If you’re supposed to make lemonade when life hands you lemons, what should you do when it gives you 2020?
Innovate. At least that’s what many leaders in young-adult ministry did when faced with one of the more unusual and challenging years in recent memory.
With staples of the field like Theology on Tap events and small-group discipleship unavailable to meet in person due to COVID-19-related social-distancing measures, leaders in the field got creative, not merely resigning themselves to the difficult circumstances, but embracing them as an opportunity to depend upon God and come up with fresh ways of being faithful to their missions.
“2020 has actually been quite interesting to watch, as those serving in the young-adult ministry field have been experimenting and trying things previously thought unimaginable,” said Paul Jarzembowski, who directs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ young adult and youth efforts.
At id, a Michigan-based ministry that focuses on forming young adults into intentional Christian disciples, Pete Burak said the initial sadness of the coronavirus pandemic shutting down in-person ministry gave way to a sense of hope and excitement, as he and his staff recognized that the Lord was drawing them into a “desert” moment.
“Any time the Lord invites you into that, it’s a great opportunity to be still and know that he is God, and to listen and listen and listen,” said Burak, who directs id.
Burak and the id staff emerged from their impromptu COVID-induced retreat reenergized and full of inspiration. Some of their highlights from the year included a campaign to reach out to and reconnect with contacts who had been overlooked during the busyness of typical ministry, as well as two successful cohorts of id’s “Spirit-Filled Leaders Course,” which were repackaged from a 12-week program to a six-week intensive online course.
2020 was also a year to learn new lessons. Burak says, for instance, the importance of collaboration among different ministries and groups became clear to him during the pandemic. It played an important role in pulling off two national Theology on Tap digital events, which reached more than 20,000 people after what began as a simple collaboration between id and the Diocese of Lansing was promoted by groups like Formed, the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, and the Augustine Institute. He also notes that the coronavirus pandemic “stripped away” forms of perfectionism that might have normally held him back from taking risks and trying something fresh — like launching “The Hour,” id’s weekly podcast that already includes 20 episodes.
Another realization was a clearer understanding of the role that digital content and connections can play in ministry. While Burak places a heavy emphasis on communal mission and argues that in-person relationships are irreplaceable for growing in discipleship, he also says that digital connections can both supplement in-person offerings while serving as a “wonderful alternative when those things aren’t available.” In fact, given id’s international
reach, they’ve utilized livestreaming and digital avenues before and intend to going forward. For instance, id is planning to hold a World International Disciples Summit in 2021, which would feature streamed content on intentional discipleship over 24 hours straight, so that a community in every time zone in the world will have a chance to present.
“We’re not in the camp of saying all digital is evil, and we’re certainly not in the camp saying that digital is the solution,” said Burak. “We’re just trying to, you know, make lemonade over and over again with whatever lemons we have here.”
Lauren DeSmit knows all about making the “digital pivot” during COVID. As the program coordinator for the Bon Secours sisters’ young-adult ministry efforts, she had to help take a weekend retreat — normally offered at a retreat center in Virginia or Maryland — and move it online.
But for DeSmit, the change to a “digital venue” represented a unique opportunity to make the retreat accessible to more than just those on the East Coast.
“I was of the viewpoint of, ‘Oh, we get to be creative, like we get to now offer a virtual retreat that anyone could come to,’” said DeSmit. “It’s much better accessibility-wise, because young adults are so transient to begin with.”
But just because the retreat, which took place in September, moved online didn’t mean that it consisted of simply staring at a computer screen all day; aware of “Zoom fatigue,” DeSmit made sure to limit required screen time to only some essential activities, for no more than five hours over the weekend.
The move to digital also didn’t mean that the retreat needed to go without some of its typical hallmarks of community and hospitality. Though she couldn’t be present to leave mints on attendees’ pillows, DeSmit did the next best thing: She sent out individualized care packages to each of the 22 attendees. The care packages included homemade cookies (accounting for any potential allergies), a small wooden cross upon which participants were asked to write a word they were “taking with them” as part of an Ignatian guided mediation, a binder containing all of the readings, articles and song sheets used on the retreat, and — for retreat participants with children — a book for kids to make sure they felt included.
The retreat also offered ways to approximate the type of community that would normally be had in person. Though miles apart, participants could go on morning runs “together” using an app called Strava. A customized retreat playlist was shared with everyone via Spotify. There was also a mixology course on Saturday night (with the required ingredients, of course, included in the distributed care package), as well as additional opportunities for screen time for those who wanted to connect with their fellow retreatants.
DeSmit is looking forward to the next virtual retreat, slated for January, and intends to promote the event more widely.
“If anything, COVID has made us look at our retreat and make it even better,” she said.
Something similar has happened for the makers and operators of Hallow, a digital app that leads users through contemplative prayer experiences. Hallow was, of course, already digital before COVID hit, but the pandemic forced the Hallow team to respond to the new needs and experiences of their subscribers. The biggest innovation of all was the development of “communities of prayer” within the app, allowing users to schedule prayer time and share intentions with friends and family during the darkest days of COVID isolation. Hallow staff has seen it used by everyone from family members separated geographically to parish communities and Catholic school groups.
“We believe in a universal Church where we join in communion with one another through the sacraments and in the Mass,” said Alessandro DiSanto, a co-founder of Hallow and its head of growth and finance. “So when our traditional ways of experiencing solidarity together were disrupted, we found it to be a particular need for people to connect with one another and share their faith together.”
