PLAINFIELD, N.J. — After 27 years of being under the direction of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Young Adult Ministry, the popular young adult evangelization program Theology on Tap (TOT) has been handed over to the New Jersey-based Renew International.
Father John Cusick, director of young adult ministry with the Archdiocese of Chicago, described the change as one of management. The transition formally took place Jan. 1.
“By the time we handed it off, Theology on Tap was being hosted in 46 states and five countries,” said Father Cusick. “Our office of three people couldn’t keep up with the requests for greater assistance.”
According to Father Cusick, the office was receiving requests on how to administer the program, how to choose speakers, and how to market it. Father Cusick feels that Renew will be able to provide the national assistance that his office was having difficulty providing.
“The wisdom of Renew is that they are in so many dioceses and work with so many bishops that they have the entrée through so many different programs,” said Father Cusick. “We are pretty excited about this.”
The idea for Theology on Tap originally grew out of St. James Church in Arlington Heights, Ill., in 1981. It was the brainchild of Father Jack Wall and college student Tim Leeming. Leeming was struggling to find meaning in his life.
“Father, I know what I’m doing. I just don’t know why I’m doing it,” Leeming told Father Wall, according to the program’s website (RenewTOT.org). “Can our Church help me with the ‘why’ questions?”
Father Wall worked with youth minister Tom James to create a six-week speaker and discussion forum at the parish to address such questions. Based on the program’s success, Father Cusick and lay minister Kate DeVries oversaw TOT through the archdiocese’s young adult ministry office, spreading the program throughout the diocese and beyond.
One of the difficulties in Chicago, according to Dominican Sister Terry Rickard, director of Renew, was making sure that the content remained theologically sound once it was adopted by folks in different parts of the country.
“The young adult ministry in Chicago were very concerned that the content not be watered down and that it is solid theologically,” said Sister Terry. “Our goal is to provide an evangelization tool that is strong catechetically.”
The program, said Father Cusick, models the U.S. bishops’ document on catechesis.
“If a parish stays with Theology on Tap for three years, they will have a talk on each of the major themes presented by the bishops,” he said.
Newark Archbishop John Myers is chairman of Renew International’s trustees, and all of the materials have an imprimatur.
“The work of Renew is special and integral not only to this local Church of Newark, where it began, but to the entire Church,” said Archbishop Myers at a gala for Renew in 2004. “Small group study and discovery make faith both a personal and a community experience just like in the early days of the Church. It is something we definitely need more of in this Church and in our time.”
Archbishop Myers has spoken to several Theology on Tap gatherings, both in the Archdiocese of Newark, as well as in cities such as Baltimore.
“He likes being a part of catechesis informally and engaging people,” said Jim Goodness, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Newark. “He is very interested in making sure the program succeeds and has the right impact.”
Four years ago, Father Cusick approached Msgr. Tom Kleissler, founder of Renew, about the possibility of a partnership. Renew, also 27 years old, is best known for its parish-based adult faith formation program and their three-year-old Scripture and Catechism-based “Why Catholic?” program, which is being utilized by approximately 30 dioceses nationwide.
Renew now plans to expand Theology on Tap.
“We’re in the role of trying to promulgate what has been a very successful endeavor in the Archdiocese of Chicago and spread it to other parishes and dioceses in a consistent way,” said Deirdre Malacrea, director of communications for Renew. While Renew expects that the program will run very much as it always has, they do expect some changes.
Among the changes will be offering training for parishes and dioceses who want to implement the program. In the past, said Sister Terry, local groups started TOT with little or no involvement by their local parishes. She said that local groups would sometimes order Theology on Tap’s manual and start local efforts with no training or coordination.
That led to a lack of consistency in how the program was offered in each venue and the quality of the speakers. In Chicago, for example, the program is parish-based, offering 160 evenings of catechesis simultaneously in 40 parishes. Elsewhere, the events are often held for six weeks in restaurants or bars.
Renew hopes to bring some consistency to how the program is implemented.
Under Renew, Theology on Tap plans to help train local leadership teams that could include young adults, pastoral staff and diocesan representatives. It is already doing so in the Dioceses of Charlotte, N.C., Metuchen, N.J., Newark, N.J., and San Jose, Calif.
Eventually, Renew would also like to develop a database of potential speakers.
Megan Real, a volunteer coordinator of an alternative program — Theology and a Pub in the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio — said that one of the concerns that motivated members in Columbus to start their own group was TOT’s adherence to age limits.
“They have an age minimum and a maximum of 40,” said Real. “We didn’t want to deny anyone of any age.”
As a result, Real coordinates a year-round program that meets monthly in the upstairs private bar at The Columbus Maennerchor.
Father Cusick said that the program’s age demographic is key. In order to try to protect the organization’s name, the title was copyrighted and the logo was trademarked.
“We want to make sure that the program is used, with our permission, only to reach young adults in their 20s and 30s,” said Father Cusick. “Otherwise people start using the name for anything, and that’s just not fair.”
Father Cusick admitted that in one case where the organizers couldn’t guarantee that the program was serving young adults, Theology on Tap had to retract its permission.
Those at Renew say that the program works best when it’s part of a more comprehensive young adult ministry.
“We know the events work, but what we’re really working on is connecting people to the parish and the Eucharist,” said Sister Terry. “Young people aren’t going to go to Church just because their parents did. They have to be awakened to the faith before it is deepened through good, strong catechetics.”
The challenges are many. Joe Arner, Theology on Tap’s national coordinator, has been traveling to speak to his local counterparts across the country.
“It’s very difficult to find young adult leaders,” said Arner. “There’s a lot of talent out there, but it’s difficult to find people willing to give their time and talent to the Church.”
In Chicago, where Theology on Tap was born, things will stay the same.
“Part of our contract [with Renew] is that we continue,” said Father Cusick. “The program will continue in Chicago just as it always has.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.