Relational ministry seen as key to passing on faith to Generation Z

| Jonathan Liedl | October 3, 2019 | 0 Comments
Gizzy Miko, a youth minister at St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes, talks with people

Gizzy Miko, director of youth ministry at St. Joseph of the Lakes in Lino Lakes, talks with people who came to the youth faith formation kickoff event at the parish Oct. 2. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

When Gizzy Miko began her work in youth ministry at St. Joseph of the Lakes three years ago, she faced a challenging situation. A number of her students at the Lino Lakes parish were struggling with questions of sexuality and identity, and had developed a negative view of the Catholic Church because of what they thought it taught.

Her response?

“I would go and join them for lunch,” said Miko. “I built relationships with them and showed them that I really cared about them.”

As she became more familiar with the students over time, Miko said, attitudes of distrust gave way to openness. Openness to her, but also to the Church, its teachings and a life of faith.

Relational ministry

The experience is one of many that points to what Miko and others working in youth ministry across the archdiocese say must be the strategic focus for reaching teenagers today: an emphasis on relationship-building and a culture of belonging.

“Everyone has a need to belong, to be heard, to be transparent and challenged,” said Andrew Wagenbach, an 11-year veteran of youth ministry, currently at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony. “If they don’t find that (in the Church), they’ll look for it somewhere else.”

Increasingly they have. Statistics show that the Church’s youth efforts face challenging times. A 2018 study by St. Mary’s Press in Winona revealed a median age of 13 for those who are baptized Catholic but no longer identify with the faith. A study by Dynamic Catholic shows that only 15% of young people who get confirmed are still practicing their faith seven years later.

Societal factors have clearly played a role in pulling young people away from faith communities, such as a rise in secularism, more demanding schedules among high schoolers, and the superficial yet addicting world of social media.

If record levels of anxiety and depression among today’s young people are any indication, these alternatives aren’t addressing the deepest needs of Generation Z. But according to youth ministry leaders, neither has the Church’s approach in recent decades, which could be too focused on creating fun experiences and drawing big numbers, or on catechetical instruction, while failing to establish a foundation of belonging.

“It’s been said we do ministry backward,” said Annie Grandell, who works for the West St. Paul-based youth ministry organization NET Ministries. “First you behave, then you believe, then you belong. We’re putting ‘behave’ and ‘believe’ ahead of the horse.”

Several archdiocesan leaders in youth ministry are calling for a renewed approach that can broadly be described as relational ministry. It doesn’t deny the importance of catechesis and moral instruction, but emphasizes these should come after a relational foundation has been established. Relational ministry isn’t a one-size-fits-all-model, but rather a way of doing youth ministry that can take on a number of forms. Its proponents say it is rooted in the heart of the Christian tradition, and modeled after the approach of Jesus himself.

“Some of these things may sound like buzzwords,” said Bill Dill, the archdiocese’s marriage preparation and youth ministry coordinator. “But ‘discipleship,’ ‘relational’? These are scriptural, not the latest fad. Sometimes we have to go backward (to our origins) to go forward, to figure out what really works.”

Small group settings

One form of relational ministry that’s been growing in parish settings is called small group discipleship. Instead of the parish organizing classes across grade levels, students are empowered to create a smaller, more focused group. Small groups aren’t necessarily a replacement for larger group events, such as mission trips or attendance at archdiocesan youth days, but they allow students to be more open and known among a group of close peers and an adult leader they trust and respect.

Grandell said small groups also are appealing to parishes for practical reasons: they don’t have to meet at the same time and place each week, and they are less dependent on parish staff and resources. But there are qualitative benefits to the approach, as well, she said.

“With small groups, we engage more teens and more effectively,” said Grandell, noting that small groups help provide a “context for community” and for growing in the faith.

The approach is most effective when a parish takes a “mustard seed to movement” approach, Grandell said. That is, small groups can have a multiplier effect.

Grandell tells a story from North Carolina, where a mom started a small group for her kids when her parish was unable to employ a director of youth ministry.

Other parents heard about it and wanted it for their own kids. Soon, 80 students at the parish were participating in small groups.

Small groups should be led by a faithful adult, Grandell said, but that person needn’t be a hip college student or have a graduate degree in theology to be effective. All that’s needed is a real, lived relationship with God, and for leaders to be themselves, she said.

