For the past 10-15 years, I’ve been watching the evolution of youth ministry. During that time, people have been searching for the right resource that is going to respond to the needs of young people. Today, we have top notch resources that can be used in just about any setting, for any sized group of people, with the best speakers in the world, and some of the best production available. Still…there seems to be a desire or an understanding that we can do even better.

Over the past five years, there has been a huge emphasis on training. People will often say that you can have the best resource in the world, but without a well-trained catechist, the resource will mean nothing. This is true…or is it? Perhaps, but I think we need to be clear about the difference between training and formation.

Feel free to look up the definitions for training and formation for yourself, but in short, training is the action of teaching someone a skill or behavior and formation is to make or fashion into a certain shape or form. Or, another way to put it is that training is teaching someone to do something, and formation is helping someone to become someone.

Now to start, I have to say that in many respects, training and formation are very connected. An example that comes to mind is when I asked my priest if I could start a prayer group in high school. I was amazed at his immediate yes. He didn’t ask many questions about what I was going to do or how, but he saw it as an opportunity to lead and form me. He knew that as I followed the Lord’s promptings in my life, those experiences would bear fruit, and they did in so many ways. The “program” itself maybe didn’t look so great at times, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t be where I am today without that formation: the formation that came from his support, his mentorship, and his trust in what the Lord was doing in me.

To the extent that I have been able, this is how I have run youth programs for years. In fact, this is what it means to be “discipleship focused.” We must recognize that in order for a program to be run well, our focus must be on the conduits through which that program is run. While it may be important or even necessary to train someone to do a task, we must understand that it will be through their experiences (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral) that they will be formed.

Having made that distinction, I want to share just a few tips with you on how you can accomplish this type of formation in your efforts:

Focus on a leader’s experience rather than their results

When you meet with your leaders, either individually or as a group, focus your conversation around their experience. Instead of asking, “What do you think went well?” ask, “Where did you see God working?” Instead of asking, “Where could we improve?” ask, “What was most difficult for you?” This alone will take attention off of the program and put the emphasis on the leader. Their answers will also give you insight into which leaders are attentive to what’s happening in them and which may be too focused on the “program.”

Be patient with the lacking in order for growth to occur

Taking your eyes off the program will seem like an adult taking their eyes off their two year-old for ten seconds…a lot can happen in that time. Again, we have to ask the question: do we care more about the program than the people? Having patience with an adult desiring to grow in their role will pay huge dividends.

Keep the work simple and easy to understand

Strive to keep roles simple and easy to understand. This does not mean you should simply dumb things down. Asking someone to “assist in leading a young person to Christian maturity” is a straightforward and clear directive, but it will require a depth of understanding and attentiveness to do it well. The point here is that at any time, you could sit down with that person and ask if they believe that they are doing what they’ve been asked to do.

As growth occurs, encourage deeper thought and leadership

Continuing from the last point, pay attention to whether your adults understand their task well, and, if so, be ready to invite them into the deeper vision and mission of discipleship. If someone has been leading a small group for some time and desires to take things even deeper, be ready to journey with them in that.

Focus on the person as opposed to the program

As an adult begins to grab hold of the deeper vision, remain focused on them. It may mean that as they grow in wisdom, discernment, and insight into their gifts and charisms, they will move on and participate in other areas of parish ministry. If you remain focused only on the program, your volunteers will continue to be limited in where and how they are capable of helping out and the degree to which they will be formed. Be willing to sacrifice your best leaders. Remember, your goal is formation, NOT the program. Formation will never end, and if someone leaves your program because they’ve been formed well and feel called to assist in another, you have done your job!

To be clear, I understand that these suggestions apply more directly to people who are in roles that are more formative in nature (leading small groups or bible studies, mentoring an individual, teaching, etc. ) and less important for the more menial tasks (bringing cookies, simply being a chaperone, etc.). My hope is not that you set out to create the perfect formation program, nor do I mean to imply that we should focus all of our efforts on formation to the exclusion of anything else. But I do hope that we begin to accept God’s invitation to us and to all of those in our parish to participate in his work, and through that, to receive more of Him. Our role as leaders is simply to allow that to happen and cultivate a culture where we are all becoming more aware of it. And when we do, our work in ministry will be less about what we are doing and more about who we are becoming. We will be changed!