Thursday, August 27, 2009

Second-generation 'Netters' follow in parents' footsteps

Service on NET retreat teams will help young adults grow in their faith and gain valuable life skills

Seventeen-year-old Ruth Wagner is leaving home this fall, and on her road to independence, she’ll travel through many states in a van full of young people for nine months — just like her father, Scott, did 26 years ago. Not really thinking about following in her father’s footsteps, Ruth, a member of St. Michael in Stillwater, decided to serve this year with National Evangelization Teams (NET) Ministries, a West St. Paul-based youth ministry.

She is one of a growing number of “second-generation Netters” who are finding in NET a way to grow in their faith, share it with other young people and gain valuable life skills.

“I think one of the things about the second generation team members is that it has to be their own experience,” said Mark Berchem, NET founder and executive director.

“They may be doing it because their parents have been encouraging them, because they’ve hosted Netters in their homes or they’ve been to some of the other NET programs, but fundamentally I think each of them comes to some decision that God is inviting them to be part of the church’s mission to evangelize,” he said.

Broad reach

This month, 105 young adults ages 18 to 30 from 24 states are training to be on teams that will travel to 65 U.S. dioceses, where they will lead confirmation and other retreats for 70,000 junior high and senior high students.

Since NET was founded in 1981, NET teams have led more than 24,000 retreats and ministered to more than 1.6 million young people. In addition, NET offers youth minister training, local teen Masses and events, and other programs.

Ruth first became involved with NET when she attended Lifeline Masses held monthly during the school year in West St. Paul for junior and senior high students. She met Netters and became more involved in the church, eventually deciding on her own to join St. Michael in part because of its youth program.

She felt God calling her to go on NET before college, where she plans to study veterinary science. “I guess I’ve really known that at some point this is what God is calling me to do,” she said.

Scott Wagner and his wife, Holly, of St. Francis in Lakeland, Wis., said they’ve tried to encourage Ruth in her decisions about her faith and future.

“It gets to be pretty tough when they get to be teenagers because they really want to make their own decisions,” Scott said. “Our experience was you could gently encourage them. You could try to make it easy for them to go, but it really does end up to be their decision.”

Many influences

Besides telling stories about being “on the road” with NET in 1981-82, Nick Hall said he didn’t actively encourage his kids to go on NET. They had influences around them including Netters staying at their home, relatives who had served and Lifeline.

Members of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, Nick and his wife Natalie’s son, Joe, went on NET two years ago, and their daughter Sharon just completed a year on NET this spring. Their daughter Loretta is a high school senior interested in going next year. Both Joe and Sharon now attend the University of St. Thomas.

Through home schooling and family prayer, the Halls have developed close relationships with their kids that have enabled them to communicate about faith and post-high school plans, Nick said.

“I don’t know if we’ve given any strong guidance with that other than trying to help them figure out what things they like and what they might want to do, talk with them about stuff, give counsel.”

For Sharon, going on NET wasn’t foremost in her mind until later in high school when she got to know Netters close to her own age. “It was really clearly the Lord [acting] in just the whole process of how it came about because even going into last year, I wasn’t excited.”

She notes that NET has changed a lot since her dad served. For one thing, many of the rules she and her teammates followed came as a result of mistakes during the early years.

Developing lifelong skills

One thing that’s different now is that evangelization is more in Catholics’ consciousness, thanks to Pope John Paul II and recent church teaching, Berchem said.

However, the core of NET’s work, sharing the Gospel through retreats, hasn’t changed, he said.

In addition to offering the chance to grow as a disciple of Christ while serving, NET has always helped young people gain relationship skills useful for any job, he said.

“Just knowing how to relate to people, how to start relationships, how to start a conversation, how to work together as a team for a common purpose, those are great life skills that are going to serve them really, really well regardless of what particular career they go into,” Berchem said.

Ruth Wagner’s year on NET won’t be the same as her dad’s, but she may discover they’ve had similar experiences.

“What’s interesting,” Berchem said, “is if you put some NET alumni in a room together, even though they served 10, 15 or 20 years apart, they experience a certain camaraderie and they pretty quickly end up sharing stories about their time on the road. NET has always been about community.”

Find out more about NET Ministries at

Catholic Spirit

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