Inspirio Youth Ministry is appealing to the community of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to help in the face of a dire financial crisis that could mean the end of the 35-year-old organization formerly known as TYME OUT Youth Ministry and Retreat Center.
Inspirio must raise $200,000 in pledges by Feb. 29, or it is likely that at its March meeting the board of directors will vote to close the organization’s doors at the end of its current fiscal year on May 31, 2016.
If that were to happen, it would leave about 4,000 youth per year, including 1,800 confirmation candidates from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, in search of a place to attend spiritual retreats – and with no other similar youth-centered, overnight Catholic retreat center in the area, said executive director Joe Nettesheim, it would “leave an enormous void.”
“We’re unique in that we’re Catholic and youth-focused – we understand young people, the methods of passing the faith on; we’re aware of how to do that,” he told the Catholic Herald in an interview at the Inspirio retreat center in Nashotah on Feb. 9. “The archdiocese would lose a resource for youth ministers; it would lose a retreat center (that) is conducting and supporting 2,000 young people on their confirmations retreats – that’s about half the young people that are confirmed in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, so where do those young people go?
“There are other places to go but none that are as unique as we are (or as) committed to the Catholic faith.”
Ministry founded by two SSNDs
Inspirio, a sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, was founded in 1980 by Srs. Kieran Sawyer and Lucy Nigh. The moniker TYME OUT stood for Total Youth Ministry Experience: Openness, Understanding and Trust, and though the non-profit underwent a name change in 2014, the mission remains as it was 35 years ago, said Nettesheim in a recent Q & A session addressing the financial crisis held at the retreat center.
During the session, oriented toward donors, parents and friends of the Inspirio community, staff and board members of the ministry illustrated the circumstances under which the crisis materialized.
A large part of the problem, said Nettesheim, is Inspirio’s current business model, which allows for the entire retreat center to be reserved by just one parish group, even if the group has fewer retreatants than the center can accommodate.
“Many of those parishes are coming with 30, 35 kids,” said Nettesheim. The center can serve about 130 people.
Additionally, Inspirio says it has been charging too little for the spaces it does fill – underwriting about 53 percent of the actual cost in an attempt to make the ministry accessible to as many youth as possible.
Nettesheim described the underbooking and the underwriting as a “deadly combination.”
“We’re charging too little, and we’re not serving enough people,” he said.
The financial crisis has been a long time in the making. Six of the past 10 fiscal years saw Inspirio’s budget run a deficit, and the times when it did finish the year in the black were extraordinary circumstances, like in 2004-2005, when the organization coordinated a special fund in honor of Sr. Kieran’s retirement.
A shift in the organization’s donor base has also contributed to the financial woes. Sr. Kieran’s retirement a decade ago marked the end of an era in regards to the organization’s donor pool. Many longtime supporters had strong relationships with Sr. Kieran, and it has been difficult for her lay successors to find the same support system.
Frugality is not the answer
It is not a problem that can be solved by increased frugality, either – the bulk of Inspirio’s money is spent on staff pay, food for retreatants and insurance, said Nettesheim, all of which are areas that cannot be compromised.
The organization is already competing with parishes and high schools for talent. Over the past four years, Inspirio has gone through five development officers, all of whom were hired by other entities, according to Sr. Kieran.
The staff and board of directors at Inspirio have developed a strategy to remedy the financial crisis and ensure that, in the event of a successful $200,000 pledge drive, Inspirio will move into the new fiscal year with a more secure business model.
The first change will be to increase fees, anywhere from 30 to 38 percent, depending on the retreat. This will hopefully cut down on Inspirio’s underwriting of retreatant expenses, said Nettesheim, although they will always have to underwrite some of it, he added.
“When I was first doing fundraising, people would say to me, ‘I’ll help you now but eventually you have to be self-sustaining.’ And I learned, by my fifth year into it, that there was no way that we could ever be self-sustaining,” said Sr. Kieran in a phone interview with the Catholic Herald. “There’s no way that a youth center, certainly not a faith-based youth center, is ever going to make enough money to take care of itself; if it did that, it would only be serving rich kids.”
Additionally, Inspirio will no longer offer the retreat center to only one parish group at a time. To maximize the earning potential of its space, Inspirio will require parishes to either share the facility or buy it out entirely.
‘Teens need Inspirio’
Inspirio’s community of volunteers and supporters say its loss would be keenly felt.
“Inspirio is offering a service to the archdiocese that is absolutely necessary. Teenagers need the special kind of focus that Inspirio can give them,” said Sr. Kieran, pointing out that Nettesheim and Inspirio board president Paul Bauers, both Catholic Memorial High School graduates, attended TYME OUT retreats in the 1980s as confirmation candidates.
It was an experience that Nettesheim said changed his life. He had recently lost his father, and “it was a time when I was searching, and things were up in the air in many different ways,” he said. “It really did make God real. I knew a lot about the Catholic faith, but God became someone that I came to know, and understood that God knew me.”
“Kids need quiet so they can hear their own hearts,” agreed Sr. Kieran. “God talks there.”
Bob Bluhm, an Inspirio board member, said the mission of Inspirio is more important today than it was at its founding.
“The pervasive nature of that phone – these devices and the varying methods of communicating, you can filter any and every kind of message to have it be how you want to hear it, and you can send out any message and have it be how you want to be perceived, versus in personal contact, it’s much harder. It’s more authentic,” said Bluhm. “There’s this manufactured level of communication that is really creating fantasies (for kids today) … I saw that as such a huge threat to kids growing up as their best authentic selves. How can you be if you’re separating yourselves from what real connections are?
“You can’t have a deeper connection with God and with yourself unless you be still, and let him work in you.”
Amanda Decker, director of Christian formation at Divine Mercy Parish, South Milwaukee, said if Inspirio were to close, it would mean the loss of a resource for her parish youth and her fellow archdiocesan youth ministers.
“We’re able to get out of town with the kids and they’re kind of able to get away from the business of their lives, and the atmosphere they create at Inspirio – you really feel the Holy Spirit there,” she said.
Some of the amenities of the retreat center include a eucharistic reservation chapel and other prayer chapels.
“For several of our kids, it’s the first time that they’ve experienced that … they don’t know Jesus Christ, they don’t know how God fits in their lives, they don’t know how to read cues from how the Holy Spirit is working, and the staff at Inspirio is able to help those kids get to that point,” Decker said.
The pledge drive has raised $170,000 as of Feb. 12. Pledges must be made by Feb. 29 but will not be collected until April 15; if, at its March 12 meeting, the board of directors votes to close Inspirio, pledges will not be collected, said Nettesheim.
Supporters should be confident that the $200,000 will not merely be a Band-Aid on a continuing financial problem, said Nettesheim. The change in business model and refined strategy for acquiring and maintaining donors is meant to make Inspirio a more viable entity.
“If the board is not content that we have a plan to make sure that we’re not in this problem next year, I don’t believe they will vote (to continue).”