FOCUS

CHICAGO — While the rest of the Catholic Church is wringing its hands about the “nones” who have distanced themselves from organized religion, thousands of young people spent part of their winter vacation — in frigid Chicago, no less — at a conference about their Catholic faith.

In the run-up to the Synod of Bishops on young people in October, there has been much talk about young Catholics and their connections — or lack of connections — to the Catholic faith. But one national ministry has had massive success reaching out to college-age Catholics: the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS. In this three-part series this week, national correspondent Heidi Schlumpf takes an in-depth look at this organization.

For Madalena DeAndrea, a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, the highlight of the trip wasn’t trying deep-dish pizza or shopping on the Magnificent Mile. It was the hour of kneeling in prayer with 8,000 of her peers for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in a conference hall filled with wafting incense, reflective music and the host encased in a gold monstrance.

“It was amazing seeing everyone come together in praise and worship and being able to surrender everything,” said DeAndrea, who attended the Jan. 2-6 Student Leadership Summit sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, known as FOCUS.

The Colorado-based national college outreach program, founded 20 years ago at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, now evangelizes on 137 campuses around the country. With an annual budget of $57 million a year and nearly 800 employees, FOCUS has grown to exert substantial influence on a generation of Catholics, many of whom are unaware of FOCUS’ ties to traditionalist and conservative organizations.

Despite its success in reaching large numbers of college students on the campuses where FOCUS sends “missionaries” (its term for on-campus employees), the group has come under criticism for a narrow interpretation of Catholicism and spirituality, a lack of diversity, and insufficient pastoral training of its missionaries.

But DeAndrea has been so inspired by her involvement with FOCUS that she has decided to use her degree in business strategy and entrepreneurship to work for the organization after graduation, leading small-group Bible studies and trying to “disciple” college students in one-on-one relationships.

“FOCUS radically changed my life,” said DeAndrea, who grew up Catholic but deepened her faith after connecting with a female missionary on her campus. “She brought me into a closer relationship with Christ. It helped me to be the person I’m meant to be.”

A FOCUS women’s Bible study group gave Elisa Angevin purpose and strengthened her values — at first. As a freshman at New York University, she met a missionary, who became a mentor and a friend.

But as she met different people outside that community — some of whom were “rubbed the wrong way” by FOCUS — Angevin began to distance herself from the group because it felt exclusionary, rigid and not open to different ways of being Catholic.

“Once you become part of FOCUS, it has a very structured approach,” recalled Angevin, now 25 and a social worker in New York. “It created a lot of passion. But a lot of student leaders looked down on other people who didn’t have the same passion.”

Angevin attended some of FOCUS’ mega-conferences, such as the Student Leadership Summit, and was inspired by the speakers and sense of community. “It was empowering to see people my age who were as excited as I was,” Angevin recalled. “But as I started to get older, the newness had worn off … and it felt very closed.”

‘War for the hearts, minds and souls of this generation’

At the Chicago event, held at the sprawling McCormick Place convention center, FOCUS founder Curtis Martin struts onto the stage, hands in the air, shouting “Woo!” and “Awesome!” to the applauding summit attendees who had been enjoying a contemporary Christian band before his keynote address. Two days earlier, actor Jim Caviezel — Jesus in the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” — made a surprise visit to the conference.

Katie Brown from the University of Toledo, Ohio, and Anna Davis from the University of Missouri Columbia, write their prayer intentions on a wall Jan. 3 during a conference sponsored by FOCUS in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Katie Brown from the University of Toledo, Ohio, and Anna Davis from the University of Missouri Columbia, write their prayer intentions on a wall Jan. 3 during a conference sponsored by FOCUS in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

“This is how awesome you are,” Martin said. “When the guy who pretended to be Jesus walked in the room, you all stood up and clapped, but when Jesus showed up, you all fell down and knelt. You know the difference. How cool is that?”

Martin, a father of nine, an author and an EWTN television host, proceeded to describe how FOCUS’ process of “spiritual multiplication” is akin to Jesus’ “finding 12 guys and going camping for three years.” The key to successful evangelization is to “choose a few” and get to know them and love them, he said.

While name-dropping his friend George Weigel, a conservative Catholic columnist, and recounting a story of meeting St. Pope John Paul II, Martin is enthusiastic in his attempt to both encourage and challenge a generation from which he, at 56, is now a few decades removed.

Martin founded FOCUS in 1998, with the help of Archbishop Charles Chaput, then-archbishop of Denver, and Edward Sri, a theology professor at Benedictine at the time. Sri is now a faculty member and vice president of mission at the Augustine Institute, a conservative Catholic graduate school dedicated to the “new evangelization” in Denver.

