Parish youth ministers keep a sharp eye out for teens who display vision, friendliness and a positive energy. These are the qualities of leaders. Teens with these talents are advised to attend the Christian Leadership Institute, a weeklong experience that challenges young people to share insights and knowledge so as to grow in faith together. Often, when they leave, the teens say they had the best time of their lives.
"I can't wait to finish out the week, but I don't want it to end either," said Elias Lipka, 17, half way through CLI 2014.
The Christian Leadership Institute held its first session in the Diocese of Buffalo in 1979. Since that time over 1,500 young people have learned the different leadership styles, communications skills, and how to make a proper "I statement."
Most of the 52 participants are invited by their youth ministers, who see leadership potential in the teens. Sean Austin, youth minister at St. Pius X Parish in Getzville, saw a lot of himself in 16-year-old Joe Fildes.
"He's very dependable. He has the enthusiasm and energy, sometimes a little too much energy," Austin said. "He definitely has the desire. The qualities are there but they haven't surfaced. He kind of reminds me of me at that age. I thought he had the skills and the tools and needed to be taught to use them."
Fildes learned a great deal about communication skills from one activity where he tried to tell a story with his eyes closed, while his companion walked away. He later spoke to that person while maintaining eye contact.
"We felt better looking each other in the eyes, but it was hard for people to do it because of the fact that we use cell phones nowadays. I'm used to this face-to-face stuff, so it was easier for me than these people who are hooked on their cell phones," Fildes said.
Lipka already has many roles at Canisius High School in Buffalo. He serves as a big brother for freshmen. He is a group leader with the retreat program for freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and he mentors at Buffalo Public School 30. He came to CLI hoping to improve his skills and learn how to better work with people. He left with the knowledge that a good leader knows when to focus on the task and when to focus on the maintenance of the group.
"We learned in a lesson that you need to adapt yourself to whatever the situation calls for because sometimes you need to get things done and you can't worry about being comfortable and relaxing, or sometimes you have a lot of time and you can worry about the comfort of others and yourself," he said.
One key lesson taught is the difference between the I message and You message. Often people will casually say "You need ..." or "You have to..." When speaking for oneself, one should state the message with an "I."
"You say, 'I feel blank when blank happens because blank.' It's just a better way of working with people," said Lipka. "When we have our family meeting here we have to use I and You messages. If we categorize the entire group in our statement we're told to resay it in an I message, because you're speaking for yourself not for others. Otherwise you're imposing your own opinion on others."
By stating personal thoughts and opinions in an I message, the speaker is forced to really think about what he or she is saying. "I would say it takes out chances for miscommunication or decreases chances of miscommunication," Lipka said.
He thinks these skills will help him in his desired job as school counselor.
For Debbie Urban, 15, CLI is mandatory training for her role in the diocesan Youth Board.
"Youth Board is involved in a lot of activities, one in particular is the convention. I believe that during the convention the Youth Board has a lot of leadership responsibilities. This is a good place to learn those leadership skills," she said.
The lessons haven't changed much in the past 35 years, but the way young people communicate has changed. Ubiquitous cell phones, Facebook and Twitter accounts have teens exchanging ideas in 140 characters or less.
"Of course, it's changed because we have so many different ways of communicating. They help us keep up with that," said Lynn Lipczynski, youth minister for Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish in Orchard Park. "Basically, the skills that you need to deal with any situation always need to be worked on, so they stay the same, and you just have to learn how to apply it."