By Claudia Mathis
Leading youth ministry is far from easy. Caring for students, building teams and resources for the needs of young people and their families requires strong leadership.
The arrival of Bob Walters to the Syracuse Diocese in October 2005 signified a very positive development in the diocese’s youth ministry program. Walters began serving as Director of Youth Ministry in October 2005.
Walters said that when he arrived, his intent was to establish a youth ministry in each parish of the diocese. “A vast majority — 70 percent of the parishes — didn’t have a youth ministry,” said Walters. “And many of the remaining 30 percent counted their parish’s religious education program as their youth ministry.”
Walters brought a wealth of experience from working in youth ministry and from serving as a director of religious education to his new position at the diocese.
After graduating from Franciscan University Steubenville, Walters held the combined position of youth minister and director of religious education at St. Mary’s Church in Farmington, N.M. from 1996 through 1999.
Soon after, Walters was called to work in Auburn, N.Y. His job was to build a Catholic Boy’s Club program, writing the curriculum and then piloting it in the Central New York area. The program focused on developing the qualities of virtue, character and leadership in boys.
Prior to taking on the position of director of Youth Ministry in Syracuse, Walters served as vice principal and teacher at Tyburn Academy High School in Auburn.
Walters noted that youth ministry is a process of evangelization. “Youth ministry leads them to Christ, and once they are there, forms them in their faith so that they can give it away,” he said. “When they are giving it away, they are living their faith.”
Walters explained the classic evangelization structure of youth ministry in parishes. Families “win” the hearts of their children to a personal relationship with Christ. Parishes and families then “build” this up by both formal and informal catechesis. They are then sent out as “servants for Christ” for missionary evangelization and to minister to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
The problem with this structure, Walters said, is that families often fail in the first stage, “winning,” to instill a lived faith in their children. Consequently, parishes and families cannot “build” since the hearts of the youth have not been “won.” At Confirmation, the youth are not sent out as “servants for Christ.”
When Walters started as director of youth ministry in Syracuse, he visited as many parishes as he could to listen to their concerns. He wanted to establish youth ministry in each parish. He also talked to successful youth ministers across the nation. He knew that the diocese couldn’t afford to hire full-time youth ministers for each of its parishes. “I asked them if they thought a good youth ministry could be implemented using only volunteers in the parish and they told me ‘no,’” said Walters. “I didn’t accept that response. I realized that we recruit parents as youth ministers.”
Walters has developed a new youth ministry development process that embodies the pope’s vision of new evangelism. “My focus is on the new evangelism,” said Walters. “We need it today — many don’t have a relationship with Christ.”
Under his new program, he said, relational ministry, person-to-person sharing of faith, accomplishes the “winning” and a youth group serves as a familial environment to “build.” The youth are taught to pray and live the faith within the youth group. Religious education remains as the effective time and place for systematic catechesis.
In the first phase of Walters’ program, he meets with the parish’s pastor and a few key leaders to explain the process. An overview of the youth ministry programming and the definition of a youth group are presented.
The goal is to offer youth group meetings weekly, youth Masses monthly, socials and retreats quarterly, as well as service projects and fundraisers annually.
The 6-Week Start-Up Plan and Training of Volunteers is also presented at this meeting. The plan consists of four to six weeks of promotion and recruitment of adults, which culminates in a youth ministry information dinner meeting. At this meeting, an overview of youth ministry is presented as well as the parish’s plan for youth ministry programming. Forms are distributed for individuals to sign up for the ministry. At the conclusion of the meeting, the forms are reviewed and the youth ministry team is selected. A coordinator of youth ministry is designated as well as a volunteer youth minister or ministers. Over the next six weeks the volunteers are trained in workshops where they learn about relational ministry and youth group basics. After that, they participate in four practice youth group sessions, which provide hands-on youth ministry training and time to plan the ministry year.
Walters said one goal is to form an initial parish middle school youth group that meets weekly and participates in a few large-group events during the year. The events are organized through Walters’ office.
The March for Life Pilgrimage on Jan. 22-24 of this year was one of the events that the youth participated in. Walters said that he hired four buses — double the amount from last year — to transport the youth to Washington, D.C. “It was a powerful experience,” said Walters. “For me to see this indicates the strength of our youth ministry and that the kids are proclaiming their faith. It was rewarding to see the new youth ministers and the new youth groups come to the event, and also that Bishop Cunningham attended”
Other events planned for the year include the Race for the Cross Youth Rally in Syracuse, Public Policy Day in Albany, Franciscan University youth conferences in Steubenville, Ohio, World Youth Day Pilgrimage to Madrid, Spain and the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis, Ind.
Walters was pleased to report that Bishop Robert Cunningham had added two new events to the roster this year. On April 22, the bishop will celebrate the Stations of the Cross with the youth at Christ the King Retreat Center in Syracuse in addition to a Corpus Christi celebration, Mass and procession on June 26 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse.
Walters has expanded the youth ministry programming to include young adults. Theology on Tap provides an opportunity for the young adults to learn more about their faith and discuss how it affects their lives in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. In addition, they have an opportunity to attend the Thank God it’s First Friday Mass held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse every month.
Walters is excited that several parishes are using his new program. St. Malachy’s in Sherburne is the most recent parish to employ the method.
Sarah Weinell is the youth minister at St. Malachy’s. She said that she and her volunteers completed the training in August. Weinell was most impressed by the way it was organized.
Weinell has seen the impact of the youth’s involvement in group activities. “I’ve seen them implement the Catholic issues that they’ve discussed at our meetings into the social setting at school,” said Weinell. “They’re not afraid to discuss them.”
“I also watched a girl in my group grow tremendously when she attended the March for Life in January,” she added.
Walters presented his new development process to the Presbyterial Council last November and received a favorable response. Walters said that three parishes had called him last week to inquire about the program. “I hope that all parishes will use it,” he said. “It’s the culmination of a five-year trial-and-error process. It’s a process that works.”