In the Fall of 2011 one of the greatest guys I know, Nic Frank, announced he was leaving his job in one of the largest and most successful youth ministry programs in the country and moving to the smallest of towns on the Bayou in Louisiana to start one from the ground up. Nic is one of the holiest and most heroic men I know, and I’m honored to have him guest post here on the Convo. Here is some of how he has changed his approach to youth ministry since starting over.
Every Monday night my house turns from a quiet, semi-clean, one bedroom home, into an absolute zoo! 20 to 30 teens bust through our backdoor, eating our food, going through our DVD collection, laughing as they see old pictures of me in our family photo album. As crazy as my Monday nights are, I believe it is the only way some of the people I serve will ever hear the Gospel…
What exactly is the line for a safe and healthy boundary in ministry?
Working in youth ministry, this is a question that has been haunting me lately. Not only have I been wrestling with that question but I’m mortified I’ve never asked this question before!
One of the first things I ever learned about ministry is to establish boundaries. My college professors would tell me, “you are not called to be a friend to a teenager – you are their youth minister,” and “don’t feel like you have to share your life, especially the bad stuff from your past, with those you minister to…”
Unless you work closely with teens you’re probably unaware of all the rules and guidelines that Catholic dioceses, organizations, and parishes have set in place to protect both the teens and the adults working with minors. Some of the basic rules that are common across America are a mandatory background check, never being one on one with a teen, and yearly training and renewal of the safe environment guidelines used by your diocese. And these rules are good, especially in light of the scandals within the Church over the past decades. These rules are meant to keep everyone above reproach and ensure the healthy boundaries of a teen/mentor relationship.
Now, I’m sure there are some of you reading this who also work with young Christians who might be offended that I even question what is safe. But before you go judging me, let me clarify I am not arguing against the guidelines I listed before. Those are great and needed! But there are other guidelines that we are asked to follow because someone in the diocese office has told us we need them because these new guidelines make things even more safe. For example, some of the newer guidelines starting to pop up in different areas of the country limit – or forbid – the ability to use social media to reach teens and also limit where “ministry” can take place (not in homes, or private residences)… and I am merely wondering why haven’t we questioned the safety of some of these new guidelines more?
With more and more guidelines for boundaries and safety being given every year, it can really limit a youth workers creativity and model of ministry. And, let’s be honest, it is usually easy for the youth minister to do what’s safe because the boundaries have almost become so tight a youth minister really isn’t forced to come out of their comfort zone too much. And that’s comfortable. At least I know it is for me.
But I think there are a lot of youth ministers/pastors out there who have fallen asleep behind the wheel of their ministry… We can convince ourselves that if we offer the safe Sunday night event and a midweek bible study then we’re doing effective youth ministry… and I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but in my opinion, we’re not necessarily doing effective youth ministry by simply running our weekly programs.
Our programs might be effective – those programs might open up the scriptures to your students, they might inform their hearts and minds, they might even teach the student how to continue to foster their relationship with Jesus outside of the youth ministry programming. But just because there are certain events offered for teens doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being ministered to. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are being introduced to the person of Christ. All it means is that stuff might be happening.
I’m not saying there isn’t value in Sunday youth nights and bible studies (I run these events in both parishes I work for). But when we simplify our ministry to programs I have to wonder on not only what we (as ministers) are missing, but what are the teens, or the ones we’re ministering to, missing out on?
How come when I read the Gospels I don’t see Jesus or the Apostles establishing programs? Why didn’t Jesus do a weekly “Torah Study” in the Temple? Why didn’t Peter lead a messy game for all the people on Pentecost (Acts 2)? Why is our youth ministry in our parish so program based and not more like the ministry of the Apostles as they went out and made disciples of all nations?
The answer: Because it’s safe. The gathering in the church hall, the bible studies, this is how ministry has worked for the last 20+ years.
How many souls does the Bible highlight that Jesus won in the synagogue or Temple? I’m sure there were a bunch- I mean it was Jesus after all- but most of the time it seemed like whenever Jesus was bringing his ministry into the Temple or local synagogue, controversy followed, people murmuring, debates, the occasional table being flipped. Please understand, I’m not dissing the Liturgy or the sacraments. The Mass and sacraments should be a cornerstone within our youth ministry programs. But when I read scripture the thing I’m always struck with is the amazing ministry Jesus did in people’s homes: Levi (aka Matthew), Zacchaeus, the Healing the Paralytic, Mary and Martha; the list goes on and on… so why isn’t more youth ministry done in homes?
Because it’s not safe.
