Michael Theisen, diocesan director of youth ministry, planned to leave his position with the diocese Nov. 1 to become director of membership services for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
Theisen came to the Diocese of Rochester in 1992, and under his leadership youth ministry here has grown by leaps and bounds, said Maribeth Mancini, diocesan director of the Department of Evangelization and Catechesis.
“Michael has been responsible for the amazing growth of youth ministry here in the Diocese of Rochester,” Mancini said. “Michael is a man of great gifts, and he has shared them generously with our diocese. We are richer for his presence and his gifts. His move to a national role is a natural step for a man of his talents.”
Theisen said he has always felt drawn to ministry within the church. He attended a high-school seminary in Richmond, Va., before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University. He then worked for Big Brothers, Big Sisters for a few months before taking a job as a parish youth minister and pastoral social worker in Midlothian, Va.
“I started and just immediately fell in love with youth ministry,” Theisen said. “I had considered the priesthood, but the call to marriage and family was greater. I was very grateful that there was a job within the church where as a married man I could still continue to follow my calling to ministry.”
Theisen’s wife, Mary, is from the Rochester area, so the couple visited the region each year, but Theisen had never seriously considered living and working in Rochester until 1990. That year Rochester hosted the National Conference for Catholic Youth Ministers, and Theisen heard Bishop Matthew H. Clark speak at the event.
“It was his inclusiveness and his gentle, pastoral way that just struck me. That was a big part in our decision to look at this diocese,” Theisen said.
Theisen was named diocesan coordinator of youth ministry in 1992 as the diocese was nearing the end of its synod process — where faith formation had been named a priority — and parishes had started looking at the needs of their young people.
“Our soil was so fertile and so good for growing this ministry,” Theisen said.
Youth ministry has indeed grown and changed in the 13 years since Theisen arrived in Rochester, Mancini said. In 1993 Theisen brought a delegation of more than 500 people to see Pope John Paul II in Denver for World Youth Day, and this event gave local youth ministry new life, she said.
After that event, youth ministry “just exploded” here, Theisen said. In comparison, more than 1,000 people — many of them teens — from the Rochester Diocese traveled to Toronto for World Youth Day 2002. More than 450 teens recently attended the annual Diocesan Youth Convention, and every other year the Rochester Diocese sends hundreds of teens to the National Catholic Youth Conference. Rochester usually sends more participants than any other diocese in the nation, with the exception of those from the state hosting the conference, Theisen said.
“I think that is a great sign of the health of youth ministry at the local level. The only way (the teens) are going to get there is with the support of the parishes,” he added.
During Theisen’s first year in Rochester, the diocese presented Hands of Christ awards to 200 teens who displayed outstanding service. This year, at least 800 teens will be honored, he said. This number is yet another testimony to the value and worth of the work the youth ministers and volunteers are doing in the parishes, he added.
Theisen also has been responsible for many new initiatives within the diocese, Mancini said. He organized the annual Run for the Young in 1998 as a new way for the diocese to raise money for scholarships and special events for teens, and launched the annual Junior High Youth Rally and several initiatives to encourage teens to participate in their parishes and develop their leadership skills.
Theisen also put together the Diocesan Youth Committee, a group of teens and adults who plan and assist at many of the diocesan youth events each year. Theisen said members of this committee kept him grounded and amazed him with their insight, commitment and courage.
Theisen said he has enjoyed watching youth ministry in the diocese grow at a rapid and steady pace, and although he’s excited about his new position, he will miss working with diocesan staff, youths and youth ministers here.
“It was just really meant to be, and I’ve felt that from the very beginning. I could probably count on one hand the number of days I didn’t like my job,” he said.
Although the NFCYM is based in Washington, D.C., Theisen will continue to live in Rochester, commuting to NFCYM’s headquarters every other week.
Sue Versluys, diocesan youth-ministry program specialist, has been named interim coordinator for youth ministry.