I handed the gate agent my boarding pass, offered her a small smile, and just as I took a step forward to begin my journey down the jet bridge, she said, “So I’ve seen you a lot lately. What have you been doing here in South Bend all summer?”
She’s not the first person to have asked me why I was in and out of this small college town so much this summer…the gentleman at the front desk of the hotel, the dining hall lady that scans the meal card, and the lady at the counter of the bagel shop across from Gate 5 had also asked me this question at some point in the past few weeks. I had my answer mastered by this point:
“I’ve been speaking at a Catholic conference for teens on Notre Dame’s campus called Notre Dame Vision. They have four weeks of it, so I’ve been back and forth to give the Wednesday morning keynote.”
“That’s really neat,” she said in reply.
“Yeah,” I said quickly, acutely aware that the line of people behind me probably could care very little about what I’d been doing in South Bend. “It’s a huge honor.”
And with that, I set off to board the plane. And that’s where I am right now, tucked into seat 13 A on a plane that seats less than 60 people, across from the bathroom (because 34 weeks pregnant is no joke and I have to pee like every 10 minutes), trying to grapple with exactly what I said to the gate agent I’ve seen all summer and why it matters so much.
“I’ve been speaking at a Catholic conference for teens on Notre Dame’s campus…” How many people get to say that? How many people get that huge honor, to speak there, or anywhere else for that matter? What did I do to deserve this chance to fly around the country, stand on stages with a microphone, and preach the Gospel?
Whether a gate agent in South Bend, Indiana, a teen standing in line for a picture at a conference, or a youth minister who just wants a few minutes to visit and connect, it’s probably the most frequent question I hear while on the road, especially during the summer when Steubenville conferences are in full swing, dioceses are hosting or attending work camps, and parishes are going on pilgrimage: “How’d you get started doing this?”
One of these days, I’d like to jokingly respond, “And what am I doing, exactly? Sharing the Gospel? Oh that started really simply: I fell in love with Jesus and couldn’t stop talking about Him.”
Because that’s what this “job” is. This job is not marketing. This job is not management. This job is not about self-promotion, filling the coffers, earning name-recognition, or landing the “big stage.” This profession of traveling and speaking at various events, ranging in size from a dozen volunteers who want to start a youth ministry program to a few thousand teens gathered in an arena, is about one very simple thing: introducing people to Jesus and helping them meet Him so they can fall in love with Him and be changed forever.
That’s the end game. That’s the goal: these moments of authentic encounter with others as I further pursue Jesus myself and hopefully help them in their own pursuit. It’s about honestly sharing and proclaiming the Gospel - helping people meet the One who loves them intimately and desires a relationship. And that can be done anywhere. Yes, right now, I get to do that across the country on some big stages with large crowds. But it’s just as meaningful if I’m doing it with 30 teens at a Confirmation retreat (who may not want to be there). It’s just as powerful when it’s a simple conversation with the guy sitting next to me on the plane. It’s just as profound when it’s visiting with my husband after we go to Mass together, or making a comment to the guy that sells me toothpaste, the lady that makes my coffee, or the gate agent that takes my boarding pass.
The best moments of ministry happen not when I’ve hit the punch line and made the crowd laugh, crafted the perfect narrative that moves an audience to tears, sold a bunch of books and t-shirts, and taken a few dozen selfies with teenagers who then follow me on Twitter and Instagram.
The best moments of ministry have happened when I’ve had the courage to connect with people, one on one, and share with them how Jesus changed my life and ask them how He is changing theirs.
That’s why I’m on a plane week after week. That’s why I’m holding the microphone, or striking up the conversation, or answering the question. That’s why I’m writing the books, posting the blogs, tweeting the thoughts, telling the stories, or taking the pictures: to hopefully help people “get to” Jesus. And the other folks who are living a life like this (many of whom are dear friends) - traveling and speaking and podcasting and vlogging and writing for and about Jesus - are doing it for the same reasons: not to get famous, gain recognition, or become wealthy. We’re doing it because we love the Lord, and when you love someone, you can’t help but share that.