FOCUS started with two missionaries and 24 college students, and in two decades has grown to more than 660 missionaries on 137 campuses in 38 U.S. states and at four international locations. An estimated 24,000 students have been involved with FOCUS, and the organization claims 674 have decided to pursue vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

Those numbers wow Catholic bishops and other leaders, who likely are weary of hearing about the “nones” and the growing numbers of young people who don’t even believe in God. FOCUS plays on those fears, with marketing materials that stress the loss of an idyllic time when “we had a mother and a father together under one roof” and good role models like Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

“We’re in a war for the hearts, minds and souls of this generation,” a promotional video on FOCUS’ website says, while flashing statistics about suicide, video games and pornography. “They’re growing up in a world with the power to destroy them.”

Why FOCUS

FOCUS promises to “fight for this generation,” and transform lonely, disbelieving cellphone addicts into joyful, God-fearing kids who get excited to spend part of their Christmas vacation standing in line to get a book on chastity signed by the author, as happened at the Student Leadership Summit.

That promise is reminiscent of Martin’s own conversion story. Raised Catholic, he drifted away from religion during adolescence. In college, he discovered evangelical Protestantism and even became anti-Catholic. Eventually he found his way back to Catholicism.

But he took a page out of the evangelicals’ playbook in founding FOCUS, which is clearly modeled after the much larger Campus Crusade for Christ (now branded as “Cru“) and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which have been around since the 1940s and ’50s. Both use small-group Bible studies and one-on-one mentoring to build Christian disciples.

The growth of FOCUS throughout the 2000s happened during a confluence of cultural influences, including the calls for a “new evangelization” during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and an influx of evangelical Protestant converts to Catholicism. It also occurred during the sex abuse crisis and economic recession, both of which contributed to financial shortfalls in many U.S. dioceses.

Campus ministries around the country were not immune from these influences, said Kevin Ahern, assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York and co-editor of the forthcoming book God’s Quad: Small Faith Communities on Campus and Beyond.

“Funding for campus ministries and youth ministries took a huge hit,” which resulted in a vacuum at colleges and universities, Ahern said. “FOCUS emerged and started to fill that vacuum.”

Not always a good fit

But not everyone has cheered the growth of FOCUS. Critics are reluctant to speak publicly, given the organization’s financial resources and connections to prominent Catholic leaders, but even FOCUS admits that its model may not be a good fit for all schools.

An analysis of its existing programs reveals that the organization tends to thrive at large state universities, and that it currently does not employ missionaries at any Jesuit or Lasallian institutions.

FOCUS’ absence at Jesuit campuses is not because of any stated policy, said Jesuit Fr. Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit College and Universities, but rather the result of a commitment to Jesuit-focused campus ministry at those schools. “We really want [students] to have an experience that is Ignatian at every turn,” he said.

Sheeran also noted that campus ministers at Jesuit colleges and universities (and many other schools as well) receive much more training than the four weeks received by FOCUS missionaries.

FOCUS’ summer training, currently held at Ave Maria University in Florida — the traditionalist Catholic school started by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan — is partially dedicated to fundraising, since missionaries are required to fundraise most of their own salaries.

Clergymen walk with a statue of Mary during a June 13, 2017, procession in Ave Maria, Florida, during a ceremony to consecrate the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, to Mary. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

Clergymen walk with a statue of Mary during a June 13, 2017, procession in Ave Maria, Florida, during a ceremony to consecrate the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, to Mary. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

Lack of training and experience in pastoral counseling has resulted in some reports of FOCUS missionaries giving overly simplistic advice, especially in matters of sexuality, some campus ministers said.

The FOCUS missionaries placed at the University of Illinois at Chicago over seven years were “wonderful, committed young Catholics,” said Fr. Patrick Marshall, chaplain and executive director of the St. John Paul II Newman Center at the university.

Although clearly trained in apologetics and church teaching, they often were not experienced in pastoral application of those teachings. “That was troublesome,” Marshall said, noting that especially in cases that involved abortion, abuse or other sensitive matters, “they just weren’t equipped to respond in a pastoral way.”

So Marshall instructed the missionaries to refer students with those issues to the professional lay campus ministers, who were trained in helping students form Christian consciences to make their decisions. Eventually, he declined to renew FOCUS’ contract with the university.

The FOCUS program attracts young people “who wanted certainty,” said Marshall, who has worked in campus ministry for 27 years. “I guess the students who did participate felt good about their experience. I’m not sure how much of that is long-lasting.”

Earlier in its history, the organization had a reputation for missionaries being heavy-handed in their evangelical zeal, or for not working well with existing campus ministries, though even critics admit FOCUS has made improvements in those areas more recently.

“We try never to be the only Catholic ministry presence on campus,” said Hilary Draftz, FOCUS’ West Area director. “We always work best with the parish, diocesan or religious order campus ministry that’s existing on the campus” — which is the case in more than 90 percent of FOCUS’ situations.

