A New Season of Ministry

. . . instead of seeing my role as a parent as taking away from the energy I could give to my work, I was able instead to notice all the ways that this can enrich my work and faith life

By Huy Huynh

Looking back on my last school year, I can now see there were some places where my work had become stale, stagnant, and routine. Having been in this position for over ten years, I was able to run some programs and retreats on autopilot. However, the danger of being complacent became clear during my last retreat of the year.

I was unsure of whether or not I wanted to write about this. Would it be a poor reflection of my ministry, my workplace or, in general, me as a person? The more I thought and prayed on it, the more I believed that at least some of you would be able to relate. So here it is. 

It was a retreat that I had created and run many times. However, this time it would be different because two other high schools were joining us. I made some adjustments to involve the other schools but, in large, kept the program the same. I think the retreat was fun, relaxing, and valuable to some degree, for all the students. However, as the retreat finished, I knew that I had missed the mark. I had used a program that was planned for my students. I forgot to start with the “who.” Who was I ministering to? Where were all of these students coming from? What were their needs? In short, how could I meet them where they are?

What had led to this complacency? I have come up with a few ideas.

Having run these programs so many times, I could treat these programs like a formula. I lost sight of the fact that the variables are always changing. The students and leaders are always different. Their chemistry and the spirit of the retreat is always different. The context, or what is happening in our lives is different. No program, class, or retreat is really the same and I tried to make it that.

There was something else that was different. Me. There had been so many changes in my personal life. My second child was just born a few months before and my daughter had just turned two. While, for me, becoming a parent has often felt like the best thing that has ever happened in my life, it has also changed everything. There is more to balance. More to do. More to take care of. More to love. 

I can also say parenting is ALL consuming. It has taken up so much time, energy, and attention. There is more worry and more gray hairs. There is less sleep and less time for relaxing. It can seem like there is no time for hobbies, personal care or my own spiritual wellness. There are few opportunities to go for a run, go hiking, read, be silent, pray or go on a personal retreat.

But being a father is not all sleepless nights and busy days.  It has also enriched my life in so many ways.  It has helped me to remember that everyone was someone’s little baby, everyone is a child of God. It has helped me to learn to trust my instincts.  I have had to learn how to be more flexible and ready to reset when things don’t go according to plan.

I think that last year I was so consumed by trying to manage the busyness of family and worklife, that I allowed myself to become stagnant at work.  But this year, instead of seeing my role as a parent as taking away from the energy I could give to my work, I was able instead to notice all the ways that this can enrich my work and faith life.

With this new perspective, I felt different coming back to school. Something shifted. It did not feel like just another school year. Rather, it felt like a new school year with new students and new possibilities. I engaged my work with a sense of openness, freedom, and creativity. I started with the questions of who am I serving, what is our goal, how do we get there, and how is God in this? I have loosened my grips on planned agendas and programs to leave space for new ideas from students, co-workers, myself, and of course the Holy Spirit. My ministry has felt alive and fulfilling.

And so what has changed? Perhaps it was the humbling experience of a tough retreat that woke me up. Perhaps it was finding more confidence, peace, and trust in my role as a father. Perhaps it was being more intentional about making the time to take care of my mind, body, and spiritual life.

In all of this, the thing that has surprised me most, is my comfort with the lack of balance and my imperfection. In my younger years, I would have spent so much time beating myself up for not running a “perfect” program. There is nothing like parenting to remind you that “perfect” is just not possible. I can only give what I have to give and that has to be enough.

I wonder if anyone can relate to this. Have you experienced these different seasons of your ministry, your personal life, and your spiritual life? How do you see them connecting or affecting each other? How have you made peace with imperfection?

Huy Huynh is a campus minister at a Catholic high school in the Boston area. 

Back to the Future

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed.

 back to the future

by Sara Janecko Milone.

It’s Monday morning and I’m driving to work on familiar roads. I look around and glance at the houses that line the commute, taking note how they have been updated over the past two years. It’s all so familiar, and yet it has changed.

I am familiar with the school, the position, the ministry. But yet, like the houses that line my commute, I have changed. I am returning to a position at the school in which I taught and ministered for seven years, but have been away for two years to stay home with my young family.

