Incarnational Relational Ministry

When I’ve asked adults in the parish to consider being youth ministry volunteers their default “no” answer was their feeling they lack religion knowledge. Even though they’d have all the textbook resources to help initially fill in gaps, they missed the point of ministry.

While Jesus understood all things (including religion), his ministry focus was on relationships.

Jesus could have opted to be a Scribe (someone who know everything book-wise on religion) or a Pharisee (someone who know everything church etiquette-wise on religion) with little effort and great success. Instead of spending time with the “church know it all(s)” or the “church perfectionists”, Jesus spent His time with the least church educated and the marginalized of society. Why?

God’s heart desires all souls, not a select few.

Relational Ministry has become a popularized concept of Youth Ministry over the last two decades. Simply put, ministry is based on building authentic relationships. Now, to be clear, relational ministry is what sparked me to enter into ministry. A problem that I believe that has develop is a separation from relational ministry and catechesis, both occur in Youth Ministry, but they may be seen as two separate events in those facilitating small groups. That the time before and after Youth Ministry, the hang out time is relational ministry and small group time is catechesis. Particularly I have seen it small group facilitators that just want to drill through all the questions, give the answers, and wrap up small group.

Andy Root’s “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry”, allowed me to reflect deeper on the practice of ministry. “Wherever two or more are gathered, Christ is present.” The space in a small group circle is occupied completely by the person of Jesus Christ. There should not be a tension to get teens through discussion questions or making sure they get confirmed. Unengaged teens leave the church after confirmation because they do not feel like they fit, because youth ministry/faith formation feels more like school than it does a community where they are belong and are known. The disciples did not depart for all corners of the world to die a martyr’s death because Jesus was a smart teacher. The 12 radically changed the world because of their experience of the sacred, because they encountered God in community.

Being present to adolescents in a small group is not about knowledge or social skills. It is about creating a sacred space for Christ to be present. Like the unquenched fire Moses experienced was Holy Ground, all small groups (and large groups/general youth ministry gatherings) are Holy Ground because of the presence of Jesus Christ.

Here are a few easy tips for a small group leader, catechists, or youth minister on how to create sacred space in a small group:

– Know their names versus learn their names. “Waste time” in small group getting to know more than just the names of your students. Devote periods of time to getting to know their activities, hobbies, hopes, fears, dreams, and ambitions. Do this every time in small group, not just in the first session. Create a community within your small group where everyone feels known.

– Even though your Youth Minister may hate me, questions and discussion point handouts are optional. The goal of small group is to “practice their language of faith.” Think of faith/religion as a second language, the only true way you learn a language is through immersion. As long as your small group discusses faith issues, it is not a critical matter they stay on topic for that evening’s discussions. When a student can articulate their beliefs or share a religious experience, you’ve created a strong disciple.

-Be present to the groups’ needs. Teens may need to hijack the discussion to talk about real life problems they are experiencing. See and listen to where their problem is going and then simply ask “how would teenage Jesus handle the situation?” Bring Christ into their daily life and see where they take it.

Incarnational relational ministry is about the minster recognizing Christ’s presence in real-time ministry and helping facilitate God’s action in the group. While this may seem like a heavier burden than teaching a curriculum, Jesus has clarified that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. I’ve seen small group leaders young and old from a 16-year-old peer minister to a 65 (or whatever is considered old), engage in mindfulness of Christ’s presence small group and literally made it an art form of ministry. Incarnational Relational Ministry makes facilitating a small group as easy as hanging out with family (even though you may still have the broody teen or two, they eventually come around). Volunteers do not need to have degrees in theology; they can effectively minister by being mindful of Christ’s presence in the holy ground/sacred space of their small group.

Joe Mele

Joe Mele is a Learning & Organizational Development professional based in Houston, TX. Prior to corporate work, Joe was a Youth Minister in the Diocese of Scranton, Baltimore, and Galveston-Houston. Joe has worked from small parishes of 600 families to a large parish of 10,400 families, he has been an Associate Archdiocesan Director of Youth Ministry and served on membership committees with NFCYM and NACYML.


Joe Mele


Joe Mele is a Learning & Organizational Development professional based in Houston, TX. Prior to corporate work, Joe was a Youth Minister in the Diocese of Scranton, Baltimore, and Galveston-Houston. Joe has worked from small parishes of 600 families to a large parish of 10,400 families, he has been an Associate Archdiocesan Director of Youth Ministry and served on membership committees with NFCYM and NACYML.



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