Holy Spirit led, Discipleship-focused Catholic youth ministry: “It’s so easy, it’s hard.”

PARISH SPOTLIGHT: Bobby Moren and St. John XXIII, Perrysburg, Ohio

In the middle of a pandemic, St. John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg, OH, hired a new youth minister. In recent years, “the new guy,” Bobby Moren, experienced a shift in his approach to Catholic youth ministry. This shift allowed St. John XXIII to grow four supportive and consistent teen small group communities in just six months. That’s 30 Catholic teens actively engaged in faith-filled relationships during a season of isolation and quarantine, without Bobby ever meeting them.

Before he arrived in Perrysburg, Bobby noticed, like many of us, that some teens were actively involved in youth ministry, and some seem contently detached. And like many of us, he did what he could for those that showed up, and prayed for and reached out to those that didn’t. But the Lord brought Bobby through a ministry reversion that opened his eyes and shifted his focus. We at YDisciple heard about the amazing things happening at St. John XXII.  So, we had a conversation with Bobby about his ministry.

What is youth ministry? And What does it look like at St. John XXIII? 

“It looks like one hundred billion different things. I know, everyone wants to know, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ I can tell you what I do, but your parish is totally different. Your teens are totally different. I think that’s the beauty of our church.”

 What brought about the shift in your approach to ministry?

“When I became a full-time youth minister, it was the large group model. I noticed that not all the kids really understood what the heck was going on.” Like most of us, Bobby saw some kids were engaged, and some weren’t. Some stayed engaged in the faith after high school, and most didn’t.

“And then I had an opportunity to hear Jim Beckman speak at a catholic youth leadership training.” At the same time, Bobby started reading Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry by Eric Gallagher and Jim Beckman, “which totally wrecked everything I had ever thought about youth ministry. But it also got me to think outside the box of what youth ministry should look like… If all these teens are not ready to hear who God is, then I’m wasting my breath, I’m wasting their time, I’m wasting their parents’ money. ”

 What did you find best prepares young people to hear what we desire to share with them?

“I really started seeing good fruit right after I started a guy’s small group using YDisciple’s Catholic small group resources on FORMED.org. I had a group of five guys, myself and another volunteer, and now and then, we would have a priest come hang out with us. Those guys were great. We did discipleship, we did fellowship, and we really became a brotherhood.”

When asked if the teens seem to notice a difference between large-group or small-group ministry, Bobby said the teens saw, “we could have the time to sit and talk to them. Even if the teen’s question was, ‘I think I like this girl at youth group,’ we had built the trust for them to come to us and say, ‘I think I like this girl at youth group. What should I do?’ And I think that’s the key. I can look back and see where some small groups fell apart or stayed together – because they got over that hump of trust.”

What was the Fruit?

“A lot of those guys went on to be really involved in college. One is a FOCUS discipler at his university. Another one became the Grand Knight at his University Knights of Columbus, and the other guys still stayed involved in the church when they went to college even if they were staying at home. In that particular small group, we saw a 100% success rate [of teenagers staying involved in the faith] compared to a 10% success rate with a large group, which shifted my mind: ‘OK, we need to start looking at this differently.'”

Bobby is quick to mention that large groups and small groups both have their place in Catholic youth group activities and need to be orchestrated together. “It’s just a matter of knowing what one is designed for and what the other is designed for.”

Mentors at St. John XXIII

“The other thing that helped: family was involved. We were able to make relationships with mom and dad.” Bobby changed the term from volunteer to mentor. “You’re not a volunteer for youth ministry; you’re mentoring a group of students. You’re going to apprentice them to be Catholic. and you’re walking with mom and dad to do that.” That might sound deceptively simple, “but it’s so easy, it can seem hard.”

And that’s how the current small groups at St. John the XXIII began, without Bobby meeting any teens. The mentors reached out to teens and families they knew, invited them into a small group, and encouraged them to invite their friends.

Another approach Bobby uses: “I like to ask the teens to find a few friends, then give me a couple of adult names.”  Instead of asking, ‘Would you like to volunteer for youth ministry?’  the approach is an affirmation: ‘Do you know this teenager? They mentioned they would love to have you as their mentor.’ The word mentor has so much more depth to it. As a volunteer, it’s like, what am I volunteering for? Is it food? Is it just driving back and forth from this or this? But everyone knows what a mentor is; I’m going to help teach these kids.”

Mentors invest in 6-8 teens. “It’s doable. It’s not scary,” says Bobby. Mentors meet monthly for a check-in, not just ministry planning, but asking questions like, “How are you physically? How are you mentally? How are you spiritually? How’s your small group going? What can we pray for together?” and a little Catholic youth ministry training using the YDisciple training materials; “We have good conversations.”

What happens in a small group to build this trust?

As Bobby invests in his mentors, his mentors invest in the teens. Personal relationships are imaging the intentional way Christ pursues each of us.

“Once you build trust, anyone is open to hearing from you. This is nothing different from forming intentional disciples or what Jim Beckman has been preaching forever; we just don’t want to listen, even though there’s a lot of wisdom in doing it that way because it’s all relational and relationship. I mean, even Jesus was like, ‘Come, follow me,’ and they followed. But he built their trust by talking with them. He built Peter’s trust by pulling a whole bunch of fish out of the water.  I can’t do that miracle, but I can sit there and listen to a teen, which in today’s world is a miracle in itself.”

As winter thawed into spring, Bobby’s small groups often met outside for bonfires, hiking, etc. “This first year, I told my mentors, if you get to the videos – awesome, but the content is not what’s important. It’s all about the relationship until they start asking you the questions. Then you can start moving in that direction.”

Disciple-focused parish culture

Bobby has successfully developed small group ministry in other parishes. Still, we asked what made this unique timing and call to ministry in this parish attractive, “It is helpful that the parish has an identity of discipleship. I could walk in knowing, ‘You know what Discipleship is – I will help tune you on how to walk with these teens.'”

Bobby’s attentiveness to small revelations of a different approach to youth ministry allowed St. John XXIII to address genuine ministry concerns successfully and sustainably. Their community calls upon mentors to partner with parents and strengthen the supportive relationships proven necessary for teens to stay rooted in their faith as they grow up. And teens are finding connections and relationships in “unprecedented times” of isolation and quarantine.

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

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