By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — This isn’t your daddy’s youth ministry any more. It isn’t even your big brother’s or sister’s.
If there is one area of church ministry to a particular segment of the Body of Christ that has to be willing to change, adapt, and learn new ways to pass along the unchanging truths in an ever-changing culture, it’s the ministry to youth of middle school and high school age.
Enter Mike Nations, who eagerly took on the job as director of the Diocesan Youth Office in July.
“Middle school and high school students have so many challenges that they don’t know how to navigate,” Nations said.
“Hopefully, they will get closer to Jesus now and make good decisions so that they don’t have to change and turn their lives around when they are 40,” he said.
Nations said teens hunger for spiritual growth.
“The older people get, the more closed off they get. They don’t express their faith openly,” he said. “At this age group, they don’t hesitate to talk about their faith.”
Nations knows the power of having that personal relationship with Christ as a teen. He was born in Perryville — “I grew up a half mile from the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal” — and in a family where both parents strongly modeled their Catholic faith, and put it at the center of their family.
“My spirituality comes from my family,” he said. Particularly, Nations said, his understanding of vocation, which his parents instilled in him to the degree that he had to discern that he was not called to the priesthood before he could discover what plans God had for his life.
Nations first thought that he was called to be a biologist, preserving what God had made. He earned his undergraduate degree in Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., then his master’s at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg before landing a dream job with the Missouri Department of Conservation as a wildlife biologist.
“I loved every minute of it, and I still miss certain aspects of it,” Nations said. “I thought what God had in store for me was to work in conservation and wildlife, and caring for his creation.”
But those mysterious ways snuck back into his life.
One day his wife, Sharon, told him that she had volunteered to teach Confirmation classes to youth at their Warrensburg parish, Sacred Heart.
“I said, ‘Great! I’ll be there with you when you teach Confirmation,’” Nations said.
That little dip into the waters of youth ministry soon turned neck deep. Nations found himself organizing the complicated logistics of mission trips for parish youth to perform such service as helping to build Habitat for Humanity homes in St. Louis.
In fact, he grew so good and so comfortable in youth ministry that when the Sacred Heart director moved to a new job, she recommended Nations and he was hired on the spot.
That was five years ago. Patched into the strong network of parish youth ministers around the diocese, when the position of diocesan youth minister opened last summer, Nations applied and got the job.
And even that process of landing jobs in youth ministry told Nations more of God’s plans for his life.
“It’s funny. It took me 25 interviews to get a job with the Department of Conservation,” he said. “Every youth ministry job I applied for, I got right away.”
At Sacred Heart, Nations led an ever-changing group of 50 to 60 teenagers at a time, preparing them for roles in the church both now and in the future. There is no greater reward, he said, than seeing that light of faith burn brighter in every youth.
“Part of the challenge is knowing where each kid is on his or her faith journey, and there is no check list to tell you that,” Nations said. “But you can see the spiritual growth right away.”
His philosophy is to stress the initials of St. Vincent de Paul — Service, Vocation, Parish.
A young person tuned into a life of service to others will be better equipped to determine his or her vocation — how God wants them to use their gifts and talents. And a person tuned into their vocation will naturally seek a parish community for the constant spiritual strength and food that God provides to live out that life of service and vocation.
Catholic teens eat up that message of service, vocation and parish life, and even yearn to be in the presence of their peers and of adult youth ministers who will affirm and strengthen their faith.
That is why tens of thousands of youth from all over the nation flock to the National Catholic Youth Conferences every two years, and why hundreds from throughout the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph will flock to the Kansas City Youth Conference Nov. 22-23 at the Sheraton Crown Center.
“They want to know that someone is on their side,” Nations said. “Typically, they want to know that someone cares.”