I recently took a trip to visit St. Raphael Parish in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. Before I spoke to the Confirmation Group that night, I sat in the office of veteran Youth Minister John Vasellina to talk about how he’s stayed strong through his many years in Catholic Youth Ministry.
Matt Smith: How long have you been in Catholic Youth Ministry?
John Vasellina: I have been involved with Catholic Youth Ministry for 30 years. For the first seventeen years I was in Connecticut. My wife Phyllis and I started up a youth group in our parish and I volunteered there for 17 years running that youth group.
In 1997 we moved to Santa Barbara, California, to take the full time Youth Ministry and Confirmation position here at St. Raphael’s Church. Throughout my years doing youth ministry, I have gone back to school and received a masters degree in counseling, focusing on adolescents, and have completed the National Certificate Youth Ministry program.
MS: Tell me a little bit about your parish and more about what you do here.
JV: I am the Director of Youth Ministry here at St. Raphael’s Church. I am responsible for the Edge, our Jr. High Program, the Life Teen Program, our 2-year Confirmation Preparation Program, College-aged Young Adult Ministry, and the Choir for our Life Teen Mass. To help me with those programs, I have part-time youth minister who responsible for the Life Teen Program, and some more help with College-aged Young Adult Ministry.
MS: Wow. You all are a busy man! Through all your years of Catholic youth ministry, have you ever thought about quitting? What keeps you in ministry?
JV: I really enjoy working with teenagers. I believe that this has been my calling thus far. Honestly, there were only a few times that I felt like quitting and that was when my family life and personal life was taking up a lot of my time and energy, and I felt like I didn’t have the time or energy to give to teens. With the help of my wife I was always able to adjust and carry on.
MS: How has your perspective on youth ministry changed over the years?
JV: I was locked into a certain way of doing youth ministry for many years. When I started in 1980, there were very few materials–if any at all–to draw from. I felt like I was the Lone Ranger for many of those initial years. As material became available I figured I didn’t really need it because what I had been doing was working. It really was about seven years ago that I was exposed t o Life Teen and then my horizons were expanded. I was able to soak in the many resources and ideas that Life Teen offered.
MS: What advice would you give to youth ministers who are feeling burned out or discouraged?
JV: My initial thought is to stay connected to your passion in life. If youth ministry is not your passion then you will get discouraged, resentful, angry, and eventually leave. If Youth ministry is your passion then staying balanced is the key to stability. I have written a whole workshop on how to stay balanced and operating your life so that you performing at peak levels. It includes staying balanced in the four major areas in our lives where we expend energy: spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental. When all four of these areas of our life are balanced, we perform and feel at our peak. Another key element needed for maintaining stability is the need to feel supported and connected.
MS: Can you email me a copy of those talks? I’d like to make it available for people to download.
JV: Sure. I’ll send it this week.
MS: You mentioned how critical it is to be support and connect. Let’s talk about your role as a Life Teen Area Contact. I know that is a lot of work. Why do you make the sacrifice of taking on more responsibility in addition to taking care everything else you do here at St. Raphael’s?
JV: I have taken on the position of Area Contact because I care about other Youth Ministers and care about the teens they serve. If I can help a Youth Minister in some way, then that will trickle down to helping teens. And since I have been involved in Youth Ministry for longer than some of the Youth Ministers have been alive–kind of a depressing concept–I do feel I have some wisdom and knowledge to share with them.
MS: Well, just know that we appreciate all that you do. Any last thoughts?
JV: I don’t know how long I will continue to be involved in Youth Ministry. Every day when I wake up I ask God what he wants me to do today, and so far I have received the same message.
MS: Well said.
Get a PDF of John’s tips on living a balanced life.