PARISH SPOTLIGHT: Stacey Huneck and St. Charles Borromeo in Fort Wayne, IN
“We know there are youth just waiting to get to know Jesus, just waiting for a relationship with him! But sometimes, it’s heartbreaking that we don’t have the volunteers to lead a group or go through the steps of discipleship. So, I have my list of teens I want to invite into discipleship this year and my list of potential leaders. And I have high hopes! High, high hopes!”
Stacey Huneck has been involved in youth ministry at St. Charles Borromeo in Fort Wayne, Indiana since college. She has walked the transition from large-group-focused ministry to small-group-based discipleship and has seen the fruits in both. She recently reflected on the positive long-term effects of discipleship as her teens grow into young adults and their volunteer leaders grow with them. Her story is one of rolling with the punches and going out on a limb – which we thought might resonate with your own.
Ministry at St. Charles
“I’ve been at St. Charles for eight years. I started part-time my senior year of college with just high school ministry, and then I went full-time and have recently taken on young adult ministry. I’m still learning how to do both programs simultaneously and do them well; there’s only a handful of nights in a week, and I’m one person who can’t bilocate. But it’s been a tremendous blessing!”
Young People Need To Be Known By Name
“I was finishing my senior year of Theology studies at Saint Francis and was hired part-time at Saint Charles. For my capstone project, I decided to study and write about effective models for youth ministry. So, I began researching. Also, during that time, our diocesan director for youth ministry was investigating the YDisciple model of ministry. She brought in some people from the Augustine Institute, including Jim Beckman, to train, teach, and launch this model in our Diocese.” Several parishes, including the parish where Stacey volunteered before St. Charles, ran a successful large group ministry model, and St. Charles planned to follow suit.
“During my research, Christian Smith from Notre Dame released a book of information collected about young people and why they were leaving the church. These young people need relationships, they need intentional leaders, they need to be known by name. I think what blew me away was hearing from Jim Beckman and his experiences about his son’s participation in YDisciple.
“I talked with our priests and said, ‘I know you’ve been telling everybody we’re doing large group ministry, but the Diocese wants us to try this other thing, and I think it’s probably better for what we want.’ So, we decided to try this discipleship model.
“We spent the first summer recruiting and training leaders. We hosted a fall retreat on campus – we’ve found retreats to be a great catalyst – invited some of those teens to join discipleship, and started our first groups after the retreat. It was a lot of walking into the unknown, figuring out what was most effective, and learning all the things as we went.”
Discipleship Groups: Who, Where, What
“Youth ministry is new for our parish, so we are forming our community and establishing a culture of youth ministry. People think being a youth ministry volunteer is something somebody else does, not what they do. So, it’s been a growing process. We started with four, maybe six groups. We now have eight to ten consistently. The goal is for teens to continue from their freshman year to their senior with the same leaders. That’s not always possible; leaders quit, or they move away. Teens don’t commit, and the group might fall apart if it isn’t the right blend of people. And two groups might combine when some students graduate. So every year, it’s back to the drawing board for some groups.”
The leader establishes each group meeting time, “which is nice so I can pop into each one throughout the semester. This is also helpful for those who want to use our facility, since there is not enough room at the parish for each group to meet at the same time. There’s something about the freedom to meet whenever possible that makes the leader take even more ownership.
“Some groups will consistently use materials from YDisciple, but others will start there and then just take it in whatever direction they want. A lot of groups last semester used the book from Life Teen about Catholic social teaching, and that’s been good, going chapter by chapter throughout the year. We also use the Ascension Press Theology of the Body series, which can take a long time because you just get talking and can’t get through the material. But we must be talking about these things, not just that we got through it. I encourage our leaders to take ownership of the content if what they’re presenting follows Church teaching. I’ve only had that come up one time when a leader asked me, ‘Can I use this book?’ I had to tell her no because it doesn’t follow what the Church teaches. So I always make sure I’m in tune with what resources we use.
