As the school year begins to reach the half-way point for our youth, it has given the St. Margaret Mary’s WALK Youth Group time to reflect on all the positive additions that the St. John Paul II Fund for Faith Formation and Youth Ministry grant has afforded the group. The group has already made substantial changes in the formation of their youth ministers, with their weekly meeting planning, and have begun to plan exciting new events for the youth they serve.
Youth Minister Retreat
As part of our grant, we asked for money to fund a spiritual retreat for the hardworking adults who minister to the students in the WALK youth group. In August, it was decided that the youth ministers would participate in a weekend-long retreat to spiritually nourish the adults and set off this new year of youth ministry on the right foot.
This retreat represented not only a great opportunity for spiritual nourishment, but also the perfect time for the adults to reconnect with one another. Almost all adults from the youth group were able to participate in this retreat, which started on Friday night and lasted until Sunday afternoon at the Moodus Retreat Center in Connecticut. The weekend was filled with prayer, self-reflection, and group bonding exercises. As one adult put it, the retreat was an excellent chance to “breathe, have fun, and reconnect with her fellow youth ministers.” With any retreat that the adults put on for the students, every minute must be meticulously planned. It was a rare treat for the adults to move fluidly between events, leaving time to stay in the present and make room for the Spirit to guide them to the next event.
Another adult in the group had this to say about the retreat:
“This was a long-needed weekend for the adults. We are all volunteers and have full lives and jobs outside of our youth group responsibilities. We had all been getting stressed out with the work [for the youth group] and with each other. You never want youth ministry to be a chore and a burden or you won’t be successful. This retreat weekend gave us the opportunity to pause on life and youth group work. We could grow together and rejuvenate our faith life. Having the grant money cover the costs of this retreat were extra beneficial. Since we are all volunteers, we usually have to pay our way for retreats like this. The grant relieved us of one more added burden.”
Another part of the grant is meant to assist the youth group with their weekly meetings — in addition to the usage of LifeTeen programming sponsored by the Diocese of Bridgeport. Not only were the adults of the group able to start the new school year with a reinvigorated sense of purpose from their recent retreat, but they started the new year with the promise of the LifeTeen programming. The adults were eager and excited to start this programming — they had previously attended Steubenville Retreats, which are sponsored by LifeTeen, and knew about their dynamic material. The promise of weekly assistance was also alluring for our adults, who work tirelessly as volunteers for the group on top of their regular full-time employment.
In September, two adults from the group were able to attend LifeTeen’s Genesis Conference in Texas. Both adults said that the weekend was incredibly informative and were excited to share what they learned with the rest of the adults.
Here is a reflection from one of the adults who attended the conference:
“The Genesis Conference in Texas was a joy to attend. It not only helped me become a better youth minister, but also helped my faith in Christ. Because of this conference, I was able to go back to my youth group and immediately put into practice everything I had learned from the weekend. I was encouraged all weekend to become the best youth minster I could be and to put fears aside. It was great to connect with other youth ministers in Connecticut as well, to share ideas and swap stories. Because of LifeTeen, we are determined to get our teens closer to Christ. All of our meetings have a purpose and they are all rooted in Christ’s love for us.”
Since attending the conference, the adults have continued with monthly “trainings.” These trainings through LifeTeen are the first time that many of the adults are receiving regular training centered to youth ministers. Many of the adults went through the group as students and took what they learned from past youth ministers and have diverse employment outside of the group. While these unique backgrounds helps the adults specialize in a variety of things within the group, many asked for more education on youth ministry. With these new formal trainings, our adults now report feeling more fully equipped to lead our youth. Continuing education is important no matter what field one works in and youth ministry is no exception.
Beginning in the fall, the adults started using the LifeTeen programming directly with the young. Because the youth group meets on a weekly basis, many adults expressed concern and stress with the continual planning of new and innovative meetings. The new programming has thankfully alleviated a lot that stress and pressure that was previously reported. The programming has provided outlines for many different types of meetings, allowing the adults to pick from a variety of spiritual topics, as well as group-bonding and service-oriented meetings. As one adult put it, “we are utilizing the collective knowledge of some of the best youth ministry leaders in the country.” Since instituting the LifeTeen programming, the adults have heard more positive feedback about the meetings, with many of the youth saying that they are “loving” the meetings and “really getting a lot out of them.” This has translated into a 50 percent increase in weekly meeting attendance compared to a year ago. As the adults become more comfortable with the LifeTeen materials and utilize it more consistently, we believe we will see an even larger increase in the attendance rate.
One adult, who has so far planned three different LifeTeen meetings for the youth, had this to say about the new programming and what is has meant to the group:
“[Before LifeTeen] our typical way of working was that, as the adults, we had to think up and plan every meeting we were assigned. We would then have to hope our idea worked and was a successful meeting. With LifeTeen, this all changed. I now have a starting point. I have a full outline of a meeting that has been tested and proven to work well. All I have to do is pick a topic and adapt the outline to our needs. This takes a lot of creative pressure off of my shoulders. Now, all I just have to read over the outline and adjust the meeting ideas to our parish and group of teens.”
Special Events and Speakers
The final component of our grant is to sponsor special events — meant to diversify the experiences of the youth group — that the group could previously not afford. This was meant to include trips, speakers, retreats, and fund scholarships. The group has started scheduling some unique opportunities for the youth. This Saturday, December 15, the youth and youth ministers with go to La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts to see the Christmas Festival of Lights. For many of the youth, this will be their first out-of-state trip with the youth group. This day-long event will provide much time for the youth to bond with the adults and with one-another. It’s also an opportunity to remind the youth of the real reason for the Christmas season, and give them a fun but spiritual event that gives them time to reflect on the birth of Jesus. Thanks to the grant, the trip is being offered free of charge to all involved — which is parent-approved in the midst of this Christmas season.
The next event that the grant will help pay for is the youth group’s day-long retreat day in January. The retreat, which will be offered to all youth in the parish (including confirmation students), is themed “Worth” and will offer a deep-encounter for youth to get to know Jesus, as well as one another. While some of the retreat will utilize LifeTeen materials, a large portion is being planned and executed by our retreat planning team. To help assist the team, an outside speaker has been hired to inspire and connect with the youth. Though many of the youth ministers are well-versed in giving talks to the youth at various retreats, they are incredibly excited to bring in someone with a new perspective for the youth to hear from. After extensive research, the retreat team has hired Connecticut-based Bryan Mercier to give the keynote speech to the youth. In year’s past, the group could never afford to hire a professional speaker for the retreats. Thanks to the grant, the adults have reported that they are relieved that they can focus on other important aspects of the retreat rather than spend a substantial time reviewing and editing each other’s talks.
And this is just the beginning of events the group will host in the second half of the year. Many more trips and events are in the works, and the adults are excited to further introduce the youth to the fuller Catholic faith and tradition. Though it’s difficult to quantify the impact of the grant so far, it is evident in the very fabric of the group. The grant has injected a spark into the group that has been missing for some time. It’s rejuvenated the youth ministers’ passion for ministry; it’s reinvigorated the youth’s enthusiasm for Jesus and for community; it’s given the youth ministers space to dream how to empower our future leaders with their faith and worry less about the minutiae.
We leave you with the powerful words from one of our youth ministers on the impact of this grant seen so far:
“Since we have received the grant, the group feels different. We have more kids coming and taking part. We are able to think outside the box and not let money force us to drop an excellent idea. I can see a future for the youth — I haven’t been able to see that in a long time. The adults are excited again. We were able to recharge and focus. I think this grant has changed the course of the group.”