably indicate Frost Covered Treesthe end times are near. Let me explain.

I was running a retreat at a neighboring parish this weekend. It was one of those required one day confirmation retreats that try to give a retreat experience to those last 10% of kids who haven’t done a retreat yet. Nothing wrong with these teens, we love them, and it seems like church may not be the most important thing in their life. I think you get what I am saying.

At the end of the retreat we did a reconciliation service in the beautiful side chapel of the parish. At this parish, the tabernacle was kept in this side chapel, which was great for us; we got to pray before the Blessed Sacrament while preparing or praying through our penances.  About 40 minutes into our prayer time, this little old lady comes into the chapel and walks before the tabernacle. She genuflects, takes the tabernacle key from its hiding spot and begins to open the tabernacle.

Honestly, it was a bit of a shock. We had just spent all this time praying to Jesus who was stuck inside his tent, and all of a sudden, the tent flaps were opening and Jesus was coming out.  A crazy thing happened next. As I went to kneel, the entire room started moving from their various positions of repose (laying, sitting, leaning), and knelt while Jesus in the Eucharist was removed and moved into the main church in preparation for Mass.  It was a moment.  There was a palpable change in the room. The whispering teens stopped chatting. The sleeping teens awoke.  The teens reading a Bible out of boredom paid attention.  Seriously, it was miracle akin to Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection.

I was moved. Read More