Spearheading a new, regional youth ministry program in Lancaster County, coordinator Kim Moore was eager to develop one that would draw in teens from upwards of 20 parishes while complementing already-existing programs and assisting parishes that don’t offer one.
A former youth minister at Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Mount Joy for eight years, and the mother of five children, Moore has been ready to jump back into leading icebreakers, prayer, activities, group discussion and catechesis with teens since considering a regional program months ago.
The pandemic caused her to consider putting the plan on hold. But the Holy Spirit said otherwise.
“A core group of leaders and I had the idea of rolling this out a number of months ago, and then I thought that maybe trying to start a new youth ministry program right now wasn’t a good time because of the pandemic,” Moore said. “But the more I talked to the teens and the more I prayed about it, the more I heard the Holy Spirit say, ‘Get going.’”
Earlier this month, One Voice Youth Ministry officially got underway with its first activity, the “Fire and Ice” social, which included icebreakers, games, s’mores and hot chocolate.
The premise for the regional youth ministry is simple: to offer a program of routine events to as many teens in grades 8-12 in Lancaster County as possible, while complementing youth ministry programs already established in the parishes.
“I know from my own experience as a youth minister, and from the experiences of my own kids, what youth ministry can do for teenagers,” said Moore, a certified advanced catechist in the Diocese of Harrisburg. “It teaches them about the faith and creates wonderful relationships. It allows them to question the faith in a safe environment, where they know the adults are going to either answer their questions or find the answers.”
“It would be ideal if every parish had its own youth minister,” she said, “but in the Lancaster area, there are more parishes unable to hire someone in that position – whether it’s due to financial reasons or because there is a small number of teens in the parish. That’s why I thought a regional youth ministry would be the way to go.”
Supported by pastors, laity and the Diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, One Voice Youth Ministry is underway, operating on the help of volunteers and donors.
“The lay faithful drove this forward with encouragement and donations,” said Moore, who has been visiting parishes to speak about the program after Masses. “We decided that we were going to make this completely donation-based, so that we don’t put any kind of financial burden on the parishes at this point.”
Several parishes, organizations and donors have stepped up thus far. Knights of Columbus Council 867 on the New Danville Pike south of Lancaster city, St. Anne Parish downtown and Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in Mount Joy have offered meeting space for the youth ministry program, which will routinely rotate through the three locations.
Knights of Columbus Council 14786 of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish covered insurance and liability costs, and an anonymous donor set up and paid for the program’s website, www.onevoiceym.org.
“What I’m hearing is, yes, teens and parishes want this,” Moore said. “We’ve received a lot of positive reaction.”
A Welcoming Place
Teens Isabelle Olenik and Kieran Sheehan are among the first members of One Voice Youth Ministry.
Isabelle, a 16-year-old homeschooled student, described youth group as “a chance to grow spirituality and to build relationships who will push you to become a better person. We do a lot of team-building exercises to get to know one another. It’s a place of reassurance, because we talk about our doubts and fears and we work through it together.”
A member of St. Leo the Great Parish in Rohrerstown, Isabelle connected with the youth group at Mary, Mother of the Church two years ago, when the parishes combined efforts for a Catholic Heart Work Camp.
“It was powerful to be around teens my age who believed in the same thing I did and had the same questions that I did. It was so special to worship with them and live out what we’re asked to do. It made me feel really connected to my faith and that I was where I was called to be,” she said. “Since then, my relationship with God has grown stronger, and I think the reason I go to youth group is because I want to strengthen that relationship and become a better Catholic. I want to encourage other teens to join youth ministry because I want them to be able to have that same experience.”
Kieran, 15, a member of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish, was “drawn to the youth group in our parish based off of the teens at our church, and on how much they liked our youth group. I continue to go, because I really like the program that Kim Moore has put together. I like how she intertwines the faith in all of the fun that we have as a group.”
“I have encouraged my friends to join, by telling them that it is a lot of fun, and it is a great group,” said Kieran, a freshman at Lancaster Catholic High School. “My hopes for One Voice are that we will be able to go to work camp, and that we will be able to have as much fun there as we did at our parish.”
Isabelle attended One Voice’s inaugural gathering earlier this month, and said she already has high hopes for the program.
“I definitely felt a sense of community right away,” she said of attending the event. “Even though we hadn’t spent time with each other previously and we were meeting for the first time, everybody was very open.”
“The group leaders are great role models, and set the example of being welcoming. I was nervous to go at first, because I knew there would be people I didn’t know,” she added, “but everyone was willing to meet new people.”
Once Voice’s gatherings are following Covid-safety guidelines. Teens are asked to sign waivers, wear masks, have their temperatures taken and physically distance.
“We can do things while being safe,” Moore remarked. “Are our numbers going to be smaller right now? Yes. There are people who will choose not to come and that is completely understandable. If we can reach one teen, five teens or fifty teens, it doesn’t matter – it’s the direction we need to go. This is a step-by-step process, and the teens will be able to jump in with us whenever they’re ready.”
Activities are planned through March, and include meet and greets, attending Mass as a group, and a paint and prayer night. In January, the youth group will begin “Faith Living and Learning” nights with games, catechesis, small discussion groups and prayer.
“One of the biggest challenges to getting kids involved in something like youth group is that they’re busy. Until we build relationships with them, it is just another thing for them to do. Once the relationships within youth ministry build over time, it becomes something they want to do rather than something they have to do,” Moore said.
“My hope is that parents strongly encourage their kids to give youth ministry a try to see if it’s for them. If you don’t try it, you don’t’ know what it’s really all about.”
Youth group is a place where teens can be themselves while exploring the faith, asking questions and fostering new friendships, Moore said.
“There’s a stereotype that everyone who goes to youth group is super faithful or always praying. That’s not what it’s like,” she said. “We have kids from all schools who come to youth group. Many teens have told me that they like coming to youth group because they can be themselves. In school, they might be the jock or the math whiz. In youth group, they can be who they are, relax and share their faith, and not have to keep up a façade that they might feel they have to in school.”
“That’s why all this effort over the last months in building this regional youth ministry is worth even a handful a kids who can breathe, pray and be themselves for a few hours at a gathering while being supported in the faith,” she said.
(Learn more about One Voice Youth Ministry, upcoming events and volunteer opportunities at www.onevoiceym.org.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness