Spotlight: The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia and “Encounters”

When COVID sent all of our ministries online, many savvy parish leaders adapted, and Zoom became their new youth room.  The gospel still needed to be proclaimed, and teens still needed to be accompanied, even in virtual environments.  But Zoom also became every teenager’s classroom, social venue, and even worship-space.  While online ministry certainly has its place, we are now facing a new issue in Catholic youth ministry: screen fatigue is real, and it is here.

Aware of this reality, Kevin Bohli, Executive Director of the Office of Youth, Campus, and Young Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, came up with a plan called Encounters.  Encounters are a list of intentional experiences adults can do with young people to engage in conversation about the faith.  

Kevin Bohli, Executive Director of the Office of Youth, Campus,
and Young Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Arlington, VA

What does this look like? Well, does a teen in your life like baking, for example? You can bake the famous John Paul II Cake while you discuss his life. Do they enjoy the outdoors? Go on a hike, pray, and discuss God’s creation.Do they want to engage in a conversation about race?  Kevin’s office has you covered. Visit one of Arlington’s historically Black Catholic parishes.

An Encounter focused on baking and the life of Pope St. John Paul II

“The purpose behind Encounters is two-fold,” says Bohli. “The first is to get teenagers off screens and engaging real-life. The second is to empower parents to be the driver of faith formation in their family.” And to sweeten the deal, all of their Encounters are designed to be COVID-friendly since they utilize the great outdoors and spaces in which you can easily social distance. For some, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home.

Encounters are much more than a list of ideas.  Each Encounter has a downloadable PDF guide with what Kevin calls a “soup to nuts approach.”  In the guides, you can find catechetical and historical information to share and questions to discuss.  Are you going to a specific location?  They’ll tell you not just where to go but what to do along the way.  Listen to this podcast; watch this video before you go. And yes, they even suggest secular things like the best ice cream shop along the way.

Bohli hopes that Encounters will become a staple of ministry to youth well beyond the pandemic. They focus on meeting students based on their particular interests and needs; they are customizable, which is often missing from Catholic youth ministry. Bohli describes it this way: “Have you ever noticed that you never hear an announcement after Mass that ‘the Adult Group is doing x this weekend.’ That’s because there are a dozen or more ‘adult groupings’: quilters, a men’s club, a rosary group, a seniors-playing-cards group, and a collection of different Bible study groups.  Yet, when it comes to teenagers, we expect a monolithic youth group to meet all of the interests and pastoral needs of every teenager.  It just isn’t realistic.  Encounters are designed to be things that ‘youth groupings’ could be doing: baking for students who like baking, hiking for students who enjoy the outdoors, etc.”

We also know that parents are an essential but often overlooked part of youth ministry. This resource gives them the tools they need to catechize their teenager even if they don’t feel like they have enough formation themselves. Sitting down and discussing the life of Pope St. John Paul II may feel awkward and forced, but having the same conversation while experiencing a little bit of his Polish culture can have a very different effect.

Certainly, some of these Encounters are specific to the Arlington area, but many can work anywhere. Bohli hopes that enterprising youth leaders from other places might be inspired by the idea and create similar resources for their own local area.  

How can you help families encounter the faith beyond their screen?

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