Reaching out to youth

New ministers to help in rural areas and urban core.

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It was a good thing that Rick Cheek bought a new set of tires some years ago when he became an archdiocesan youth minister.

“When I went in for the six-month checkup and rotation, the [mechanic] wouldn’t do it,” said Cheek, archdiocesan consultant for evangelization and Catholic formation of youth.

Why? Because Cheek had racked up so many miles his tires were already practically worn out.

This incident sheds light on only one of the challenges of rural youth ministry: distance.

Distance makes it hard for rural and small town parishes to share personnel and resources and to host activities with other parishes. A rural parish might be the only one for 30 or 40 miles, whereas in urban areas there might be several within a half-hour driving distance.

Urban core parishes have other challenges. Several different language and ethnic groups may be clustered within a single parish’s boundaries. Many of those persons might not be affiliated with any church, or at least unfamiliar with the nearby Catholic parish.

One thing shared by rural and urban core parishes is a lack of personnel. Parish workers and those engaged in ministry are usually volunteers, or if employees, part time.

“We haven’t been able to spread out as far or as deeply in the parishes as the parish workers, the pastoral council or the archbishop have wanted us to,” said Deacon Dana Nearmyer, lead archdiocesan consultant for evangelization and Catholic formation of youth.

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann heard from parish workers about the difficulty of engaging urban core kids in the church and the challenges of rural youth ministry.

“They wanted more than drive-thru service,” said Deacon Nearmyer. “They wanted embedded people who were invested in their particular interests and problem sets.”

It was impossible for Deacon Nearmyer and Cheek to cover all those miles and provide the kind of assistance, training and programming that was really required. They needed help.

In 2010, the archdiocese initiated a study to determine the feasibility of a capital campaign to raise funds for pastoral needs. A task force was appointed and further studied the issue in 2011. Although it wound up recommending against a capital campaign, it did suggest an additional assessment to the parishes that would help expand youth ministry services in urban and rural areas. The archbishop accepted the task force’s recommendations in July 2012.

As a result, the archdiocesan office of evangelization and Catholic formation of youth was directed to develop a plan for rural and urban core youth ministry, and to hire a rural outreach coordinator and a youth outreach coordinator for Wyandotte County.

This summer, the two youth outreach coordinators began their work. Angie Bittner, who lives with her family between Rossville and Topeka, was named the rural outreach coordinator.

Liz Halfmann, a St. Louis native and recent graduate of Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., was named the youth outreach coordinator for Wyandotte County. Both assumed their responsibilities in July.

Some of the needs of rural and urban youth ministry are already known. But others, as yet unidentified, will surface as the two outreach coordinators develop relationships with people in the parishes and communities.

Bittner will work with pastors, youth ministers, directors of religious education and volunteers. She will help pastors identify strong parish leaders and facilitate their training.

Some of her activities will involve working directly with youth, but her role will primarily be one of a “team builder,” providing support, coordination and training.  Bittner will lead workshops and plan large events, and, for the most part, work in the Southern, Topeka, Nemaha-Marshall, and Atchison pastoral regions.

“Our hope is that [Angie] will be able to reach out to all the [rural parishes] to help youth ministers and pastors identify not only volunteers in the parish, but to provide in-depth training,” said Cheek. “We also want her to bring in well-known people who’ve been involved in youth ministry.”

Likewise, Halfmann will work with pastors, youth ministers, and other ministries in the urban core, including the archdiocesan office of Hispanic ministry. Her mission has been described as “two-pronged,” the first prong being support of formation of the youth in parishes, and the second prong being support and enrichment of parish sacramental and formation activities.

Hospitality, social outreach and building relationships in the community will be a big part of her duties. Halfmann will seek to form “strategic alliances with existing groups and ministries.”

To facilitate this outreach, the archdiocese is also renovating the bottom floor of the former Blessed Sacrament School at 22nd and Parallel in Kansas City, Kan. This “ministry hub” will house Halfmann’s office, a gym, and three “enriched” rooms: one for music lessons and performance, another for a dance studio, and a third as an art studio.

“Archbishop Naumann . . . doesn’t want more programs or more infrastructure out there,” said Deacon Nearmyer.

“That’s not his heart at all,” he continued. “His heart is that when a young person comes out of one of our parishes at 18 years old, they should know Jesus Christ. He wants all of our kids to know Jesus and be in a deep relationship with him. It’s about creating disciples and disciple-makers.”

Angie Bittner

Angie Bittner grew up in the little unincorporated crossroads of Clonmell, a 20-minute drive southwest of Wichita. It consisted of St. John Parish, a co-op, a closed restaurant — and her grandmother’s house.

She received her associate’s degree in physical therapy from Topeka’s Washburn University in 1993 and a degree in nursing in 1996. She and her husband Kevin were married in 1994 and have five daughters. He is a native of Ottis.

Bittner has a love of sports. She played volleyball while at Washburn and now coaches volleyball at the high school level.
She also has a love of youth ministry and has been highly active in her parish, St. Stanislaus in Rossville. Bittner has been involved in parish religious education, youth choir, and other activities.

Liz Halfmann

Liz Halfmann has youth ministry in her blood — literally.
Her father was co-founder of the St. Louis-based youth program REAP. She helped him organize and conduct many REAP retreats.

Halfmann grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., in 2013 with a bachelor’s in social work and minors in Spanish and theology. While there, she was president of the Catholic Student Organization and worked for two years at Prairie Star Ranch, Williamsburg.

Halfmann is fluent in Spanish. She studied in Seville, Spain, and was a volunteer at World Youth Day Madrid in 2011.

Her office will be at a renovated space at the former Blessed Sacrament School in Kansas City, Kan. She is now a member of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe.


About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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