And I’d be willing to bet you probably love the Lord too…and you want to share about Him. But, and I cannot stress this enough: you don’t need a stage and a microphone to do that. You don’t need a massive audience, stellar production quality, or a few thousand social media followers to be an evangelist. And if that’s what you want, or think that’s what you need before you can share the Gospel, then seriously re-evaluate your motivation and take a look at your heart.
Seek not the status of “speaker.” Look for the chance to authentically witness as a disciple in love with the Lord, wherever you are, stage or not.
What you absolutely need to “do this” is a heart filled with love for Jesus and courage to honestly articulate why He matters to you, what He has done for you, and how you met Him in the first place. And you know what: if you do that in your home diocese and parish, spend time with people one on one or with small groups at retreats or at the small events that require no microphone, then very slowly you’ll begin to discover that the joy of “doing this” comes not from the external “coolness” of being noticed, recognized, or standing on stage…the “honor” comes from being a mouthpiece of the Lord, constantly pointing back to Him, and watching people fall in love with Him as you yourself become more captivated by His goodness. The honor comes not in the paycheck or the airline status or the followers on social media: the honor comes in knowing that maybe something I said, whether to the thousands gathered in the arena or to the one teen who stood patiently in line so we could visit for a few minutes, may have helped someone grow to love Jesus more.
The desire should never be to “become a speaker” or “start traveling” or “cut a record” or “get a book deal” or “become Catholic famous.” The goal is to share Jesus. The goal is not to “get on the circuit” so your picture ends up on websites, your bio is printed in bulletins, or your videos get more viewers and subscribers. The goal is to proclaim Truth, wherever you are, to whomever you are with - because a great joy in the Lord cannot be contained. If that happens in large venues to large crowds, great…and if you only ever do it in your hometown, in your home parish, or within your own family, then that’s just as great (perhaps even better).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: oh that’s easy for you to say, Katie. You’re on a plane, having just stood on a stage, and you’re headed to dozens of other events throughout the year to keep speaking and taking pictures and writing books and posting blogs and getting paid to talk about Jesus. You may think that of course I can say “that’s not the goal” because on the outside, it seems as if I’ve already attained what so many seem to want - to be “known” in the Catholic world and“be on the speaker circuit” with big gigs and large crowds.
And I think (and I say “think” because I too am a work in progress constantly struggling to live as I should), that if there were no more events on my calendar, no more flights scheduled, no more microphones to be held, and no more audiences to stand in front of, that I would still be sharing the Gospel wherever I’m at and with whomever is there. At least, I hope so…and that’s becoming my prayer, especially as the calendar fills more and the opportunities continue to arise: to seek not the externals and the “trappings” of the “speaker life,” but to instead seek His heart first, sharing Him in all places and in all ways, trusting that I will do it for as long as He wants me to, wherever He wants me to, in His time and in His ways more than my own.
There are many that want to “do this” (and while I could caution you that there’s no glamor in leaving your family and staying in a hotel, that it is exhausting to deal with flight delays and extended time in airports, and that there’s immense pressure to constantly “check yourself” to ensure your heart is in the right place) I do firmly believe that it is a huge honor to get to do this - travel and speak and share the Gospel.
It is remarkably humbling, constantly surprising, and a steadfast joy.
I can see why it’s attractive, I know why people ask “How can I do it too?” and I’m not shocked that it appears really awesome and cool and is a goal some people may inadvertently set for themselves.
But that desire to “do this” and “be a speaker” should hopefully come from a true stirring in your heart to share the Gospel, and a desire to do it not because you want the thrill of fame or the recognition as someone holy. And if that authentic desire is there, then here are some practicals.
I want to note: I give these thoughts with this caution, though: no one’s journey to sharing Jesus is ever the same, because no one’s relationship with Jesus is the same. St. Peter was called out of the fishing boat. St. Paul was knocked off a horse. St. Teresa of Calcutta started a religious order. St. John Paul II was the Pope. And not a one of them followed the same path…the common factor is love of Jesus and a desire to share who He is.
