GREEN BAY — Teens love pizza, but when it comes to youth ministry they crave something even more — strong relationships.
“If you’re just meeting and greeting them at a pizza party, that doesn’t work anymore,” said Callie Kowalski, coordinator of confirmation and youth ministry at St. Bernard Parish. “They want an authentic relationship. You have to know them. You have to know their journey. You have to know their struggles and want to connect with them. That’s important these days.”
The Diocese of Green Bay also recognizes the importance of youth ministry. Beginning Jan. 14, the diocese will celebrate monthly Masses at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in observance of the diocese’s 150th jubilee. Each monthly Mass has a special focus, and January spotlights youth and youth ministers.
“It’s really all about relationships,” Kowalski said. “If you don’t have relationships with kids and parents, you won’t have a successful youth ministry. Students don’t care what events you put on if there’s no relationships.”
Kowalski, 28, works closely with Adam Horn, 31, the director of religious education; both are in their fourth year as full-time parish employees. They regularly brainstorm with the pastor, Fr. Mark Vander Steeg, to develop ideas to better engage young parishioners.
“Youth ministry is important to build a Catholic culture at the parish for these students,” Horn said. “A lot of our students are from public schools and they’re not getting Catholicism daily, so it’s important to bring them together so they can relate to one another and have that trust.”
Some of the events involve field trips to spiritual centers in northeast and southeast Wisconsin. Fifth- and sixth-graders travel to The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay and Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz. Seventh- and eighth-graders venture to locations in the Milwaukee area. And older students embark on longer journeys to places like conferences in Steubenville, Ohio, and the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
When it comes to event planning, Kowalski relies on input from a leadership team of five hand-selected high school students (two sophomores and three juniors). They’re trained as KREWE members (which stands for Knowledge of Christ, Responsibility to Community, Everything is Gift, Witness Through Sacrifice and Evangelization to Peers).
“They’re very involved and do a great job talking with their peers and determining their needs,” Kowalski said. “We usually do at least one major event each month for high school and middle school students. In October we did a Halloween party. No matter what we do, they always have elements that point back to a faith component.”
Fr. Vander Steeg said Kowalski is an ideal person to lead youth ministry because “she’s authentic, faithful and fun.”
He said there were no youth ministry opportunities at his parish when he was a teenager about 30 years ago, so he’s whole-heartedly supporting the endeavors of Kowalski and Horn.
“I’m convinced that youth ministry is one of the top priorities of a parish, and it cannot be independent of the pastor, or of religious education, or of the school,” said Fr. Vander Steeg, noting students in youth ministry at St. Bernard are about 50/50 when it comes to attending private or public schools. “It’s such an integral role. I still don’t feel we’re giving it all of the time due and support it needs. There’s always more that can be done. Youth ministry is so imperative to all parishes.”
Horn echoed Kowalski’s sentiment that relationships are the foundation of youth ministry.
“Activities are fine,” Horn said, “but if there’s not a relationship already in place I can see where a student might think, ‘I’m not going to go to something run by somebody I don’t know or care about.’”
Kowalski and Horn can attest to the positive value of religion in their lives. Each drifted away from the church for a period of time before coming back. As a student at St. Norbert College, Horn met friends who helped re-orient his life back toward religion. And Kowalski lived in several states during her childhood before coming back to the church at the age of 17.
After high school she attended a few different colleges, but her “faith really exploded” when she arrived at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
“That campus is absolutely on fire for Jesus,” she said. “You’re surrounded by so many positive influences and positive people there, it was amazing.”
She worked at Spiritus in Menasha before serving with the youth evangelization team at the Diocese of Lansing (Michigan) and then at RENEW International in New Jersey, a spiritual renewal organization. In the fall of 2014 she accepted a job at St. Bernard and has been there ever since.
“My job has completely evolved over the years,” she said. “I came into the position here with no idea what the next step would be from month to month. Now, four years later, I have a pretty good system in place. Year after year of getting to know the students and the culture of the parish, I know what works and what doesn’t work and the ways to build relationships with students. The longer I’m there, the better I know them and the better the relationships become.”
Many of the students Kowalski met when she first arrived at St. Bernard are now in college, and they often come back to speak with her.
“It’s nice to know that I’m making an impact through youth ministry,” Kowalski said. “I feel youth ministry is important, because we’re living in a time when youth and young adults are looking for value. Some of them are going to places that might not be authentic in establishing value.
“So for them to come to our parish and know they’ll get something real and sustainable, that’s really why youth ministry is there,” she added. “But we’re seeing that we need parents and families involved, too. We can do a lot with youth ministry, but family involvement is really important too in order to make it successful.”