“Last year has been challenging because of COVID. We started with eight groups. Our high school groups for the girls reduced throughout the year because of many things, but our guy’s groups stayed strong. We’re also striving to start them at a younger age, so the middle school resources YDisciple now has are helpful. Right before COVID, we launched an eighth-grade boys’ group and an eighth-grade girls’ group; the girls’ group has taken off.”
More Than One Way To Do Ministry
“Most years, we’ve done large group style ministry in the summer just to bring kids in the door. I spend August training my discipleship leaders and then relaunch discipleship groups in September.”
“We also make a fall and spring retreat at a nearby retreat center (a former monastery where blessed Father Solanus Casey lived). Some youth go to Catholic Youth Summer Camp, and we take groups to Steubenville. We attended NCYC in 2019, and we’re bringing kids this November. We host service projects, Christmas caroling in December, canoe trips in July, and the March for Life every January.” These large group events are another opportunity for youth to get to know the adult volunteers who are not their discipleship group leader directly.
We Will Know It By Its Fruits
“When I first started at St. Charles, there was no established ministry program. A few events here and there, with a few sporadic teens in attendance. With discipleship groups, we began seeing teens remain! They kept meeting with us.”
“I used to call them small groups because it describes what it is. But our Diocesan Director pointed out, ‘You’re forming discipleship groups, not small groups.’ Something in that conversation stuck with me. Our goal is to build intentional disciples, to focus on what matters: not how many kids I have, but that we’re creating an intentional environment for them to continue to be Catholic, to be supported, to get to know Jesus on a personal level, to learn how to pray, and to learn how to read scripture, all through the witness of their volunteers.”
“One of the hardest things is getting kids to commit every week. But my husband led a discipleship group for four years, which started with ten but then somebody invited somebody, etc., and grew to 14. Sophomore and junior years are hard because you’ll have attendance problems if they can’t get a ride. They had a handful of meetings where there would be three kids that showed up. But their last year it went back to being solid attendance, and at their very last meeting, every single one of those 14 boys was there.”
“Building such strong relationships with them from the time they’re freshman until senior year is powerful. And now, when they come home from college, they come to our house to hang out because they want to catch up. That’s incredible to me!”
These teens become young adults who will go on to other parishes and communities knowing, “I was made for relationship, and it’s possible.”
YDisciple Grads Return As Leaders
“We find teens want to start leading as soon as they can. There’s always a one-to-two-year rule where you don’t volunteer. But now we’re starting discipleship groups in sixth to eighth grade, so if I have a graduated senior who would like to lead a group for the much younger crowd, that works well, especially if accompanied by a parent. Many student leaders have come back to help or are involved with FOCUS, their Newman centers, and are leaders for Catholic Student Organization. Many of our former teens are well connected.”
Longer Lasting Fruit After Graduation
As teens move to college, we started a new college ministry this summer, College Crew. Partnering with the chaplain at a school many of my teens attend, we made a list of all the youth we wanted to be involved. We reached out and have over 30 young people on the planning team. We’ve been meeting with them and forming these committees. They plan the event to make it their own. Our parish has never had a young adult ministry, but they are already connected because we’ve built these relationships with them beginning in high school. I’m excited to see what will come out of it because if 30 kids are on the planning team, how many people will we have at the events?!
Support From the Parish
“Our parish is blessed by these fruits! We’re so proud, and we see God active here. And the parish is investing. Knights of Columbus support anything I’ve asked of them, including when we go to World Youth Day. The Rosary Society will do a bake sale fundraiser. Last year we hired a part-time youth ministry assistant to help with our paperwork, and a mom works part-time to help with middle school ministry. Our parish and pastor are now more willing to invest money into our youth ministry programs to see them grow. A very concrete example is the building of the youth center. It’s an old convent, but they refinished the floors for me. That’s a very material investment, but it meant a lot to me. And it means a lot that they’re willing to keep investing!”