These past two years have afforded me the opportunity to be present at home with my daughters and enjoy the little moments as well as the big milestones. Beyond family life, these two years enabled me to try new things, to stretch myself in my ministry and to explore new ways to respond to God’s call in my life. Spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy and online class facilitation have inspired new personal and professional growth, and have deepened my relationship with God. I know I will be a better teacher, minister, mother, and human being because of how these experiences have shaped me.

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed. I know the mission, I know my colleagues, I know the routine, and yet the students do not know me. My former students have all graduated. From perspective of the current students, I am a brand new teacher with no baggage, history or reputation. I have the unique opportunity to have a fresh start, to reinvent myself and my teaching. How many times do you have the opportunity for a second chance, a completely fresh start?

The courses may be familiar, but my philosophy of religious education has shifted and evolved. In my first tenure at the school, I had just graduated with my Masters in Divinity. I was intent on convincing the students to view Religion as an equally important and rigorous class as their other academic subjects. After all, people spent years studying theology in higher education.

My experiences during the past two years have prompted me to reflect on the primacy of cultivating relationships with self, others and God in the ministry of religious education. While imparting the content of our faith to my students is certainly important, my main purpose as a religious educator is to form disciples in the faith. This paradigm shift has energized me and inspired creativity with how I want to teach my classes and minister to my students. I’m grateful for the grace of a fresh start: to honor the familiar and embrace the change.

Sara Janecko Milone

Sara Janecko Milone is the Director of Campus Ministry and religion teacher at an all girls high school in Newton, MA.

THAT IS Being Catholic

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

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by Julie Dienno-Demarest

We are called to evangelize through witness (living out our faith) and sharing (explicitly spreading the Good News).  So often our instinct is to examine what else we can do. We focus on the call to conversion and re-evangelizing our colleagues through Faculty Faith Formation. We also have a tremendous opportunity to engage in the “new evangelization” to colleagues who have become distant from the faith by simply naming the ways in which we are already living God’s love in our life, work, and ministry.

Yet there are familiar ways by which evangelization happens: by the way we live God’s love in our daily life; by the love, example, and support people give each other…in the care we show to those most in need; and in the ways we go about our work. (Go and Make Disciples, 35)

Too often, the Catholic Identity of our schools is (mis)understood too narrowly by those who work with us. Our non-Catholic faculty and staff tend to see Catholic Identity as coming from the concrete experiences of morning prayer, retreats, liturgies, and catechesis from the Campus Ministry and the Theology Departments.  While those encounters are certainly essential, too many adults in the building compartmentalize our Catholicity as existing solely within these sources.

In reality, as professional religious educators, we know that this is simply not the case.  In reality, so many of our colleagues have been drawn to our schools because we live out this Catholic Identity in our way of being with one another and our students.  Put another way, our colleagues have an implicit knowledge of our schools’ Catholicity; we need to do a better job of explicitly naming what we implicitly know as true.

A caring school community is being Catholic (Acts 2:42).  Placing a student’s well-being ahead of academic expectations is being Catholic (Jn 15:12).  Coaches who prioritize sportsmanship and the well-being of their athletes above winning is being Catholic (Prov 24:17-18; Phil 2:3).  Teaching with mutual respect is being Catholic (CCC 1930).

What would happen if we respectfully invited our colleagues to recognize that their natural way of being in and contributions to our schools is being Catholic?  How might affirming that all goodness comes from God (James 1:17, CCC 843) foster a shared sense of accomplishing Catholic Identity?  Imagine if every faculty meeting began with a few minutes of specifically affirming the goodness and excellence that we see in the work of our colleagues and explicitly connecting those actions with the Catholicity of the school.

It is the responsibility of every member of the faculty and staff to support the vision and mission of the school.  Supporting the school’s vision and mission isn’t asking faculty and staff to be all things to all people, but it does require that we support one another as one body (1 Cor 12:20).  For example, what if our invitation to support Campus Ministry was rephrased as: “Would you rather assist student retreats by being personally present or by enthusiastically substituting for those colleagues who will be personally present”?

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

Julie Dienno-Demarest is a professional religious educator living in Houston, TX. She has previously served as a high school teacher and campus minister and was a contributing author and editor for a high school textbook series.