FOCUS Women_s Bible Study on campus resize.jpg

A FOCUS women's Bible study group on campus: FOCUS promises to "fight for this generation," and transform lonely, disbelieving cellphone addicts into joyful, God-fearing kids. (Courtesy of FOCUS)

A FOCUS women’s Bible study group on campus: FOCUS promises to “fight for this generation,” and transform lonely, disbelieving cellphone addicts into joyful, God-fearing kids. (Courtesy of FOCUS)

FOCUS missionaries are not trained — and are not expected — to assist with liturgy, sacramental preparation or RCIA, service projects, retreats and other event planning, or to keep “the Catholic center afloat,” Draftz said.

“That allows us to be out on the campus meeting students … being the arms and legs on campus, drawing students in,” said Draftz. Much of a missionary’s day is spent just hanging out with students in the dining hall, rec center or coffee house.

But despite FOCUS’ promises to increase the number of students attending events at the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, those numbers did not materialize, according to Mary Deeley, a pastoral associate at the Evanston, Illinois, campus.

“At best, it stayed the same,” said Deeley, adding that some students actually stopped hanging out at the center because they were turned off by the FOCUS missionaries’ “culture warrior” mentality and individualistic spirituality.

Deeley admired the missionaries for “trying to live a godly, righteous life and for challenging the culture,” she said. “But once you want to ask deeper questions and get into the gray areas of life, it doesn’t serve as well.”

Northwestern ended its contract with FOCUS after three years.

“One size does not fit all when it comes to evangelization,” Deeley said. “There are many doors into Catholicism. … But the FOCUS method, as I observed it, is that there is only one way of practicing the faith.”

FOCUS leaders say missionaries come from different backgrounds with varied spiritualties and liturgical tastes. And the program’s emphasis on relationships transcends differences, even political ones, since “Christ is the common denominator,” said Fr. Michael Schmitz, chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth, which has had FOCUS missionaries for 10 years.

Still, a lack of racial, ethnic and economic diversity among students served by FOCUS is another criticism — and somewhat evident in the faces of the Student Leadership Summit participants and presenters. Nearly every speaker, performer and emcee was white. FOCUS was unable to provide any ethnic or racial data about the summit or other FOCUS participants or employees.

The questions of diversity and “how to be a more inclusive community” are ones that FOCUS and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association are aware of and working on, said Michael St. Pierre, executive director of the association, which works closely with FOCUS.

FOCUS’ emphasis on personal piety to the detriment of social issues is also a concern, especially since young people will be disproportionately affected by many of the social injustices facing society today, said Ahern. “Young adults will be drafted for war; they will deal with climate change,” he said. “If we’re not giving them the tools to think critically through the lens of faith about these issues, then we’re doing them a disservice.”

When pressed about social justice, FOCUS leaders point to its international mission trips over school breaks. But addressing complex social problems is not the organization’s strength, admitted St. Pierre. What it does best is provide young missionaries who are orthodox, faithful to the church, and energetic, he said.

Venture Into the Deep // FOCUS Missions

That zeal is attractive to young people who have a desire for adventure and greatness, said John Zimmer, who has been with FOCUS almost since the beginning and is currently vice president of apostolic development.

“Nobody wants to live a pathetic life; nobody wants to sit around and be a bump on a log. They want to live a noble, awesome life,” said Zimmer, who said his experiences with the church before college were “blasé” and “milquetoast.”

“Sometimes we fall into the trap of being afraid to present the truth of the Gospel, because we’re afraid we’re going to be persecuted or make the church look rigid,” he said.

“Our most successful missionaries express the joy of the Gospel in how they live and how they proclaim the truth,” he said. “Not everyone is going to receive it. Sometimes people are not interested, so you say, ‘I’m still here and loving you. Let’s keep playing Frisbee.’ ”

That’s what DeAndrea, the Colorado college senior ready to commit the next two years of her life to being a FOCUS missionary, wants to do. “It’s not about winning people over,” she said. “And it’s not my role to judge somebody who shies away from church teaching. It’s my role to love that person where they’re at.”

A sign for reserved seating is seen as young people pray during the closing Mass Jan. 6 for the Student Leadership Summit sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

A sign for reserved seating is seen as young people pray during the closing Mass Jan. 6 for the Student Leadership Summit sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

CHICAGO — David Hickson is a typical FOCUS employee: fresh-faced, enthusiastic and confident that he is doing God’s work. However, unlike many of his colleagues, Hickson did not get introduced to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students as a college student. He started as a donor.

In the run-up to the Synod of Bishops on young people in October, there has been much talk about young Catholics and their connections — or lack of connections — to the Catholic faith. But one national ministry has had massive success reaching out to college-age Catholics: the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS. In this three-part series this week, national correspondent Heidi Schlumpf takes an in-depth look at this organization.