In homes there are usually more rooms for kids to sneak off to. In homes the living room might be too small to hold all the students. You have to worry about having enough trained/cleared adults (“in home” ministry might not even be allowed by your diocese or parish guidelines). Not to mention the fact you’d have to find someone crazy enough who would want to host an event like this… and that person is usually not the youth minister because they have boundaries. I know a lot of youth ministers who when they are with teens would lay their life down in a second for them; ready to pray, listen, counsel, the whole 9 yards of what a great youth minister would do. But when it comes to their home, their family, their “time off” the boundary is set and not to be broken! And of course there is good in that. Marriage and family is a vocation – youth ministry is just a calling. But then, Paul pours out his life as a libation… most of us (myself included) have the tendency to be poured out a drop at time. We want ministry to be a job we can walk away from when we are tired. We want to witness to Christ during the set hours and in the safe places we’ve drawn out. But are we missing out opportunities to share the Gospel in a new way because we’re afraid of breaking boundaries?!
Let me share with you what God has been doing in the youth ministry in our parishes down here. What you need to know about where I serve is that most families in my town are broken or dysfunctional (in a biblical sense). The divorce rate is off the charts, it seems like almost all my teens have half-brothers and sisters, most fathers are absent emotionally and spiritually from their families, and sex, drugs, and rock n’roll seems to be the common religion of most – but not all – of the high school students.
For over a year my wife, a core team of adult volunteers, and myself have been trying to break through into the lives of these young people. We were having bible studies, we were pouring out time and energy into BIG Sunday night gatherings. And were they effective? Yeah… kind of… Kids were coming, relationships were being built, the Gospel was being shared.
But lives weren’t changing.
My wife and I started praying together, specifically about how God wanted to transform the lives of these teens- and in our prayer we both heard God quietly speak, “Bring the teens into your family.” In our discernment the importance of the domestic Church, the home, took on a new reality for us; if the teens of our small town were feeling hurt, abandoned, lost within the church within their home, what would make them think the Catholic Church would offer anything different? After discerning what exactly the Lord was asking us to do we decided to introduce a new night of ministry offered to the youth of our community.
Every Monday night my wife and I now open up our small house to any and all teenagers who are longing to connect and feel loved and welcome. The guys and I usually go outside for some basketball or play guitar. The girls and my wife usually sit around our living room talking and taking turns holding our newborn daughter. We feed them, we laugh with them, we share our home, our marriage, our very lives with them. Towards the end of the night we have an optional discussion about Jesus and His Church – if the students want to join us they can, or they can continue to hang out with friends, play guitar, or go outside and play sports. The goal of the night is not to make all the kids read the Bible with my wife and I – although most do – the goal is that they feel like they’re a part of Christian family.
And I don’t believe an event like this benefits just those teens who come from broken homes. Some of the teens who attend every Monday are blessed with amazing and faithful families. The night affirms within each of the teens not only that they’re a part of a family but that they’re an important part of a community of believers.
This post isn’t meant to encourage people to eliminate the boundaries in their lives, especially if that would negatively affect their vocation. But my hope is that in light of the new evangelization, youth ministers, churches, dioceses would look at the boundaries that we have set in place and simply ask why? Again, I acknowledge the tragedy of the scandals and the absolute need to protect the youth from predators. We need boundaries in our life and in our ministries – but some of them we don’t.
Because of regularly inviting teens into my home, six of them will be coming into the Church, with special permission from our Bishop, on June 17th. Simple conversations around a dinner table while eating pizza have slowly changed from light-hearted questions about what they believe, to sharing my own testimony, to now walking with them through weekly teachings and discussion about the basic teachings of the Church and how we live those out in our daily life. Let me close with a part of a text I received after one our Monday nights when one of the young men decided he desired to be baptized:
I won’t lie… I wanted to thank you. I know I’ve never been that religious but honestly to meet some outstanding gentleman who I’ve only known for a little while that has shown such kindness and great friendship like you have. There has got to be someone watching down on me and the rest of kids to send someone who I can actually call one of my closest friends to give us faith and hope… Thanks for coming into our lives bro. You’ve honestly changed a lot of hearts.
I hope this post challenges and, at the same time, excites those in ministry to look for new ways to serve their parishes and teens who God has called them to serve.
Nic Frank is the youth minister of Cecilia Catholic Youth, in Cecilia, Louisiana, where he lives with his wife, Caroline, and two month old daughter, Adeline. If you want to get in touch with Nic, or receive his monthly newsletter with updates and stories from his ministry in Cecelia, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The newsletters are inspiring and fantastic. I couldn’t recommend them more. Please keep Nic and CCY in your prayers.