Three Catholic youth-ministry organizations that together serve more than 300,000 Catholic youth and young adults nationwide are joining forces to bring the Gospel to greater numbers of youth and to offer parishes resources to help teens continue their faith development into adulthood.
Already longtime supporters of each other’s work, representatives of National Evangelization Teams (NET) Ministries, Life Teen and Steubenville Conferences agreed recently to begin partnering, in order to leverage each other’s strengths and promote all three ministries. One of their first joint objectives is to present parishes with resources aimed at engaging youth in the faith throughout the year, not just at a once-a-year event.
"We three organizations want to reach more young people, and we’re all taking some real, positive steps to bring the Gospel to an ever greater number of Catholic youth," said Mark Berchem, founder and executive director of West St. Paul, Minn.-based NET Ministries, who brought the ministry leaders together.
NET Ministries sends teams of young adults around the country to offer faith formation, confirmation and other retreats for middle-school and high-school students. According to its website, Mesa, Ariz.-based Life Teen equips 1,646 parishes in 31 countries with resources to train catechists and create an environment to reach, engage and support Catholic teens. This summer, Steubenville Conferences, based in Steubenville, Ohio, and affiliated with Franciscan University, will hold 20 "evangelistic, Eucharistic" youth conferences that include speakers, music and prayer in cities across the country.
The cooperation between ministries comes at a time when as many as half of parishes have no youth-ministry programs and large numbers of Catholic youth stop practicing their faith after high school, according to John Beaulieu, Steubenville Conferences partnership and engagement director.
"Somewhere between high school, through college and into their young-adult years, they become disconnected from the Church, and most of them never come back," he said. "We’re losing so many young adults after high school. We can’t afford not to look at how we can do things better and [in a way that’s] more unified."
Ministry leaders hope finding ways to work together could help in addressing these problems.
"The Church often operates in silos," said Randy Raus, Life Teen president and CEO. "I think one of the things Pope Francis is calling us to do is reach out of ourselves — that ministries aren’t the be all and end all. If we got together with other ministries, we could have greater impact."
The broader benefit to the three ministries working together is what may be accomplished in the Church overall, said Mark Joseph, Steubenville Conferences executive director of Christian outreach. "We all collectively know that the future of the Church is in the hands of our youth and young adults, so whatever we can do in that arena is going to go a long way in serving the Church."
During the rest of this school year, as NET missionaries finish a parish youth retreat, they will offer the parish a follow-up kit with resources and information from Life Teen about starting youth ministries and also information about Steubenville Conferences. Life Teen will continue to host several of the Steubenville conferences. Steubenville Conferences will help recruit Catholic young adults for NET Ministries and Life Teen. The three organizations also may share Web content.
Parish leaders are often looking for ideas on how to keep momentum going after a retreat or conference, Berchem said. The follow-up kit should help parishes who don’t have resources to hire a youth minister or if they do have one, it will help their ministers accomplish more.
"It’s trying to help a parish assemble the resources that they need to put together a program and a pattern that can, in a sense, sustain young people throughout the entirety of the year," Berchem said.
None of the organizations plans to change or realign their content, which is already compatible, Berchem said. "It’s more [about] looking for those opportunities to share with the broader Church," he said, "[and say] ‘Here are some other very good resources that can help you in your work with Catholic young people.’"
Young people benefit from being exposed to different kinds of ministry, Beaulieu said.
"It’s good for kids to experience a big conference," he said. "It’s also good for young people to go on a small parish retreat with a handful of their friends. It’s all about giving them lots of options and giving them lots of ways to encounter Christ."
Another goal of the partnership is to attract more Catholic young adults who are willing to offer a year of service as missionaries to youth. NET seeks to increase the number of retreat teams it sends out in order to reach 30% more youth in coming years, Berchem said. Recruiting by Life Teen and Steubenville Conferences can help NET make more contacts with potential young-adult leaders, he said.
"From NET’s perspective, our hope is that we work more closely with Life Teen and the Steubenville Conferences — that an ever-growing number of Catholic young adults will be exposed to our work and consider serving as a missionary with us."
This year, Steubenville Conferences will offer two conferences for young adults aged 19-29, Joseph said. In addition, another source is Franciscan University of Steubenville, the conference’s parent organization, which has more graduates trained in theology and youth ministry than any other U.S. university, he said.
According to Raus, the partnership shows young people that great things are happening in the Church, and here are three organizations working together. "It gives them hope," he said. "It gives them opportunities to serve in multiple areas. We build up the young Church that way and support youth ministers."
Already sharing a common mission, the three ministries will now work together on it, Beaulieu said. "As we sat around the table, it was obvious that our whole goal here is to get as many young people into a relationship with Christ to help them encounter his love, to help them understand who they are in Christ and all that the Church has to offer them to help them grow in that," he said. "It’s a common mission, but I think when you do it together and show the unity that Christ wanted to see in the Church, you add an element of strength that takes all of our ministries to another level."
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.