Part 1: FOCUS’ emphasis on the new evangelization

Part 2: FOCUS’ substantial financial resources and connections to conservative organizations

Part 3: FOCUS’ plan for expansion into parishes 

After graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, Hickson was working as a Spanish teacher in the Washington, D.C., area when two friends from college asked him to support their work as FOCUS missionaries. (One was Gabriel Hahn, son of Catholic convert and apologetics author Scott Hahn.)

Such financial support — which FOCUS calls “ministry partnership” — requires each of its nearly 700 missionaries to raise a substantial portion of their salary: at least $3,260 a month. Patterned after the Protestant evangelical organization Campus Crusade for Christ (now rebranded as “Cru“), ministry partnership is one of FOCUS’ main financial models.

Today, Hickson — who is married and has two children — is on the flip side, fundraising his salary through the generosity of about 100 supporters who donate anywhere from $2 to $250 a month for him to work as FOCUS’ international missions manager, coordinating service trips like the one where he met his wife, also a former FOCUS campus missionary.

FOCUS’ financial model of ministry sponsorship — combined with national fundraising, profits from conferences and mission trips, and fees paid by dioceses or schools — has helped FOCUS achieve extraordinary financial success and facilitated massive growth in its 20-year history. In fact, FOCUS’ $57 million budget for the year ending May 31, 2017, is double its operating budget from just five years ago.

Those numbers dwarf comparable organizations, such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which raises and spends approximately $5 million a year, one-tenth as much as FOCUS. A competing Catholic campus ministry program, called St. Paul’s Outreach, also is much smaller, with an annual budget of approximately $8 million, according to its financial records.

In fact, FOCUS’ budget is comparable to the much more prominent EWTN, the conservative Catholic television network, well-known for its influence on the U.S. church — and for its connections to other conservative Catholic groups.

The majority of FOCUS’ $57 million — 82 percent — is spent on program services, whether on campuses, at conferences or on mission trips. The organization spends 11 percent on fundraising expenses and 7 percent on administrative expenses, according to its most recent annual report. Those percentages are well within the recommended overhead for Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance’s Standards for Charity Accountability, which calls for at least 65 percent of revenue to be spent on programs.

Focused fundraising 

Where does FOCUS get its money? More than half comes from “support team contributions” via mission partnerships such as Hickson’s, according to the organization’s annual reports and tax documents.

Missionaries with FOCUS pray the rosary during a June 13, 2017, procession in Ave Maria, Florida. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

Missionaries with FOCUS pray the rosary during a June 13, 2017, procession in Ave Maria, Florida. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

This fundraise-your-salary model is more common in Protestant evangelical organizations, although St. Paul’s Outreach also uses it. Both Catholic organizations promote a “Lord will provide” mentality when it comes to missionaries’ fundraising, but the organizations also provide training in how to write request letters and approach prospective donors. The FOCUS website contains a page for each missionary to tell his or her story with a direct link to an individual donation page.

If missionaries fail to hit the minimum requirement, they may be pulled from campus temporarily to fundraise full time; otherwise, fundraising is emphasized during summer and other academic breaks. During the school year, missionaries should expect to dedicate about four hours a week to “donor ministry,” which may include giving presentations at parishesaccording to a FOCUS handbook.

A missionary’s salary varies based on their fundraising success, with a minimum of about $36,000 and a maximum of over $50,000, depending on the missionary’s situation. (The maximum for St. Paul’s Outreach is lower, according to its website.)

FOCUS’ salaries are more in line with Cru’s, which also vary based on the employee’s need: A starting salary for a single person was $28,000 in 2016, while a married couple with no children would make $55,000, according to its website.

FOCUS’ maximum for a new missionary can seem high when compared to a typical entry-level campus minister, and would be closer to the $65,000 average salary of a head of university campus ministries, according to the most recent data from the Professionals in Higher Education Salary Survey.

Studies of personal fundraising in evangelical outreach ministries, primarily by University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry, have found the model works less well in communities of color, leading to an overrepresentation of white people in those organizations.

For FOCUS, not only missionaries, but also college students are encouraged to fundraise from their family and friends to pay to attend the organization’s annual conferences, called “Seek” (focused on faith exploration) and “Student Leadership Summit” (which emphasizes leadership development). This year’s five-day, four-night summit in Chicago cost $700 per student (with a $200 discount for those involved in FOCUS on their campuses), plus travel and food.

A “student fundraising packet” provides sample letters, thank-you notes and phone scripts, as well as scriptural references that encourage giving others “the opportunity to support your walk with the Lord!” 

Deeper in Mission | SLS18

Those conferences — which attract thousands of attendees (13,000 to Seek in San Antonio in 2017 and 8,000 to the Student Leadership Summit in Chicago in 2018) — also are a source of income for FOCUS. Together with international mission trips, these events account for 17 percent of income and 11 percent of expenditures, according to annual reports.

A good deal for dioceses?

