Q&R: Meredith Domanico
Our Student Ministries director talks about why this school year has been especially challenging — and also about the need for more adult volunteers in this vital ministry.
Jim Killam
May 17, 2023

We spoke this week with Meredith Domanico, director of Student Ministries.

Well, it’s the end of the school year and you probably have some reflections. How did it go this year?

It’s been a good year because this is year two (after COVID) where we have had no interruptions, which is great. But it’s also been hard year because we have lost a lot of key players in the ministry — church staff and volunteers. So there’s just been a lot of transition. It seems like every couple of months the students were getting hit with news. These are people who were in the ministry for a while and who invested in them and in the ministry, and it was really hard for them.

So it’s been a challenging year, but it’s been really cool because I’ve seen the students rise up. There’s a group that is actually taking more ownership of the ministry. They’ve started coming in not with closed hands as in, “Hey, what are you going to provide for me tonight?” but open hands and saying “Hey, what can I give back? Where can I help?”

They have seen a need in the ministry, and without my even asking they have risen up. And so out of this hard year I developed a student leadership team. It’s a team of about 11 students. They are hungry to be invested in spiritually, but they are also hungry to have more of an ownership in the ministry. Whether it’s running games, coming up with games, coming up with events that they can help organize. They’re coming early to help set up. They want to invite their friends. They just want to have a voice in the ministry. They have a vision for leadership and how they can help play a part in that. 

This was the first year that I was able to have high school students serve as leaders at the junior high Snow Camp. That was huge, because now they are seeing the high school students investing in them spiritually as cabin leaders or helping with tech, or helping on the worship band. For some of them, that really catapulted some growth and helped them see that they have skills and gifts that have always been there but just haven’t been utilized.

So many students who are active in a student ministry drift away from church once they finish high school. What’s your approach to that issue?

It’s a big question. Obviously there is Rooted (college/young adults ministry) and they can come and be a part of it. But I think there’s just the process that kids go through when they get out of the junior high and high school ministries, when they have control to say “These are the decisions that I’m going to make.” They go through a process of asking, “Is this what I even want to do anymore? What do I believe? Why do I believe what I believe?”

We can have great programs and great opportunities. But I think it’s just a natural thing that young adults go through where they have to figure it out. And if the programs are there to get them in, that’s great, because they have the options. Some come to Rooted right away. But there is such a sense of agency that they have — “I get to decide now. Do I want to continue doing this?”

Others truly want community and this is the type of community that they want. I think there are certain individuals who won’t ever question what they have grown up with.

You used the word “agency.” I wonder if it’s harder for parents, and especially grandparents, to understand this because they may not have felt the freedom to do that as they became adults.

There are just a lot of voices out there that students listen to. Grandparents didn’t have that growing up. But today, these voices are predominant in students’ lives. Especially when you are in a stage of life where you’re trying to develop your identity. If you’ve got a multitude of voices, it’s hard.

Everybody wants to fit in. It’s a hard line to walk.

It really is. I think you can have the best programming but once students leave the ministry they’ve got to figure it out. And they’ve got to make the decision to come back.

Do you address that with students while they are still in high school?

All the time. I tell them, “There is one question I want you to be able to answer when you leave this place, and it’s why do you believe what you believe?” Because if you don’t know why you believe what you believe, you will give it up in a second. Or any other voice that you ascribe to will tell you what you should believe. And because that’s a voice that you ascribe to, did very well may be the thing that changes you.

And I’ve heard you say it’s about so much more than just knowing a lot of facts about our faith.

That’s been the focus of my teaching the last two years, since COVID. I came from a non-denom church which was very heart-heavy. Not as much head knowledge. And here I walked into the complete opposite. There needs to be a balance because there is a beauty in both. So my challenge has been: “You guys know all the answers, but do you know what it means to truly abide in Christ? Do you know what it means to have Christ be your father? Your protector? Your healer? The stream in your desert?”

I always tell them, “You will leave this place and if you only rely on spitting out the facts and you don’t connect it to your heart, if you don’t make time to experience the love of the Father in a very tangible way by putting yourself in his presence and seeing how he responds to you and how the Holy Spirit speaks to you personally, then you will miss out on it. And you’ll walk away from it because you’ll be like, I don’t even know if he’s here.

So that’s been a lot of my focus: How do we connect the head and the heart together?

Students are experiential. So how do we help them experience that and create environments where they can? We did more worship nights this year. They really like those in Element. I say to them, “I know why you love those nights, because you feel the presence of God there. But you don’t have to wait until worship night. You can have that all the time and cultivate that.” That’s one of the big things that I want them to walk away with.

Let’s talk about your volunteer need. If people want to consider this, what should they be thinking about and praying about this summer?

We are really low in volunteers, especially in Heartbeat (middle school). We need both men and women of any ages. 

Sometimes people have a stereotype of what a student ministry volunteer has to be, hip and all these things. A student ministry volunteer is just someone who loves Jesus and wants to invest in the generation under them.

We gather weekly, so it’s a weekly commitment. Not only are they investing in the students, but I am investing in them. We do a monthly breakfast at my house.

It’s about a 2-hour commitment midweek. Student Ministries is all relational. So it’s about investing in students, and it’s about consistency. An individual is willing to be consistent and just be present in the life of a student or a group of students. We have people down there who love Jesus. I’m not looking for Bible scholars. It’s important to know those things, obviously, but I think sometimes people worry, What if a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer? And I always say, “Tell them you don’t know but that you’ll find out the answer this week. And guess what? Both you and the student get to learn something.”

The last couple of years I’ve had to get volunteers from other places to serve at summer camp. I’ve had to pull some of my former students who are in their 20s now, and I’ve had to pull from different churches. What happens is, these adults will spend time with these kids for five days when you are just immersed. And then they don’t see these leaders again. It’s really a shame.

My dream is to have all of my volunteers come from First Free, so that the students get to see them on Sundays and they get to see them on the midweeks and they get to do life with them. I know it’s a high ask, but everything in the Bible is a high ask.

Want to consider volunteering? Check out our Serve page.

Jim Killam
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.


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