Clayton Ganziano has served First Free Rockford for two years as middle school coordinator. Now he’s also coordinating Rooted, our young-adults ministry. Clayton and Hannah just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
We talked with Clayton about church youth groups, what kids are looking for … and how middle school and young adult ministries actually have a lot to do with one another.
What did your faith look like, growing up?
I grew up in an EV Free church. My family was very involved there. But once I was in high school, my older brother and I just didn’t connect well in the youth group. So we tried a lot of different churches, places that our friends were going or that we had heard about.
The Chapel, a multi-site church in the Chicago area, had just opened a campus at my high school, McHenry High School. We checked it out as a family and it was a place we were OK with going. My mom wanted us to get plugged into the youth group, but I didn’t want to go. That was a whole lot of new people. It was a bigger church and that youth group was going to be big and overwhelming.
The group met in Grayslake, so for the McHenry campus, the students would gather at a Burger King. Then a church bus would pick everyone up and drive them to youth group. So at my mom’s insistence, I tried it one night. As I’m sitting in Burger King, this lady walks in. And she’s like, “Hey, are you getting on the bus?” And I’m like, “Yeah … who are you?”
Well, she was Meredith Domanico, who’s now here at First Free (director of Student Ministries). She had just become the youth pastor, and she caught me totally off guard. So in my head I’m thinking: Just go away. Just go away. C’mon, more people come in, because then she’ll go talk to you instead.
But after that first night, I felt like it was a place where I wanted to be. There was this wave of people saying, “I see you and I want to know who you are.” That was a brand-new experience for me. At our previous church, my family had grown up there, so everybody knew who I was. But a lot of people didn’t actually know me. People didn’t take the next step in trying to find out who I was. They just assumed, “Well, I know your family, so I know who you are.”
What changed about your faith after that?
I lived a large part of my early life thinking I needed to know all the answers. So when my friends would ask me, “How do you know God is real?” I needed to know the answer. And if I didn’t, I thought I would look like a fool and I wouldn’t win them over.
I had all the head knowledge. My church growing up emphasized knowing the Bible – and I know that’s extremely important. That’s what I’m trying to communicate to students today, how important that is. But at a point for me, I thought I knew everything, but I didn’t understand at all what it meant. I could tell you the gospel, but I didn’t know what it meant to live it out.
I don’t want to live my life like that, as if other people’s faith and eternal destination depends on whether I know all the answers. The question actually is, am I open to journey with other people? I would always ask our leaders questions and they didn’t always have the answers. I appreciated the genuineness of somebody looking at me and saying, “That’s actually a really good question. I don’t know the answer. I have my thoughts. But why don’t we together look at this? Let’s open Scripture, let’s go in prayer, and actually sit and process this question.”
How did that experience inform your ministry today?
Students come to me or our leaders with questions now, and a lot of times we could give them answers. That’s great, but that’s not real for me. I didn’t sit in that process of discovery and learning.
I don’t want this just to be a place where they know Bible trivia or they can recite Scripture. Those are good things. But if that is all we are going for, then what’s the point? I want them to be able to truly wrestle with: What does this look like for me? What does this look like in my life? And then to really make their faith their own.
Is there a main impression you want students to have when they attend Heartbeat?
I know there are so many students who go to school and they feel like nobody sees them, nobody notices them. And there is this desire to have friends and be part of a community. What does that look like for us to take intentional steps for them to do that together?
I want every student who comes through our doors to know that they are loved. That’s a need they already know about. They want to be in places that love them and accept them. Not, We love you once you do this, or accept this, or believe this.
I want this to be an easy on-ramp for them to invite their friends from school. Not necessarily to Wednesday nights, but to their small group — for them to find a place as friends that they can actually belong, too.
And I want students to be comfortable asking questions. I tell my students every time, if there’s something I said onstage tonight that makes no sense to you, come talk to me. Or ask your leader in your small group. If a student says, “OK, you just said this and it doesn’t make sense,” that really excites me because I know they were listening.
What have you been tinkering with, format-wise?
Previously the kids were split up by age and gender. This year I wanted to mix it up a little. I’ve heard from past classes: “I know who the girls are, but I don’t really know them. I don’t feel comfortable talking with them.”
I want to see a group that isn’t founded on a friend group here or a friend group there, cliquing up. Like, our guys are really close together and our girls are really close together but they don’t know how to cross over. I want it to be a group that knows you can know and love somebody without it being, Oh, you’re my girlfriend if I talk to you.
Obviously there will be some topics where we do put the girls together and the guys together. We do have clear boundaries on certain things. But, looking at the rest of their lives, they’re not going to live segregated as guys and girls. There is such a bigger understanding of things.
OK, the predictable question here: Could this approach lead to romantic relationships that kids may not be ready for?
From my experience, I think that was even stronger when they separated the guys and girls more. The more they separated us, the more we questioned why. Who are they?
I want to get to a normal where it’s OK to go talk to a girl or a guy. You don’t just talk to a girl or a guy because you want to date them. It’s OK to have a friend of the opposite sex. Just because I go talk to you doesn’t mean I’m interested in trying to date you or marry you one day. I just want to know who you are.
And I see that in our students. Some are a little flirty and we know those kids. But for a lot of students, they just want to get to know people. I don’t want to have to be shy or weird around you because you’re a guy or a girl. I want them to get a better idea of what it looks like to respect the other. For our guys, what does it look like to actually be a friend and be a gentleman to the girls?
Now with some staff shuffling, you’ve taken on the Rooted ministry as well. What’s your focus there?
My hope is for our community to be a place for college-age students and young adults to come and take ownership of their faith. Many people, myself included, grew up in the church living out their family’s faith. But then in these crucial years of beginning to live on your own, you can truly learn, refine and own your faith. We want to be a space where people can come and ask real questions and then journey into those together as a community.
What are you learning so far?
We all come in with everything we have learned from our families and home churches. We can bring these different perspectives not to change others or prove others wrong, but for better learning. I can only grow when I hear, see and experience others’ views — not just by sitting in things I already believe or by listening to people who think exactly like me.
Seems like you could do some easy research by asking the Rooted group what worked and didn’t work for them back in junior high.
One of my questions is always, “What was your youth group experience like? What things have you held on to, and what things do you say ‘That was just traumatizing. I’m trying to forget that’?
A lot of them have shared: The best things, biggest and fondest memories weren’t from a big event night or even retreats. It was just moments, whether scheduled or unscheduled, just being together. There was one youth pastor or one leader who was so committed, just inviting us over to their house or to do things together. And that is the picture I’m holding now in my mind of what true community looks like.
It’s not about bigger, better events. It’s not about making my teaching the most crazy with so many examples or whatever, it’s about the moments where they were affirmed, that they had friends and a place to belong. That they were seen. They were heard. Those are the things that they remember most. So then those are the things that I want to put a lot of our time into.
Is there a bottom line for you in ministry?
What I want for our students is to get to a point that, I know that Jesus is real. I know the things he said and the things he has done for me are real, because I have seen and experienced first-hand his followers, his people, living that same thing out to me.
I know I’m here because of people like Meredith and my other leaders back in that youth group — people who didn’t just understand this whole Jesus thing, but made it real. And they allowed me to have that same experience. They just loved me and cared for me. I know Jesus is real because I saw his disciples do that work in my life.
Music: The Starbucks playlist on Spotify. It’s good music that you can listen to and get work done at the same time. That’s when I listen to music the most is when I’m writing or putting together a message.
Movie: Star Wars
TV show: Parks & Recreation
Food: Pizza (what else would I say as a middle school leader?)
Vacation place: Colorado. I love the mountains.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.