In addition, campuses that contract with FOCUS missionaries — who are usually in teams of four — pay FOCUS headquarters $15,000 per missionary, or $60,000 per year for four full-time employees, which FOCUS said covers about one quarter of the cost. With 138 campuses, those annual fees amount to about $8 million, or 14 percent of the organization’s revenue.

That fee is much less than the cost of hiring four non-FOCUS employees, said Michael St. Pierre, executive director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association. Consequently, some universities — and bishops — see FOCUS as a relatively inexpensive way to beef up campus ministry staff.

“It was like multiplying my ministry by four or more,” said Fr. Michael Schmitz, chaplain at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is one of only two non-FOCUS, full-time staff members at the Newman Center there. “I have 14,000 students on campus, and there are only 24 hours in the day.”

Fr. Peter Mussett, of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, chats with Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionaries on the campus in 2014. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

Fr. Peter Mussett, of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, chats with Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionaries on the campus in 2014. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

The model works well at Schmitz’s university, which has hired FOCUS missionaries for the past 10 years, he said. Sunday Mass attendance at the Newman Center is up 40 percent from last year, he said, and daily Mass attendance has risen 25 to 30 percent, not to mention previous increases as well, which he credits — at least in part — to the missionaries’ outreach.

Schmitz thinks the cost of FOCUS is worth it. “We get back far more than we have to give,” he said. The Duluth Diocese pays FOCUS’ campus fee, but in some dioceses, it comes from the school’s campus ministry budget.

But universities that have dropped FOCUS as part of their campus ministry programming question the financial arrangement — as well as the organization’s approach and theology.

“I can see the appeal to bishops [who think they] can do something with campus ministry without the costs of a trained campus minister,” said Mary Deeley, pastoral associate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, whose Sheil Catholic Center ended its relationship with FOCUS in 2015.

“But is there bang for your buck?” she asked. Not for Northwestern, Deeley believes.

FOCUS missionaries “are not trained in liturgy and can’t do pastoral counseling. They only do Bible study and one-on-one outreach,” Deeley said, whereas a full-time campus minister would be more versatile, with training in all those areas.

Fr. Patrick Marshall at the University of Illinois at Chicago also could not justify the expense, given the small numbers of students who participated in FOCUS Bible studies at the campus. He figured that the 50 or so students active in FOCUS were costing campus ministry $1,000 per student per year.

“The numbers just weren’t increasing,” said Marshall, chaplain at the St. John Paul II Newman Center at the university. The fee for the FOCUS missionaries represented about one-tenth of his overall budget for an estimated 18,000 Catholic students at the school. “It just got to the point where I couldn’t justify it.”

Conservative connections

In some cases, outside donors have offered to pay a campus’ fee. These donors — sometimes anonymous — may be connected to the university or may come from FOCUS’ national donor pool, which provides 16 percent of FOCUS’ income and includes wealthy Catholics and several big names from conservative Catholic circles.

FOCUS founder Curtis Martin and at least two members of FOCUS’ President’s Advancement Council are or have been members of Legatus, an organization of wealthy Catholic executives founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan. Legatus also has extensive membership overlap with the Napa Institute, which hosts the foremost gathering of well-heeled conservative Catholic financiers at founder Timothy Busch‘s swanky resort in northern California.

Serving on FOCUS’ board of directors is William Mumma, president and chair of the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a right-wing legal group trying to redefine religious liberty through cases involving Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor of Denver, and others who have challenged the Obama administration’s mandate for contraception coverage in all insurance plans.

FOCUS’ national fundraising also brings in grants from foundations, again some with conservative connections, according to data from the Foundation Directory Online. For example, one FOCUS grantor is New York hedge fund honcho Sean Fieler’s Chiaroscuro Foundation, which funds a number of anti-gay-marriage groups and other conservative groups. (Fieler also serves on the board of the Becket Fund.)

Larger, more recent grants to FOCUS include $1 million from the Tulsa Community Foundation and more than $500,000 from a Nebraska-based foundation created by trucking businessman C.L. Werner. Werner also help fund — with the Charles Koch Foundation — a controversial institute at Creighton University in Omaha that promotes free-market economic theories. (Charles Koch is the Kansas billionaire who with his brother, David, has become influential in libertarian and conservative politics.)

Related: Conservative donors aim to shape Catholic narrative for the wider culture

This Creighton Institute for Economic Inquiry was the brainchild of wealth manager Gail Werner-Robertson, who also serves on FOCUS’ board of directors.  FOCUS’ board also includes Jonathan Reyes, assistant general secretary for Integral Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Reyes helped found and served as the first president of the Augustine Institute of Denver, a graduate program dedicated to the new evangelization and “faithful orthodoxy” and whose bishops’ advisory board includes some of most conservative prelates in the country.

Other donors and board members — and, in some cases, Martin — teach or serve on the boards at the Aquinas Institute or other conservative Catholic schools, such as Franciscan University of Steubenville, Monaghan’s Ave Maria University in Florida, and others. FOCUS also just partnered with the University of Mary to offer a Master of Business Administration in Catholic philanthropy through a new institute at the school, which was named the No. 1 most conservative college in North Dakota by a website that ranks conservative schools.

