My model for youth ministry has four legs and a wet nose.
Back when I was a baby Core Member, I attended my first Life Teen Conference in Mesa, AZ in June of 1999. Of all the messages of that week one has stuck with me and has been my constant model for youth ministry for 13 years and will continue to be so.
In one particular session we were given two metaphors for youth ministry, one stuck with me and the other didn’t. The first was about baseball. I remember taking detailed notes, but can’t remember at all what the point was … nor can I find my notes. The second didn’t require a single word to be written down because the message went straight to my heart.
The speaker alluded to the Gospel of John and the parable of the Good Shepherd. He said if we used shepherd imagery for youth ministry the teens would be the sheep, the parish priest who is “in persona Christi” is the shepherd and the youth minister is the sheep dog. The Youth Minister makes sure the sheep (teens) are where they need to be, are safe and know where the shepherd is going.
This analogy got my imagination going. I love dogs, I always have. There are many kinds of sheep dogs, but the breed I fixated on is the Great White Pyrenees. This is very large, white, round headed dog. The beauty of this dog is it can lie lazily among a herd of sheep and no one would know it is there. But when the herd is threatened, then the dog leaps into action and asserts their size and strength to eliminate the threat.
Here’s how I apply this analogy. At a youth Mass, Life Night, Summer Camp, or a retreat session I make sure my Core Members and myself are sitting among the youth who are present, like the dog among the sheep. We don’t sit behind the group or off to the side, but among them.
This helps both practically and relationally. Practically speaking, it puts us in the middle of things so we can “scare off” any “threat” of distractions or disturbances at Mass, Life Nights or whatever else is going on. In the same way we are available to answer any brief questions related to what is going on.
Relationally, this simple practice breaks down barriers and opens hearts. Sitting with the teens in any situation communicates to them that we are in this together, that they are not alone on this journey. We as adults are open to experiencing all that they will experience, that we will make ourselves vulnerable just as we expect them to be. So we don’t just sit with them, we play, we dance, we get dirty and we pray just as hard.
In terms of protection, an adult who is constantly sitting among the teens will more quickly pick up on relationships that may be of concern, whether they are between teens or between teens and other adults.
This is the only way I know to do youth ministry. I am a sheep dog; I protect and run with the sheep in my care as I lead them closer to our shepherd, our master, Jesus Christ.