October 13, 2023

New archdiocesan director of youth ministry tells teens to let go of pressures and lean on God

In her previous role as the director of youth ministry at Holy Spirit at Geist Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, Rachel Gilman leads a game of Name That Tune, using kazoos, with Lucas Hamilton, left, and Brian Belford, Jr. Gilman is now the new director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

In her previous role as the director of youth ministry at Holy Spirit at Geist Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, Rachel Gilman leads a game of Name That Tune, using kazoos, with Lucas Hamilton, left, and Brian Belford, Jr. Gilman is now the new director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

From working with teenagers for more than seven years, Rachel Gilman knows the challenges and pressures they face today have intensified since she graduated from high school in 2010.

Still, the archdiocese’s new director of youth ministry also knows there are certain questions about life that haven’t changed through the years for youths.

“I remember in high school I was so at a loss of what I wanted to do with my life,” Gilman says. “I would pray and pray and pray, and it just felt like God was so distant in those questions of mine—‘Where are you calling me, God? What am I supposed to do with my life?’ ”

Gilman heard those same questions being asked by teenagers as she previously served as the director of youth ministry at Holy Spirit at Geist Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“Our young people have big questions that they’re looking for answers for. And I think, especially in this day and age, the amount of pressure that’s put on high school students to have their entire life figured out by their freshman year of high school is just so much. I had those questions and felt that pressure, and I know now it’s tenfold. Having conversations with freshmen and sophomores, they have no idea about their futures. They’re figuring out who they are.

“A huge priority of mine in youth ministry is to tell them, ‘You can trust God to guide you, but you also can let go a little bit of all the other things that everybody is telling you. You don’t have to have all the answers.’ I always wanted to give them a little freedom to pray and think about their lives spiritually and not just the practical aspects of life. From my own experience, it takes time to understand where God leads you.”

The story of where God has led the now-31-year-old Gilman is not only insightful about her. It’s also revealing about her main hope for all the youths in the archdiocese—to have a close relationship with Jesus.

The golden thread of God’s presence

“I look back at all my experiences, and I just see now it’s obvious that there’s this golden thread of God preparing me for being called into ministry,” she says.

That thread began in her childhood in South Bend, Ind., where her parents always encouraged her to be involved in her faith, including having her join her mother in singing in the church choir when she was 12. The thread also weaved through her four years at Marian High School in nearby Mishawaka, where she helped with retreats and used the gift of her voice in the school’s liturgical choir.

The strongest stitch came during her four years at Valparaiso University in northern Indiana, where she became involved in campus ministry.

“When I was at Valpo, I decided to have a double major in math and music. That opened doors for me to express my faith and connect with God in a deeper way through music. I joined a praise and worship band and a group called Sweet Wine that did music ministry. We would travel around to churches and organizations, sing and just visit with whoever we were with.

“There were people from so many different faith denominations in it. I learned so much about ecumenism and being friends with people from other faiths. And it taught me so much about how to pray. It also allowed me to learn more about my own faith when they asked me about Catholicism, and I didn’t know the answers.”

She also still struggled with the questions, “Where are you calling me, God? What am I supposed to do with my life?”

“One thing I knew, I had to work with people. I was already involved in the Newman Center. I started thinking about my campus minister, ‘What if you were a campus minister? He gets paid for it.’ Then I just got excited. I changed my math major to theology. I started volunteering at the Newman Center in youth ministry. Every time I did, the joy just kept growing. I loved the relationships I was making with people. It just made sense. I felt it was clearly a call from God.”

‘God, what do you want me to get from this?’

After graduating from college in 2014, Gilman entered the two-year Echo program at the University of Notre Dame, earning a master’s degree in theology while gaining experience in faith formation leadership at a parish in Tampa, Fla.

The thread in her faith-life tapestry then weaved back to Indiana and her seven years at Holy Spirit at Geist Parish.

“I just thrived there. It was incredible, being able to work every day with people who were passionate about their faith. Just watching the way God would walk within the high school students’ lives and my volunteers’ lives, I feel very grateful for that experience.”

Finding joy in working with other youth ministers, she joined the archdiocese in June—a time when two major events in youth ministry loomed on the horizon.

The first one involved being a leader for the archdiocese’s 188 pilgrims who traveled to Portugal for World Youth Day on Aug. 1-6—a pilgrimage when another crisis of confidence for her came to a head.

“One of the things I had been praying for on that pilgrimage was to find the confidence I needed to be in this new role,” Gilman says. “It’s so different from what I was doing. Different work. Different people. I just found myself struggling to believe in myself.

“I had this one moment where I went to a church in Lisbon, and it was mostly empty. I was by myself for the first time in a long time. I just sat down and said, ‘God, what do you want me to get from this?’ I’d been so busy and so focused on our group that I didn’t have much reflective time. The first thing that came into my head was ‘how confident you’ve become from this, having to make all these decisions, having to support all these people, so many different personalities and parishes.’

“I was in awe. I didn’t realize I was capable of all this. I felt that was God speaking to me in that moment, ‘If you can handle this, you can handle anything.’

Coming back now, I feel I have a better sense of knowing people and belonging to the archdiocese.”

“I want them to know God loves them’

Her focus has now turned to her role in the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Indianapolis on Nov. 16-18, during which 12,000 teenagers from across the country—including about 1,050 youths from the archdiocese—will celebrate their faith together.

“I went three times as a youth minister at Holy Spirit,” she says. “I love NCYC for our youth. A huge part of that reason is because it’s so hard to help our young people to have experiences of the larger Church. I just felt it opened their eyes to the reality that they’re not alone, that there are other high school students around the country who love their Catholic faith.

“If you take a kid who goes to a public high school and is afraid to express their faith because of being made fun of or put down in any way, and then you take them to NCYC, oh my gosh, it’s just so lifegiving to see the magnitude of our Church and how many people are really practicing it in our country.”

She has also seen the impact the conference has in creating stronger bonds between youth ministers and the youths of their parish.

“You come back, and you have these memories together. Those kids came back on fire and wanted to be more involved and wanted to be leaders. That was so exciting to see.”

Confident that God has called her to this present place in her faith journey, Gilman strives to help youths across the archdiocese embrace the presence of God in their lives.

“I just want them to know God loves them, that he desires a relationship with them,” she says. “When they have that experience that ‘God wants to be my Father’ or ‘Jesus wants to be my brother or friend,’ that changes everything about someone’s faith. So, my desire would be that every young person would have that experience and know and love God in that way.

“I also hope they would be formed as disciples for the rest of their lives. I think a huge success of youth ministry is when we can look back and say, ‘Look, these people are in college and still going to Mass. They’re talking about their faith and coming back to the parish excited to help. They’re getting married in the Church.’

“I want them to know God loves them, and that changes them forever.” †

Local site Links: