Well before the coronavirus began, Cathy Loh, director of the Office of Marriage, Family Life, Faith Formation and Youth Ministry of the Diocese of Palm Beach, was seeking to fill the role of coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry in efforts to revitalize youth ministry programs throughout the diocese’s five-county area.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, it quickly became apparent that this already challenging task was critical in order to support youth minsters struggling to minister to youth facing isolation during the recent months of quarantine. Many young people were also dealing with a sudden estrangement from their faith with the termination of in-person youth groups and other faith-based activities.
In her quest to fill the new position, Loh sought assistance from Catholic author and speaker Everett Fritz. Fritz, a consultant and author of three books including “The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working and What to Do About It,” worked in the Diocese of Palm Beach in the early 2000s and has maintained strong ties to the area.
Fritz posed the difficult question, “Why isn’t the faith resonating with young people? Because we’re not meeting their basic needs first. The basic need of young people is the need for intimate relationships, which have been lacking since before the current situation. We need to work to remedy the desperation for relationships that our youth are feeling, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. So much of our training has been on outreach, and now we really need to focus on relationship instead of dogma.”
At Loh’s direction, Fritz facilitated several in-person listening sessions in early March to help learn the needs and challenges of youth ministers and clergy throughout the diocese. Fritz offered online leadership training and collaboration, hosting top national speakers on youth ministry topics such as racism and the Catholic response, LGBT issues, and brainstorming opportunities for parish leaders. He also helped craft the job description and spearhead the hiring process for the new coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, a position entrusted to Andy Baker.
With more than 20 years of education and experience as a parish catechetical leader and youth minister, Baker had most recently been serving as the Youth Ministry coordinator for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he had just completed a campaign to implement small group discipleship ministry.
Reflecting on that same mission here in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Baker said, “I believe the Holy Spirit led me here at this time for this moment and I am excited to start building relationships with our pastors and parish ministry leaders so that we can offer the best ministry possible to the young church here in the diocese.”
Baker is striving to build relationships with the parish youth leaders throughout the diocese via Zoom and one-to-one meetings as much as possible. “It’s important for me to get to know the unique personalities of the parishes,” he said.
From the listening sessions previously conducted, it was made clear that youth ministry, as a whole, needed to develop in a new direction.
“Youth ministry is relational ministry,” said Baker. “It is the parishes’ response to the needs of its young parishioners; it’s about making missionary disciples. You can’t do that in large groups, at least not well. It’s about building relationships, listening and witnessing the faith, leading young people to an encounter with Christ.
“The situation that’s arisen from COVID-19 has allowed us to do this and give new things a try,” he continued. “A positive opportunity that has come from the pandemic is that it has allowed—almost mandated us—to do something different.”
Baker speaks from experience having worked with young people via social conferencing platforms, a tool that has become increasingly popular since the start of quarantine.
“In the very beginning,” he said, “it offered us an immediate way to connect. The immediacy of everything shutting down gave kids and parents a chance to connect when they felt they couldn’t connect with anyone. We met them where they were. That’s what we’re called to do.”
But Baker and youth ministers throughout the Diocese of Palm Beach realized early on that simply relying on videoconferences was not enough.
“Youth, nationally, were having a harder and harder time with Zoom gatherings because they were often spending the whole day in front of the computer for virtual school and screen fatigue became a hurdle for many. Young people needed a break from this, and one-on-one ministry became that break.”
Loh shared, “As group activities like sports, arts clubs and school groups change with the pandemic, perhaps students will be more willing to step out from the usual activities and engage in youth ministry more than they would have before. We may be working with a whole new generation of youth who have been otherwise not engaged. Thankfully, Bishop Barbarito is committed to family and youth ministry in the diocese, and it is so nice to have support right from the top.”
To learn mor about the Office of Marriage, Family Life, Faith Formation and Youth Ministry of the Diocese of Palm Beach, visit diocesepb.org/familylife-marriage or follow the office on Facebook @DPBYouth and @DiocesePBFamilyLife.
By Wendy Dwyer
Palm Beach Gardens