Hallow has made a number of other improvements, such as recently adding contemplative music to the app and including community challenges, like a 54-day novena and an Advent “Pray 25” challenge. DiSanto reports that there are about seven times more people using the app now as there were at the beginning of 2020, though as much of that may have to do with people seeking out the prayer in a difficult year as it does with any changes to the app.
“I think in a very focused and potentially uncomfortable way, we’ve been left a lot of time alone with quiet,” he said. “And I think using that time productively and finding God in the quiet, as we see so often in Scripture, is something people have flocked towards.”
Innovation in the Parish
Given the nature of a pandemic, it’s unsurprising that 2020 has seen breakthroughs in the digital realm. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, for instance, a one-off Zoom chat with Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens and archdiocesan young adults, named “Quarantine with Cozzens,” has morphed into a regular livestream called “The Upper Room.” The lay-led website MSP Catholic, which serves as a digital hub for Twin Cities’ Catholic young-adult events and groups, also used the pandemic as an opportunity to rebrand and revitalize its efforts.
Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which serves on college campuses, also took most of its efforts digitally, training its missionaries in best practices for digital outreach early in the spring. They’re also planning a bold and innovative “SEEK21” conference, which will allow participants to gather in-person as small groups at 171 campuses and nine parishes across the U.S. and Europe, while participating in training sessions and hearing from leading Catholic speakers mostly via digital connection.
But of course, just because the unique circumstances of 2020 have made it ripe for innovative young-adult ministry in the digital world doesn’t mean that there weren’t also creative steps being taken in the old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar parish setting.
St. Angela Merici’s in Youngstown, Ohio, is a great example. The parish certainly utilized digital platforms like Zoom when social-distancing measures were first enforced this past March, holding young-adult focused sessions on Sunday mornings called “Coffee and the Gospel.” Young-adult minister Diana Hancharenko says she also made a point of checking in with her young adults one-on-one to make sure everything was okay, especially singles who might have felt isolation more acutely.
But in addition to reaching out to young adults to see what they needed, Hancharenko says it was just as important to remind them how much their parish needed them.
Young adults have played a major role in serving homebound parishioners, doing everything from getting groceries to running errands to picking up prescriptions. The parish’s livestreaming efforts have also been led by a young-adult parishioner, a filmmaker whom Hancharenko says sees his contribution as a ministry. And this coming January, with the parish’s annual wine dinner fundraiser unable to be held in person, a young adult with culinary chops will be ensuring that parishioners take their meals home with instructions for wine pairings and food prep, while another with event-planning experience coordinates the effort.
St. Angela Merici’s young adults have played a big role during the pandemic, but Hancharenko says they’re simply building on an already well-established culture of young-adult integration in the parish. The parish is intentional about identifying the gifts and abilities of their young adults and giving them space to lead. Young adults play important roles in music ministry and serve on the pastoral and finance councils.
“Our young adults’ dedication has never been questioned before, but it is just their ability to step up during this time that has been nothing short of miraculous and amazing,” Hancharenko said.
Responding to Challenges
2020 was, in many ways, a difficult and uncomfortable year. One of the opportunities the year has presented is the chance to take seriously, acknowledge and address some of what has come up to the surface.
For instance, the death of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest and conversations on racial justice have prompted some to explore how the topic can be better incorporated into young-adult ministry efforts going forward. The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry launched a Rapid Response Team on Racism to work with young people and ministry leaders to address racism, both in the Church and in broader society.
Mental wellness is another topic that surfaced prominently this year, with some saying that it needs to be a more regular component of young-adult ministry beyond 2020.
“Every person that I talk to in my circle, I feel like everybody is experiencing some sort of coming to terms with their own mental status and mental well-being,” said Terra Starr Young, coordinator of the ReCil Young Adult Ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago, noting that the isolation and stress of 2020 brought whatever issues someone might have had to the surface.
ReCil made it a priority to hold “Open Zoom Rooms” for young adults in Chicagoland, where they could log on simply to share what they’re going through to a community of listening supporters. Young also emphasized the importance of mental-health habits like practicing self-care and seeking professional help when needed.
“People ask: Where was the good in this year?” said Young. “I think finding that attentiveness to our mental well-being is definitely a God moment in this pandemic.”
These “God moments” and many others were highlighted last week at a national forum put on by the National Advisory Team for Young Adult Ministry, an ad hoc group that advises the USCCB. The weeklong event was entitled, Arise: Ministry With Young Adults in a Time of Innovation, and included presentations and workshops from leaders in the field.
Jarzembowski, with the USCCB, says that 2020 has revealed that young-adult ministry is most effective when it focuses on the individual person, prioritizing real relationships over big events and programs. He sees the Church at a threshold, with only two options: stagnation and the status quo, or leaning forward by taking bold risks and investing in young-adult ministry.
Jarzembowski acknowledges that the Church faces many challenges at the moment, but sees engaging young people in the response as a move that could pay dividends.
“Investing in creative young-adult engagement can lift up young leaders, who would be wonderful, coresponsible partners to have around the table, and with them, respond with vigor and boldness to the issues that assail us. Christ calls us to be bold with the Gospel, so we cannot do less with our young adults.”