Parish Spotlight: Annie Ovanessian and the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America
“They said: We’d like you to engage our youth and bring them back to the Church.
I asked: How would you want me to do that?
They said: You can figure that out.
I asked: When would you like this to happen?
They said: You can figure that out.
I asked: Is there a budget?
They said: Not really. And we’d like you to start as soon as possible.”
Sound familiar? Beautiful beginnings happen in many ways. Annie’s introduction to youth ministry came from a former Sunday School teacher who heard about a job opening and said, “Annie’s got to do it.”
“Long story short, I stepped in as the Director of Youth Ministry, not knowing what to do. But I knew when I got this call that it was from God.” Like some of us, Annie felt ill-prepared but fully called. Thank God that is his usual mode of operating.
Annie Ovanessian, Director of Youth Ministry in the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, reached out to YDisciple four years ago in those early days of questions that fill a youth minister’s new beginning. We have loved hearing updates since then. Though Annie’s experience of collaborating with Catholic resources for their Armenian ministry is unique, many of her struggles and successes seem to resonate universally, so we wanted to share her story with you.
“I think part of the passion I have for youth ministry comes from the fact that when I was in middle school, I had some very loving, caring teachers that really kind of demystified the Church for me, and my faith became real. They did a lot of what we know now to be best practices: mentored, guided, created these wonderful places for safe and heartfelt conversation. I think God allowed me to experience that, so it heightens my passion for what I do now for the same age group.”
Like many Catholic youth workers, Annie’s invitation into ministry was unexpected. But over the past four years, she’s settled into her role cooperating with Christ, living in her particular gifts.
Annie was tasked first with finding out what works and what doesn’t work, learning from studies on best practices, blogs, vlogs, anything she could get her hands on to immerse herself. And in the process, she found us. “I was vaguely familiar with Formed because I had parent access to it through our kid’s Catholic school. I stumbled upon this YDisciple content that seemed really in sync with best practices, and around the same time, our priest said, ‘Hey, there’s this Formed website. It looks like they might have youth ministry components.’ I felt like that was confirmation of God saying, ‘Pursue this.'”
At the time, youth ministry in the prelacy followed a traditional format: stand up, talk to 50 youth, sing a few songs, and leave. “Sometimes, we’d have 20 teens. Sometimes 100. It was just inconsistent, and nobody could understand if it was effective. This was what I saw in all these studies: the long-term effect was not visible.”
“At the same time, I found a study that spoke to me, written by a priest. He realized that of the 100 kids who participated in youth ministry, the kids that seemed to remain connected to the Church long-term were only those ten kids with whom he had a unique connection. It wasn’t the other 90 kids that were in the same group, listening to the same everything. And I was like, there’s something there!”
“One thing we loved, why I specifically advocated for YDisciple, was because of the multimedia approach: the videos with the teen talk sheets, parent sheets, the facilitator guides, all of that was extremely appealing to me. And I love the relevant examples the materials provided. I felt like many youth ministry resources are antiquated, so I appreciate that YDisciple & NET Ministries update some of them to be ever so relevant and ever so contemporary. That’s critical.”
Catholic resources in an Armenian Church
Annie reached out to YDisciple and explained, “We’re not Catholic, and we’re not Protestant.” The Armenian Apostolic Church is an Eastern Christian denomination in communion with the other Eastern Oriental Orthodox churches. Our team explained that small groups meet universal needs as we walked her through how to start a small group. “We need to find 3 to 5 girls in each community. We need to find 3 to 5 guys in each community. And an adult who’s willing to work with them. And if we can do that, then this might work!”
We then walked with Annie through how to modify our Catholic small group resources. “With permission from YDisciple, we added some traditional Armenian prayers so that we start normalizing our expression of faith with our teenagers. Suppose it’s a recited prayer, for example. In that case, I’ll put it in the Armenian prayer, put it in Armenian letters, put it in translation, transliteration in phonetics, and then in English. Many of our youth are not fluent in the Armenian language. We don’t want to exclude them because they don’t have mastery of a language that is theirs, but at the same time, we don’t want them to lose the history and their rich inheritance of that prayer. This is where the facilitators have been outstanding. If you have youth that are mostly English-speaking, then you recite the translation of that prayer, so the teens have an understanding of, ‘When I said this (in Armenian), this is what I’m actually saying.’ Because the prayer is said so often in liturgy, it’s bringing that relevancy back.”
Reaching to the past & caring for the present
We asked Annie how she addresses the need for faith to be presented in a relevant way while honoring the richness of the Armenian tradition prevalent in their Church community and family life.
