When I came into the Catholic Church in 2011, I was asked to help with a special sacraments class for youth who were catching up on their sacraments for First Communion and/or Confirmation. It was my first taste of leading religious education or youth ministry of any kind and I loved every minute of it. It was during the course of that class that I felt called by God to share my faith with others through catechesis, evangelization, and youth ministry.
As the class concluded, several of the students asked if I could come with them to Jr. High Youth Group, because that is where they would be the following year. The next day, the Director of Religious Education at Our Lady Of Perpetual Help Catholic Church approached me and asked if I was could help with Jr. High Youth Group. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways! The DRE invited me to lead the group, explaining that they did not really have a curriculum, but I could use whichever curriculum I found that would work best for developing a new program. At first I thought I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew, but I quickly grew more comfortable and realized that this was indeed my calling.
For the past five years I developed customized content combining material from several different publishers including Pflaum Publishing Group, RCL Benzinger, William H. Sadlier, Inc, Ignatius Press, Loyola Press, and most recently Our Sunday Visitor, all of which are included on the Conformity List from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops for use in religious education and youth ministry. I modeled our classes after the EDGE model, which is the middle school program from LifeTeen, where each session is divided into Gather, Proclaim, Break, and Send. We started with an activity to gather the students in to here the message, then we proclaimed the message to be instructed. Students were then able to break down the message through small-group discussions or large-group dialogs, and then they were given a way to take that message with them to use in their personal lives.
I spent countless hours planning sessions, developing activities, and most of all, learning about the individuals I would be responsible for leading during our sessions. I learned all of their names and I took time to learn something about them so when they walked into the room I could greet them by their given name as a sign of respect and converse with them about something going on in their lives. If we are to model ourselves after Christ, who calls his sheep by name, it is important to know the names of each individual that we interact with, so we can show them the respect that they are due.
While working toward my Bachelors Degree in Psychology I wrote a continuing series of articles on the importance of upholding the dignity of every individual as well as the necessity to be respectful to those you are leading in ministry. As I progressed toward my Masters in Education with a specialization in Family and Community Service, I focused on developing customized curriculum that provided several teaching strategies for students with differentiated learning styles from various family backgrounds, while maintaining regard for every individual by respecting their individual God-given human dignity. This proved effective in youth ministry where I could differentiate each lesson for the students as they participated in one combined session and they learned how they could take the fruits of each lesson home to their family.
Over the years, as I completed my education, I realized I was teaching in what was once an unconventional and unusual way, by flipping the classroom and making the classroom experience relational, experiential, and conversational in nature while differentiating learning styles for students with particular needs. Although it was unconventional at one time, this is now a common practice in many classrooms, in fact it is one of the best practices in many of today’s schools and religious institutions. I was not perfect, but I continued to grow in faith, knowledge, and experience, making sure to pass the best parts of this growth on to the students I was teaching. Then the bottom fell out.
On February 8th, just hours before a Jr. High Youth Ministry session, I was informed that significant changes were being implemented. The Jr. High Youth Group was going to be split up, randomly, into two groups, and the individual leading the second group would be teaching from a different lesson plan that I had developed for the entire group. I was not contacted about these changes. I was not asked to offer input about these changes. I was told that I could have no input on choosing which students would be in which group. I was also told, in a rather firm tone, that “this is the way it is going to be” and my opinion, knowledge, and experience, did not matter, to which I told them good luck and resigned myself to the fact that the Jr. High Youth Group was no longer my ministry. I could not participate in any action that would be detrimental to the children I was ministering too, and I would not be complicit in altering their progress in faith formation.
To state that I am devastated is an understatement. When someone builds a ministry over the course of nearly 6 years, develops customized content for that ministry, and devotes countless hours and monetary resources toward the success of that ministry, they should be consulted when decisions are made that will significantly change that ministry. At the very least, I deserved the respect of knowing that changes were being discussed in the first place. With that said, I soon found out it was implied to others that I was on-board with these decisions, when that is the furthest thing from the truth. This was my ministry. This was my calling. Here we are just over three weeks later, and it hurts just as much as the moment it all happened.
Today, I am hurt because I was not included in the discussions about changing the ministry I developed for the past several years. I am disappointed because I was not informed of the changes being made prior to the notification of others that I was already onboard with those changes, and I disagree wholeheartedly with the changes that were implemented because they are a grave disservice to the children of our parish. Most of all, however, I am saddened for the children of our parish who have been relegated back to a “textbook instruction” classroom and will not experience the fruits of a genuine youth ministry program that they so richly deserve. You cannot learn faith from a book, you have to learn it from experience. Faith cannot be taught, it must be felt, desired, and lived. Youth learn through observation, experience, and actions.
We are all called to model ourselves after Christ and we cannot do that if we do not acknowledge the human dignity of each individual or we do not offer respect to those we serve with (and for) in ministry. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21). As I look back on everything that happened on February 8th, I can only pray that I planted a seed within all of my Jr. high students that will continue to help them grow closer to Christ and love for our Lord.
I may not have been able to change what happened, and I may no longer play a role in the Jr. High Youth Ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but I do know that I deserved more respect than I was given, and more importantly, the students I was leading, as well as their parents, deserved more respect than they were given. Who knows what the future holds, but I do know one thing… The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways!