Chattanooga hosts U.S. Catholic youth ministry convocation

Thriveanooga! event rejuvenates parish youth ministers, looks at ways to re-emphasize student outreach amid pandemic, cultural distractions

By Janice Fritz Ryken

Catholic youth ministers gathered in small break-out sessions and also socialized in downtown Chattanooga during the three-day national convocation called Thriveanooga! in late September. The event, which participants described as inspiring and rejuvenating, is scheduled to return to Chattanooga in 2022.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a parish to do youth ministry.”

These words, uttered by Sister Thea Bowman more than 40 years ago, still ring true today … and they were said before smartphones came along!

Sister Thea was a religious sister, teacher, and scholar who made a major contribution to the African American ministry of the Catholic Church. Although she died more than 30 years ago, Sister Bowman was right on the mark about what’s needed to foster a thriving youth ministry in today’s Catholic parishes.

Sister Thea, who died in 1990 and is on the road to canonization (she was designated a Servant of God in 2018), would definitely double down on her statement if she could see today’s teens.

With so many everyday distractions teens now have — academic pressures, competitive sports, and social media to name only a handful — it’s easy to see how challenging it is to attract and keep them engaged in their Catholic communities.

This is especially true during the formative years that follow receiving the sacraments of reconciliation, confirmation, and holy Communion. Sadly, many parents allow teens to taper off their faith after the initial, obligatory sacraments are made, even though there’s still so much faith formation needed as they grow into adulthood.

What’s more, it takes dedicated people in parishes willing to invest their time and money into attracting and keeping teens engaged in their faith during the last years before they reach their independence.

Thankfully, there are many such people in parishes across the country who dedicate themselves to doing just that, and a delegation of them recently gathered in downtown Chattanooga to participate in a weeklong convention called Thriveanooga.

Nearly 50 youth ministers from 26 dioceses across the country joined together Sept. 27-30 to break bread and share the joys, challenges, and fresh perspectives into running Catholic youth ministries in this new millennium. The late September weather was perfect to showcase the Scenic City to people who traveled from Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Lansing, Las Vegas, Louisville, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Seattle.

Michael Marchand, a member of St. Stephen Parish in Chattanooga and co-founder and director of Project YM, which hosted the event, said the biggest takeaway from the convocation was the camaraderie.

“People took a week off from work to travel here to deal with the important issues regarding youth ministry, it was humbling,” Mr. Marchand said. “We figured maybe we’d be lucky if 20-25 people could come, but the response was huge. More and more people sent in their replies and we started to worry there wouldn’t be a venue available at this time to hold us all. But we knew God would make this work, and it has been so great to see everyone come together. Everyone was excited to share ideas and help each other address ways to build and maintain a flourishing youth ministry.”

Mr. Marchand said it was important to bring youth ministers together for morale.

“We work with over 7,000 Catholic youth workers across the country and we hear much of the same sentiment. Many will lament about just how lonely and isolating working in youth ministry can be,” Mr. Marchand said. “Thankfully our online platform lets us step into that loneliness and bring support and community to youth ministers across the country. Thriveanooga did the same thing but in a much more powerful way because we were able to physically be in the same room together, to pray together, play together, learn together, and support one another.”

ProjectYM has been doing ministry with Catholic youth workers for almost a decade now and Marchand says Thriveanooga was the best week of ministry he’s ever been a part of.

“This was the most representative of exactly what our ministry is all about: helping Catholic youth ministers thrive! When they’re excited about their ministries, they take that excitement back to their parishes and their excitement then spreads to the young people we’re trying to reach.”

Chris Bartlett, director of leadership formation for Ablaze Ministries in Bryan, Texas, agrees.

“For me, the biggest takeaway was how we tackled so many relevant topics together. This conference took an intentionally collaborative approach and the genius of each participant was showcased,” Mr. Bartlett said. “But an even bigger takeaway is that not only is God madly in love with young people, God is also madly in love with those who journey with young people.”

Mr. Bartlett believes that fostering a strong youth ministry is key to having a flourishing parish, and he said youth apathy is probably the most dangerous to Mother Church as a whole.

“There are many factors that can hurt a church. In our case, poor attendance or misinterpretation of the dogma/catechism can be very big factors…budget cuts, of course…. but personally I believe mediocrity is an even bigger threat to our Church than heresy,” Mr. Bartlett said. “People can often get lazy about our rich traditions, especially about passing down the fullness of truth, and that can be a real blow to our faith traditions. But I also believe the secret to that not happening is in paying attention to our young people. They are so creative and they bring fresh perspective and excitement. Youth is the antidote to mediocrity because young people bring the gift of hope.”

It was through the new perspective of the youth in his own ministry with Ablaze Ministries that Mr. Bartlett said there’s been a paradigm shift among the young people within his diocese.