How FOCUS compares with other national campus ministry groups (NCR graphic/Heidi Schlumpf/Stephanie Yeagle)

Click for full-size graphic

Other FOCUS supporters include board member Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of Catholic News Agency, which is owned by ETWN; advancement council member Frederic Clark, who is also on the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, publisher of First Things magazine; and national chaplain Capuchin Fr. John Lager, a co-founder of the evangelically-minded “Marked Men for Christ” retreats.

Other board and council members are affiliated with more progressive or mainstream organizations such as the Cristo Rey Network or the Maryknollers. And the chief financial officer from FOCUS, in turn, serves on the board of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, a sign of “partnership and collaboration” between the two organizations, said St. Pierre.

But the official sponsors and most of the exhibitors at the Student Leadership Summit in Chicago also represented conservative organizations, including the Augustine Institute, Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois, Relevant Radio and others. These sponsors also are promoted through emails and other communications to conference attendees, donors and others who end up on FOCUS’ mailing lists.

In some ways, turning energetic young Catholics into a solid donor base is an impressive feat, said Kevin Ahern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York who has researched worldwide student movements.

But FOCUS’ corporate model — as opposed to the student-led movements of the past and still present in other parts of the world — has its negatives, too, Ahern said. “FOCUS is not a student organization; it’s a student-serving organization,” he said. “It has a model of corporate governance, with boards of directors, like many of our Catholic institutions, drawn from people with financial resources, usually older white men.”

(Every member of FOCUS’ current 21-person advancement group is white. The 18-member board of directors includes one Latino.)

Capuchin Franciscan Fr. John Lager, national chaplain for FOCUS since 2013, holds the monstrance during adoration at the organization's SEEK 2015 gathering in Nashville, Tennessee. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

Capuchin Franciscan Fr. John Lager, national chaplain for FOCUS since 2013, holds the monstrance during adoration at the organization’s SEEK 2015 gathering in Nashville, Tennessee. (CNS/Courtesy of FOCUS)

Are the students involved in FOCUS aware of the organization’s connections to conservative groups? Most of the missionary partners are just helping out a friend who has decided to devote a couple years to being a missionary.

For Hickson, however, being asked by his friends to donate to FOCUS has been life-changing and has literally taken him all over the world as international missions manager. In exchange for his financial support, the missionaries prayed for his intentions and kept him informed about their work, which inspired him to make changes in his own life.

“These missionaries brought me back to the love of the Father … and called me to holiness,” said Hickson, who eventually realized: “I need to live differently.”

CHICAGO — About a thousand young Catholics, all alumni of FOCUS programs, get out of their seats and erupt into conversation and laughter in the middle of a presentation at the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ annual conference. You could call it chaos, but John Zimmer calls it “spiritual multiplication.”

In the run-up to the Synod of Bishops on young people in October, there has been much talk about young Catholics and their connections — or lack of connections — to the Catholic faith. But one national ministry has had massive success reaching out to college-age Catholics: the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS. In this three-part series, national correspondent Heidi Schlumpf takes an in-depth look at this organization.  Part 1: FOCUS’ emphasis on the new evangelization 

Part 2: FOCUS’ substantial financial resources and connections to conservative organizations.  Part 3: FOCUS’ plan for expansion into parishes

The exercise began with Zimmer tapping three volunteers on the shoulder, then sending them out into the audience to each do the same to three other people. Those audience members likewise were instructed to tap three more people, and so on. Within minutes, everyone has been tapped, modeling “spiritual multiplication,” the phrase FOCUS uses to describe a pyramidal model of the “new evangelization.”

The idea is to be not just “faithful, but fruitful,” said Zimmer, vice president of apostolic development for FOCUS, the Colorado-based national college outreach program that has grown to exert substantial influence in the U.S. Catholic Church.

But these young Catholics, who are attending the “lifelong mission track” at the Student Leadership Summit in Chicago in January, already know about spiritual multiplication. As former FOCUS employees (called “missionaries”) or as students involved with the organization on their college campuses, they were taught its “Win, build, send” formula.  

“Win” means to build “authentic friendships” with people, with the ultimate purpose of evangelization, while “build” requires helping those friends grow in faith and virtue through what FOCUS calls “the big three” virtues: chastity, sobriety and excellence.

“Send” is what Zimmer was trying to illustrate with his exercise: the need to spread the Gospel to others — who can then also spread it, and so on — whether by starting a Bible study on campus or witnessing with a Christian life in the workplace. This “spiritual multiplication,” FOCUS teaches, is required by Jesus.