The Positive Effects of COVID
“We started virtual ministry right after the school shut down and continued every day during the lockdown. It was crazy! We would have anywhere from five kids to 35 kids. We would do trivia and Bible study because their availability to do things increased. Most of our kids go to Catholic school, which means they are well catechized and know Jesus in their head, but not their hearts. However, I have a handful of kids that are the other way. They are very focused on their education, extracurricular activities, and sports. They badly want to be in the youth group, but they put it behind everything else. That challenge discipleship is flipping on its head; it is helping them see that faith comes first, and everything else falls in line when it does.
“We got to engage with these teens who were so busy before and now were no longer busy. We could say, ‘Get online for an hour a day and read scripture with us.’ It was incredibly positive, and our teens would invite others to join us. We had youth from Pennsylvania that were friends with somebody and youth from parishes all over. In our retreats since lockdown, we’ve brought in teens from other parishes that met us through virtual ministry.
“I’ve heard many people in the Church world, and everywhere, say COVID has made us re-look at things and ask, ‘Is there a better way to do it?’ This also allowed us to rethink how we host an annual conference; rather than using our indoor Diocesan-owned property, we looked for an outdoor venue, so we’re hosting it at a large park downtown. COVID allowed us to take this leap and say, ‘OK, this pavilion holds over one thousand people. Maybe we can get a few hundred people to show up at an event that would historically have 100 or 150.’ We can approach it in a new way, be open to change, and revise things. We can always blame it on COVID, but maybe it will be better this way. And if it’s not, then at least we tried something new.”
“Without a strong adult formation program in the parish, it can be challenging to find people who feel equipped to lead. I find myself gathering leaders from the young adult community, or I’ll invite parents. But parents often say, ‘We don’t feel prepared!’ and ‘Would my young person even want to talk to me about this stuff?’ I assure them that teens would talk to their parents if you would talk to them about it. But I have found parents willing to walk beside me and help me form the groups, which is great and the most effective, I think. I work with them also to find other group leaders.”
“All our groups, except for one, have been led by adults who are not parents. We’ve had parents be very involved in discipleship groups, but usually in a supporting role: hosting groups in their home, organizing snacks, or planning something for their group to do. I want to help parents feel more equipped because many feel insufficient to catechize their own teens. But it is crucial for teens to have witnesses of the faith that are not their parents, too; people they can form relationships with and come to when they have questions about the faith. Or maybe teens see a spark of faith in this other faithful witness that they can’t recognize in their own parents, just because they’re their parents.”
It’s good for parents to see that they’re wanted, needed, and necessary. Youth ministry is not for every parent, but it’s not for every non-parent either. “Before we established that at our parish, the precedence at local parishes was that parents could not volunteer. Now, our approach is that if a parent is involved, we always make it the parent and the teen’s choice, so the teen gets a say too because some teens have excellent relationships with their parents and friends. Maybe your parent’s house is the house where all your friends come over after school. So why not have your parents help with the meeting if they’re already ministering to you in that way?
“We have an eighth-grade boys group led by a group of dads. There’s something really powerful in the sense that these dads want to step up and take ownership and teach these boys.”
Responding To A Call
“One of our volunteers, his daughter left the church, and his son is a seminarian. So, two very different stories. He feels called to this ministry and has led a YDisciple group and multiple trips to World Youth Day. He talks about how much he feels like a father to the young men and women he gets to work with.
“You can tell in the way he looks in the face of all these young women, he sees his daughter, but also he just finds a lot of joy in being able to hold these young people to Jesus. He’s given a few talks on our retreats, but he’s not a person who feels super equipped. He’s not a man of many words, but he’s a person of accompaniment. He is steadfast and so kind in the way he cares for these young people. It’s so beautiful to see him feel the call from the suffering he’s experienced because his daughter left the Church that has drawn him to serve young people, realizing that something is missing here if young people are leaving the Church.”
Discipleship-based ministry is intended to be fruitful in the whole life of a parish – volunteers and youth. Because discipleship is at the root of who we are called to be, both disciples and disciple-makers, evangelized and evangelists. We live in relationship with Jesus Christ so we can make His presence known in every other relationship we carry. As you seek to form your parish communities and transform culture in the places God calls you, be assured that our prayers are with you!