NASHOTAH — In a disappointing conclusion to a year that included extraordinary highs and lows, Inspirio Youth Ministry has announced it will close next spring.

Middle school students from ACTS Youth Ministry at St. Patrick Parish, Racine, display their hooded sweatshirts bearing the Inspirio logo during an early morning gathering in this undated photo at Inspirio Retreat Center, Nashotah. (Submitted photo courtesy Inspirio Retreat Center)

The organization, formerly known as TYME OUT Youth Ministry and Retreat Center, hosts about 4,000 youth per year – including 1,800 confirmation candidates from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – on overnight retreats at its facility in Nashotah.

“There is no doubt that Inspirio is going to be missed and an important service to young people is going away,” wrote Joe Nettesheim, Inspirio’s executive director, in a Nov. 28 email announcing the news. “There is simply not enough support to continue.”

The news of the closure follows what had seemed like a promising second chance for the struggling ministry, which staged an emergency fundraising campaign in February to keep its doors open beyond the end of the 2016 fiscal year in March.

That campaign exceeded its $200,000 goal, and staff and supporters were optimistic about the future. To create a more stable business model, the board of directors adopted initiatives that included higher program   fees, increased parish outreach and a new retreat format that compelled parishes to rent the entire facility.

But the impact of these changes was simply not large enough and did not materialize quickly enough, and the ministry’s cash reserve was insufficient to allow the business time to develop them, said Nettesheim in the email.

He echoed those sentiments in a phone interview with the Catholic Herald the next day.

“What we were noticing is that the (positive) development trends of the previous few years were returning,” he said. “We were very excited; we thought we had a lot of momentum. Although it was a challenge in February, it had raised our profile and people really demonstrated that they believed and wanted the ministry to succeed.”

But it was apparent by October, said board president Paul Baures, that the momentum from the campaign was not enough to make the ministry viable going into the new year.

“We were really looking at where fundraising had been getting us,” said Baures, adding the ministry struggled to attract large donors. “(With the campaign) we didn’t fundamentally change our development base – those things take time.”

“I think what we found is that those who stepped up to help out had really extended themselves and were not able to continue that, and we just do not have a deep enough pool of donors to make it work,” said Nettesheim.

After the board voted to remain open in spring, Inspirio counted on increased support from parents, who were now asked to register their children for retreats through Inspirio and not through their individual churches. It was a move the ministry hoped would help families identify more personally with the organization, and they hoped those new relationships would translate into about $20,000 of parent donations throughout the course of the year.

At the end of each online registration form, Inspirio asked parents to consider a donation to the ministry, which says it underwrites about half of its program fees.

Only two donations were made throughout the year that way, said Baures.

“Some parents can’t afford it, but there are plenty of parents who send their kids on the $500 soccer camps that we thought would be able to step up,” he said.

“The cynic in me says that nature may abhor a vacuum but the devil loves one,” Baures said. “If the archdiocese has a mandate that (confirmation candidates) need to go on a retreat … so either (the archdiocese) has to help the parishes figure out how to do it or you’re going to dumb it down. That’s my big fear – that it will be decided that because it can no longer be afforded, it is no longer needed.”

Inspirio will remain open until March 31, 2017, and plans to serve approximately 1,200 young people before that time through previously scheduled retreats.

Nettesheim expressed gratitude to the individuals and parishes who donated to the campaign in February, saying they “absolutely came through for us. They allowed us, in that year, to serve another three or four thousand young people. We’re very grateful we’re able to do that.”

Donations are still needed, he added, to help Inspirio “close with dignity.” By remaining open until the end of March and honoring its commitments through that time, Inspirio expects to accrue a debt of about $250,000. The sale of its Lake Country facility will go toward offsetting that debt.

Inspirio was founded as the TYME OUT Center in 1980 by Srs. Kieran Sawyer and Lucy Nigh and is a sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Sr. Kieran retired in 2006 and the ministry underwent a name change in 2014. Though no longer directly involved in the operations of Inspirio, Sr. Kieran remains in touch with Nettesheim and has been closely monitoring the situation, she told the Catholic Herald.

In an emailed statement on Nov. 29, Sr. Kieran said Inspirio has been an important part of the system utilized by the Catholic Church to help its young people “negotiate the difficult transition from childhood into adulthood.”

“An overnight retreat is a small but particularly effective tool in that system. A retreat provides a time and space which encourages teens to really think about the values and morals they will need as adults,” she wrote. “However, a retreat is an expensive tool. It requires a creative, insightful director, a strong board willing to assume responsibility for the mission, a committed team of energetic youth ministers who know how to engage the minds and hearts of teens, a welcoming (and) appropriate building and the constant efforts of staff and volunteers to maintain it, and the support of parents, grandparents, and other adults who realize the importance of such a mission.”

She issued a challenge to Inspirio’s supporters, reminding them that the need is not ending just because the ministry is.

“There are many reasons why the system, which has been so effective for the past 35 years, has failed now. But the need continues. Our young people still need to be guided into Christian adulthood. Every part of the system must ask the question I am asking myself: what is God calling me to do now to help our young people become the responsible, faith-filled adults the future world is going to need?”

The downward trend of Inspirio’s revenue reflects a larger issue within the Catholic Church, said Nettesheim.

“I think Inspirio is experiencing everything that the church is experiencing. We see a decline in numbers, we see a decline in development, and we’re impacted by the culture, the busy-ness, the technology,” he said. “My challenge to folks would be to really commit to young people. Young people need individuals, adults, to give witness, to spend time, to walk with them…. We need a network of people to create a safety net for young people so that they can have an encounter with Christ and can be engaged in the church. Until that network really exists, the church is going to struggle.”