“It’s not enough to share the good news. Those who have heard the gospel must learn to teach it to others,” said the 2016 publication “How FOCUS Works” for universities considering hiring missionaries on their campuses. “Teaching others how to teach is a bedrock principle of FOCUS missionary work; therefore, those whom the missionaries win and build must be ‘sent’ to share the life they have in Christ with others.”

Curtis Martin: “The Power of Spiritual Multiplication” | SEEK2015

FOCUS founder Curtis Martin demonstrates how “spiritual multiplication” works during an address at the organization’s 2015 SEEK conference in Nashville, Tennessee. (YouTube/FOCUS)
Although spiritual multiplication refers to “discipling” individuals, it also could describe how the organization itself has grown over the past 20 years, from a handful of missionaries doing outreach at one school to nearly 700 on 137 campuses today.

Zimmer, who has been with FOCUS almost since the beginning and thus is familiar with — and perhaps partly responsible for — its sizeable expansion, also has the responsibility for charting future growth.

The plan is to nearly double the number of college and university campuses where FOCUS sends missionaries in the next five years, to 250 schools, Zimmer told NCR. Such growth seems plausible, given FOCUS’ substantial financial resources, with last year’s budget of $57 million nearly double its budget from five years ago.

In his Student Leadership Summit presentation, Zimmer explained why “discipling” is the most effective way to reach the world. Not only is it what Jesus did (“He invested in 12 men”), but anyone can do it, he said. And because it is a “person-centered approach,” it provides “maximum impact,” he said.

 

Last year, FOCUS hired 200 new missionaries and now has more than 1,000 former missionaries who have worked at least two years for the organization. If Zimmer’s five-year growth predictions are accurate, more than 75,000 alumni (former missionaries and participants) will soon transition into the 17,000 parishes in the United States, not only as people in the pews, but leaders and perhaps employees.

But some parishes are already employing FOCUS missionaries, as part of a new pilot program that tries to implement “Win, build, send” in parishes, similar to the organization’s current model on college campuses.

The program was launched two years ago in four parishes: in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Charlotte, North Carolina; Orange, California; and a Chicago suburb. Expansion to 25 parishes in the next five years is planned in what appears to be FOCUS’ next frontier.

“The new evangelization is not just on college campuses,” Zimmer told NCR. “It’s in parishes, in neighborhoods, in workplaces. For the new evangelization to really take root, we need parishes to be able to thrive. Some are great, but some are struggling.”

Lifelong mission in parishes

One area where many U.S. parishes are struggling is in attracting younger adults to Mass. That was true at St. James, a large parish in the northwest Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. So the pastor, Fr. Matt Foley, agreed to be part of the pilot program that places pairs of FOCUS missionaries in parishes.

Matt Marcheschi, who was hired with a female counterpart, Erin Corbett, started by hosting a young married couples group with his wife, but the ministry quickly broadened beyond the young adult demographic. This Lent, the two missionaries are coordinating 16 Bible study groups of eight to 10 parishioners each.

“We’re here to bring a vision for discipleship and spiritual multiplication to the parish, not specifically to any age group,” said Marcheschi, who has worked for FOCUS for 14 years, first as a campus missionary, then in regional leadership and now in parish outreach.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fstjamesah%2Fphotos%2Fa.133854483326783.19830.133846223327609%2F1575843952461155%2F%3Ftype%3D3&width=500
A Facebook post shows parishioners of St. James in Arlington Heights, Illinois, at the Student Leadership Summit sponsored by FOCUS in January in Chicago.

Although there have been challenges adapting the FOCUS model to parishes, Marcheschi already sees fruit from his work. “I’ve noticed a deep hunger and need for parishioners to go deeper, to know how to share their faith and to have people accompany them in their faith journey to Christ,” he said.

And the “Win, build, send” formula works just as well with adults as it does for college students, Marcheschi said. “The call is the same, the need is the same, and the practical steps are the same,” he said.

Outreach at a parish, however, differs from campus ministry because it is intergenerational and must adapt to the lives of working people who are often raising children. Marcheschi has had to be creative, noting that a weekly Bible study — the common format on college campuses — doesn’t always work in a parish.

“However, I think the desire and the hunger to want to know how to share your faith transcends all that,” he said.

Parish missionaries also fundraise their salaries, similar to on-campus missionaries who must raise $3,260, although parish-based missionaries typically raise more because they are older, more experienced and may be supporting a family, said FOCUS spokesperson Leslie Prevish.

But unlike campus missionaries—which cost a school $15,000 per person—the annual fee for parish missionaries is double that, $32,000, or $64,000 for the pair of missionaries hired together. Again, the higher numbers are due to those missionaries’ years of experience, Prevish said.

Marcheschi and Corbett are taking on baptismal preparation at the parish, and a new youth minister is a FOCUS alumna, Marcheschi said. Another FOCUS alum, already a parishioner, is leading a Bible study group.

