By Brad Bursa
As a melancholic prone to melancholic fits, I often found myself discouraged as I would leave the parish late each Sunday night. No matter how many “successes” I could point to following a youth night or a small group session, nothing could shake me from my gloom, save for time and the fact that youth ministry is so fast-paced that you simply have to move on. After meandering through this weekly dejection for several years, the Lord answered my prayer one Sunday night as I begged for help during my 3-minute commute home. I had a sense that I was asking the wrong question at the end of the night.
It had become commonplace for my team to gather at the conclusion of a youth night to debrief and to pray. From what I know about other youth ministry programs, this is fairly standard. Typically I would open the debriefing with: “How do you think that went?” And, usually, one or two positive comments would be followed by a negative one about the timing of the schedule, a sloppily run aspect of the meeting, or a dismal small group session. And this one negative comment would be followed by several (or many) others until our time ran out and we prayed a “Hail Mary” and left…depressed.
I was asking the wrong question.
Does it really matter how we thought the night went? If this is the Lord’s work, then what matters most is what He did and how He spoke. So, I started asking a new question: “What was God doing tonight?” This changed everything. Now my team started to pay more and more attention during each night to the activity of the Holy Spirit and to those finer details of ministry that are often missed. Meetings ended not with time for input (though sometimes this was necessary for logistical or pastoral purposes), but with testimony.
Eventually we took another step and turned the testimony into a prayer of thanksgiving together: “What should we thank God for tonight?” Seeking to give testimony over and above input radically changed our debriefing meetings, and it also changed our monthly planning meetings. The more attentive we are to the activity of the Holy Spirit as a leadership community in our communal discernment and testimony, the more attentive we are to the Lord’s will for next steps in ministry. I do not think it is coincidental that about a year after asking this new question, we sensed a call to shift youth ministry to a discipleship model—a decision that had massive ramifications for ministry and for the parish on the whole.
Brad Bursa, PhD., is the Director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Office for Youth Evangelization and Discipleship. Prior to his current post, he was the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, OH where he helped transition high school ministry to a discipleship approach. He received his doctorate in Theology from the University of Notre Dame Australia and lives in Cincinnati with his wife and five children.