“This is where I get massively passionate. I didn’t establish the Church. The Armenians didn’t establish the Church. The Pope did not establish the Church. Christ established the Church. So the Church is, has been, and always will be because Christ established it. We sometimes treat these beautiful stories and these beautiful examples as things that happened in the past, but I truly believe that God didn’t give that to remain in the past. He gave it so that it can bridge to the future for the current and the future. So I believe our task as leaders within the Church is to bridge that gap. It becomes our privilege, our opportunity, our joy truly; to bridge a gap between what the truth is, and how that conversation can continue now and into the future.”
Young people athirst for the living God
“I think what’s critical for youth ministry is that we want to create this environment where our young people finally can talk and explain and explore, and authentically have these heartfelt conversations where they are not judged.”
Annie has found, “If you ask any one of your youth to stand up and give a presentation on world religions, they could probably give you a dissertation. They all are receiving it. But if you were to ask them about their faith and how that translates to their life, you’d get, maybe if you’re lucky, a string of dates, maybe. Beyond surface knowledge, we are not making this real. So that’s where our opportunity is. It can be challenging, but I think it’s a beautiful opportunity because we all know the youth want it. And God has prepared their hearts to receive it.”
What are teens looking for
“In a world where you can Google everything in an instant, this is so one-dimensional at most. I think that God has wired us and our youth to want depth and substance. It’s all the basic needs we talk about; that need for justice, that need for belonging, that need for acceptance, that need for guidance by somebody. Still, as YDisciple quotes very eloquently, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That truly is a reality.”
“If we can create that environment in our small groups, I don’t care if they walk away not learning anything – other than knowing that the God of the universe loves them and cares for them. And that we are here, walking this journey of faith together, to have this intimate relationship with Him. We all want to be pursued, and loved, and wanted, and accepted. And God’s unfathomable love is the most untainted, purest form of that.”
We will know it by its fruits
It’s both the long-term fruits (do these teens stay active in the Church after High School) and the short-term evidence that affirms how we focus our time. “I shared with our community the story of one 13-year-old girl sharing, ‘I love the fact that I have a group of other girls that I can go to, who will pray for me when I’m having a difficult time.’ How many of us, when we were 13, had a group of peers that we could go to for prayer?”
Annie also surveyed her teens to share their first-hand feedback with Church leadership, “I asked the kids, ‘What is one thing you love about youth ministry?’ Repeatedly what they keep saying is, ‘It’s encouraging, it’s welcoming, I feel accepted, I feel listened to, I feel welcomed and comfortable, I found meaningful relationships, I feel love.’ I mean, is that not what we want for young people? If we don’t provide those adjectives to our youth, they will find it somewhere else, and I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of something that is providing this for our youth.”
A Ministry that fits all shapes and sizes
“Some of our communities are extremely robust and very densely populated. We knew we could probably find 5 or 10 similar-aged kids there. But in some of our smaller parishes, there’s a big challenge. What do you do in those tiny communities where they still want to provide something for their youth?” YDisciple’s small group ministry, adapted to highlight the unique nuances and expressions of faith, has been an excellent fit for all.
“Youth ministry is not just for the youth. It’s really a community initiative. And unless the community comes around each other and is the Church, you can have the best programs in the world, you can even have these great small groups, but there’s no reason for teens to want to stay in a community that’s not healthy and thriving.”
“I mean, we have to be the Church, and if youth ministry is the catalyst for us becoming the Church in the church, then great.”
A capstone of small group ministry has been the ease with which committed adults can step into leadership and the life-giving fruit that results. “Facilitators love being called to do something other than bringing a cake for a bake sale. I think it meets the needs of our adults who want to be engaged in the Church, who have chosen to remain in the Church with their families, and now they see purpose in their role. I see this all the time. ‘What if I’m not called to the priesthood? What if I’m not a school teacher? What if I don’t want to sing in the choir? Do I not have a purpose in the Church?’ I think we have to model that we all have functions in the Church, but we haven’t been good at communicating that. I feel like our facilitators are starting to feel that purpose, that tangible difference they’re making in the lives of teens and subsequently in the Body of Christ.”
“One facilitator said, at a social event, one of her kids from youth ministry ran up to her, hugged her, and said hi. That’s it. But the adult said, ‘I’ve seen this kid, we’ve been in church together our whole lives, but that showed me what impact we as adults are having.’ There is a new level of connection that we’ve provided for our kids, another trusted adult.”
As Annie reminds us about working with youth, “It’s truly a privilege, because if the work we do helps fan an ember in the hearts of our youth, then we’ve succeeded. It’s not my job to do the miracle in their lives. That’s God’s job. That’s 100% God’s job. My job is to hand him the loaves that he’s given me and the fish that he’s given me. If I can do that, then that’s all he’s asking from me.”
If you would like to contact Annie, you can do so at:
Youth Ministry Director
Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America