That kind of parish involvement — what FOCUS calls “lifelong mission” — is exactly what the organization tries to prepare college graduates for once they become spouses, parents and professionals. “Once they leave the college campus is really when it begins,” Marcheschi said. “Living out [mission] in everyday life is why parishes exist.”

Fr. Bobby Krueger, pastor at St. Leonard Parish in Berwyn, Illinois, visits with young people Jan. 3 during a conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Fr. Bobby Krueger, pastor at St. Leonard Parish in Berwyn, Illinois, visits with young people Jan. 3 during a conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Expansion concerns

But those who criticize FOCUS for placing inexperienced or undereducated ministers in campus ministry positions are equally concerned when FOCUS missionaries serve in parish ministries. Most missionaries, like Marcheschi, have only bachelor’s degrees, since they serve immediately after graduating from college, and their degrees may not be in theology or a related pastoral field.

The more than 50,000 professional lay ecclesial ministers employed by parishes in the United States, on the other hand, are usually better trained, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

About half of lay ecclesial ministers have graduate degrees, while others may have certificates from the country’s nearly 200 lay ministry formation programs, which are sponsored either by dioceses or by Catholic colleges or universities, or by both, according to the CARA study.

Marti Jewell, who led a six-year national research project on parish leadership for the National Association for Lay Ministry, praises the energy and zeal of FOCUS missionaries but has some concerns about lack of preparation and oversight.

“I believe it is critical that pastors and campus ministers understand the very real need to hire appropriately educated persons with theology and ministry degrees to work with our young adults, and the potential consequences when they fail to do so,” said Jewell, associate professor of pastoral theology at the Neuhoff School of Ministry at the University of Dallas.

A lay ecclesial minister, as defined by the U.S. bishops’ 2005 document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord,” is an appropriately prepared and formed person who is authorized by the hierarchy to serve publicly in a particular area of ministry, in collaboration with bishops, priests and deacons.

Although hired by the pastor, and with the approval of the local bishop, FOCUS missionaries differ from other parish lay ecclesial ministers in that they are employees of FOCUS and report to their FOCUS superiors.

The potential for problems arises — according to some leaders of campus ministry programs that have dropped FOCUS — when missionaries are not adequately trained in pastoral counseling or Scripture to handle the issues college students, or parishioners, face.

“The people of God deserve well-educated and -formed ministers,” said Jewell.

But given tight parish budgets, FOCUS appears to offer enthusiastic — and relatively affordable — options for parish outreach and other ministry, as it has on college campuses. And there is plenty of need, especially at inner-city and rural parishes that suffer most from lack of resources.

However, FOCUS’ parish program, at least in its pilot phase, is being tested in large urban or suburban parishes — in one case at the diocesan cathedral in Orange, California — that already have multiple, successful ministries.

Students from Michigan Tech University in Houghton carry the school's flag after the closing Mass Jan. 6 at a conference sponsored by the FOCUS in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Students from Michigan Tech University in Houghton carry the school’s flag after the closing Mass Jan. 6 at a conference sponsored by the FOCUS in Chicago. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Likewise, FOCUS’ current list of college campus sites is dominated by large state schools, many of which already have Newman Centers. (FOCUS is also expanding internationally, to Austria, England and Ireland.) But, according to a 2017 study of campus ministry by the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education, three out of four traditional four-year colleges or universities in the U.S. have no Catholic campus ministry, and only one in 44 community colleges do.

Perhaps FOCUS will eventually move into those venues as well, since it quotes Matthew 28 to “make disciples of all nations” in its “bottom line” statement of purpose. And as one FOCUS leader pointed out, its mission statement actually says nothing about college campuses, but rather only to fulfill the “great commission.”

FOCUS started on college campuses because of the substantial need and equally substantial opportunity there, said Hilary Draftz, FOCUS’ West Area director. “Nowhere are people more networked … so you have the potential to affect so many people and magnify the impact,” she said.

But FOCUS is not just a campus ministry organization, she said, comparing its strategy to that of business tycoon Elon Musk, who once explained that he doesn’t run a car company, but rather a battery company — a battery that just happens to be tested first in a car, but eventually could power the world.

In this analogy, spiritual multiplication is the battery, and campus ministries are the cars. “That’s where we’re testing it out,” said Draftz. “The college campus is not the only place where that’s needed or could work.”

Those college students already reached by FOCUS will over the years become parents, teachers, lawyers, priests and bishops. In fact, the organization already boasts that nearly 700 FOCUS alumni have decided to pursue a vocation to priesthood or religious life, and one-quarter of religious women under the age of 40 have been involved with FOCUS.

“We believe that if they make a Christ-shaped impact on the world, that’s how we will be able to fulfill that great commission,” Draftz said. “We desire each and every man, woman and child on the face of the planet to have the opportunity to say yes to Jesus and be with him forever in heaven.”

[Heidi Schlumpf is NCR national correspondent. Her email address is hschlumpf@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter @HeidiSchlumpf.]

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