Billy Utecht, a high school senior who belongs to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, shared a similar perspective.

“Authenticity is proof,” said Utecht, who has remained active in his parish since being confirmed two years ago. “Seeing people who are on fire for their faith, just living it out and living their lives is way more powerful than just being told what to do.”

Family focus

Utecht has benefited from youth ministry offerings at his parish, and he has attended NET’s popular Lifeline event. But if there’s one factor he gives the most credit to for his vibrant Catholic faith, even as a popular athlete at a large public high school, it’s his family. He says the faith has always been something talked about and emphasized in his home, so there was never any question about its importance.

The connection isn’t lost on Dill, who believes family support isn’t merely an added bonus, but an essential component of the relational approach to youth ministry.

“I have parish youth ministry directors who say, ‘Look, I can’t do much in two hours if parents aren’t supportive the rest of the week,’” he said. “So we have to figure out a way to work with families and their parents,” adding that parents need to be equipped and inspired to share their faith with their kids and to create a Catholic culture at home.

Dill said there’s exciting “experimentation” going on in this vein across the archdiocese, as a number of parishes move toward a “family faith formation” approach that integrates ministry across age groups.

Wagenbach began something similar during his time as director of youth ministry at St. Peter in North St. Paul. Called the Holy Family Guild, members meet twice monthly for food, fellowship and prayer. The Guild, which began with eight members but now numbers into the 30s, also hosts family events throughout the year, including retreats, moms groups and faith studies.

“The whole idea is that discipleship is a consistent, intentional reality,” he said. “(Parents) can’t just drop (their) kids off and expect us to make them disciples, because they’re the primary educators.”

Dill said it’s also important to get young people plugged into their wider family of faith.

“If youth group is their only connection to the parish, that’s just one link,” he said, suggesting that young people should be encouraged to be involved in different ways, such as pro-life ministry, service, lectoring and the Knights of Columbus.

Looking ahead

The concept of “youth ministry” itself is something of a new field, one that needs to be constantly reevaluated and improved, Dill said. To help guide the archdiocese going forward, he’s collaborating with directors of youth ministry and pastors to develop a mission document, which should be publicized sometime in the coming year. The process will help clarify locally what youth ministry is and how it can be done effectively, he said.?“Every parish is going to do it differently,” he said. “But we have to have the same goal.”

Grandell agrees, and says it is time for an intentional renewal of youth ministry.

“Stats show that we’re losing people at a faster rate than we were before. It’s time for us to stop and look and say, ‘What can we do differently?’ We need to be prudential in how we go about making those changes, but also bold.”

YDisciple: Equipping adults to share their faith with teens

Annie Grandell hears a common refrain when she talks to faithful adults about serving as small group leaders for teenagers.

“They say, ‘I love the Lord, I love young people, but I am terrified to teach.’”

Grandell and others at NET Ministries hope they can help address that concern. NET recently took the reins of YDisciple, an online platform that offers video resources and other content to help facilitate small groups.

Initially established by the Denver-based Augustine Institute, YDisciple was acquired by NET when both parties recognized the platform could make a bigger impact under the control of the experienced youth ministry organization.

NET relaunched YDisciple earlier this fall. It is accessible at, and through a popular parish platform titled FORMED.

YDisciple will continue to provide video resources and discussion questions designed to foster conversation in small groups. But under NET’s leadership, resources have been added to help train and equip adults to be small group leaders. The resources address everything from how to resolve a disagreement in the group to ideas for encouraging a student who isn’t speaking up.

“A video can’t build relationship,” said Grandell, NET’s YDisciple coordinator. “A video can’t meet the needs of a teenager. You can. So you focus on that young person, and we’re going to give you some videos and engaging discussion questions to help take that burden of ‘What are we going to talk about?’ off of your shoulders.”

In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the resource is being used by parishes like St. Michael in St. Michael and St. Albert in Albertville. The parishes have used YDisciple to train and support small group leaders, and now have nearly 400 teenagers actively engaged in discipleship groups from eighth to 12th grade.

Mark Berchem, the president and founder of NET, believes YDisciple can help make small groups effective by allowing leaders not merely to present information to teens, but to help them seriously engage with the claims of the Catholic faith.

“Transformation comes from wrestling with the content. You want them to wrestle with it. The goal isn’t for them to parrot it back. The goal is to own it! To believe it for themselves.”

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