“The old think that we unintentionally passed down to our youth was less inclusive because we were sending the message that first we must behave like Jesus, then we must believe in Jesus, and only then do we belong to the Church,” Mr. Bartlett said. “But the new model is much more inviting to our youth. Now focus on belonging to the Church and believing in Jesus first, and finally, after a sense of community and acceptance, the Christ-like behavior naturally flows from there, it’s not forced, it’s easier because people who believe already want to behave like Jesus.”

But even the most pure-hearted young people were deeply affected once 2020 hit. Both Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Marchand admit the Coronavirus pandemic has affected youth ministries across the country. Being forced to stand six feet apart from other people while in public and then being locked down in homes for months was as devastating to our parishes and our parish youth groups as anywhere else and it gave youth ministers pause to step back and think about how they will function going forward in a post-COVID-19 world.

“The craziness of the last couple years has helped us realize just how important relationships are,” Mr. Marchand said. “It’s not about the size or spectacle of ministry programs and events, it’s about making sure every young person is seen, known, and loved. It’s from those relationships that adult leaders are given the opportunity to introduce young people to Jesus and accompany them as they draw closer to Him.”

Mr. Marchand believes one of the challenges facing Catholic youth ministries today is culture-driven.

“This generation is simultaneously the most connected and loneliest generation ever,” he explained. “In a world filled with filters and followers, young people are just looking for someone to truly see them and love them for who they are, not try to change them or dictate morality to them. As youth ministers, we have the opportunity to do just that, to see them, love them, and speak truth into their lives.”

Church youth ministers take part in a discussion about the best ways of ministering to U.S. Catholic youth. Some 50 ministers from around the country took part in Thriveanooga! Sept. 27-30 in downtown Chattanooga.

He added that to make that happen, youth ministers have to be more focused on reaching young people than they are at merely building programs. “We have to be more concerned with helping teenagers meet Jesus than just to be checking boxes,” Mr. Marchand said. “And we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and go to where they are, instead of just waiting for them to walk through the doors of our church.”

According to Mr. Marchand, the future of youth ministry is all about relationships.

“We know (statistically and anecdotally) that program-oriented and event-based youth ministry doesn’t work. Coming out of this pandemic is the perfect opportunity to try new things, think outside the box, and radically embrace the call of the Gospel,” he pointed out.

Mr. Marchand and Mr. Bartlett both agreed that all churches across the country need pastors and parishes that are ready and willing to invest in ministry that goes beyond the walls of their parish property. They need the support of people with a heart for the young Church. By 2019, nearly half of all parish priests in America had reached the minimum age of retirement (age 70) and many are staying at their parish posts longer because of a shortage of priests, although in recent years there has been an uptick of new, young priests being ordained. And while older priests and lay people are the ones who carry on the traditions of the Catholic Church, the perspective of youth shouldn’t be excluded going forward.

Participants in the Thriveanooga! convocations took time to socialize during their down time, taking advantage of the many social venues and activities available in downtown Chattanooga.

Mr. Bartlett said that while current challenges, like budget cuts, negative perceptions of the Church after the fallout from scandals, fractured families due to divorce, and a general lack of attendance and participation lend to concerns about the future of young people continuing in their Catholic faith, one of the biggest challenges facing Catholic youth is most immediate: recovering from the pandemic with limited engagement and small budgets in the midst of a rising secular culture becoming less accommodating to believers.

Such problems are an issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something that can’t be overcome, according to Mr. Bartlett, who is confident there’s always a solution.

“The solution is to make sure youth ministry is a priority at our parishes, and also we should be looking to form young people as missionaries who engage the culture and seek to transform through the many gifts God has given them,” he said. “If we make it a priority and realize our youth will carry our faith, we will always have thriving parishes. Our youth is always our hope.”

And if the participants in Thriveanooga have any say about it, that hope is overflowing.

Mr. Marchand said he is confident that participants left the convention armed and ready to lead their ministries forward, excited to go back and build a stronger, livelier Church.

And for anyone who is interested in building a stronger youth ministry in any parish, he offered these four key ways to actively support a thriving young church:

  • Invest in young people. Be intentional about building relationships with the teenagers in your life. Be welcoming and encouraging to the teens in your parish.
  • Encourage parish leaders. Be vocal in support of youth ministry in your parish – to your pastor, your youth minister, and other parishioners. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone to challenge parish leaders to prioritize ministry and outreach to young people.
  • Provide support for youth ministers. “Our organization (ProjectYM) exists to provide much needed training and support for Catholic youth ministers, but we’re only able to do that with financial support of people like you,” Mr. Marchand said.
  • Pray for this generation. “Young people today are facing challenges that you and I never had to deal with (or could have even imagined), and they need your prayers. Be sure to also pray for the specific young people in your life daily,” he said.

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