Please do not take this as a “checklist for becoming a Catholic speaker.” This is what happened, moment by moment in my own life, leading to 30+ weekends on the road and classifying “itinerant ministry” as my career. But again, it is not a cookie-cutter formula on “how to do it” - because I didn’t set out to do it. I set out to study Jesus and love Him, and that led to this beautiful, messy, exhausting, and exciting life. These are just thoughts answering the question “how did you get started doing this?” that I am asked so frequently, and some encouragement about how you can share Jesus more in your own life.
- Firstly, I spent (and spend) lots of time with lots of people who could care less who I was or what I was saying, and that helped me develop a skill to articulate things in an engaging way. Conversation, connection, and just growing in intentional community with other people who love Jesus is the best “training ground” for being able to witness about Jesus. You hear their stories. You are able to share your own. You grow to appreciate the varied, beautiful paths to relationship with Jesus, and you’re able to better see how your own relationship with Him began.
- I went to school to study and learn about Jesus in an academic setting, knowing that if I wanted to share why I loved Him, I needed to know Him. I needed to not just have fluffy feel good words or sappy stories, but a honed and developed articulation of the beauty, Truth, and goodness of the Faith. And I wanted that degree - the knowledge - not “for the stage,” but for the classroom, youth group, and ultimately for the good of knowing about the Lord for myself. Study is a good in and of itself - knowing theology isn’t just a “task” to be completed…it’s an aid in growing to love (and share) Him more.
- I made the Eucharist a priority and went to Daily Mass. I regularly went to Confession and took note of the things I was struggling with, and strived to do better. I sought out spiritual direction and listened when I was told where I needed to prune, hone, and grow. You can’t give what you don’t have - and if sharing Jesus is the goal (as it always should be, whether as a job or within your daily life), then you must be in a place where He is dwelling within you.
- I put my boots on the ground in a parish and a school, believing first and foremost that those teens - the ones that had to be there - were the most important “audience” I’d ever have, and I paid attention to what Jesus was showing me through them. If you can put up with students who hate taking notes, Confirmation candidates who think the Sacrament is just graduation, parents who criticize your every move, and administrators and parish staffs that think that youth ministry and theology is unimportant, then you’re ready to preach the Gospel anywhere, to anyone.
- I didn’t hard-core advertise or send out a mailing or tweet at an organization or call up people in dioceses and parishes and ask or beg for a chance to speak and a paycheck to do it. I responded when invited, gave every event every ounce of energy I had, and I kept asking Jesus to keep me focused on Him. The first event I ever traveled for was the New Orleans World Youth Day celebration. It was October of 2007 - I was a freshman in college. Johnny Smestad, the director of the youth office knew my youth minister, liked what he heard, reached out to me, booked my flight, paid me $150 to give two workshops on prayer, and when it was all said and done, he called me up and gave me incredible feedback on what I did well and where I needed to improve. A few months later, when a youth director in Florida wanted me to come speak at her Confirmation retreat for a couple hundred teens, I asked her how she knew I gave talks from time to time. She told me she had spoken to Johnny. And from there…well, here we are. People talk, names are shared, evaluation is given, and invitations are sent. It has to happen organically and naturally. “Speaking” and “traveling” isn’t something “to be sought” - it’s something to which you are called, because the Lord is inviting you to share and articulate beautiful and necessary Truths, on His schedule and in His ways. This is not to say I (and others) don’t share the things we are doing. I’m going to share about my books, I’m going to post a link to a video of a talk or podcast, and I’ll definitely let you know where I’m speaking in the future: but that’s not (nor should it be) to “get further” or “get a new gig” - it’s to share the good that’s been done and to help people grow. It’s about fostering more encounters with Jesus, not promoting a “Catholic speaker image” . The growth in doing this must be organic, both in what you’re doing and in how others are encountering Jesus.
- I asked honest questions when calls and emails started coming in to “go here” or to “do this”, finding a mentor who was able to help me navigate some logistical waters, like how much to set as a stipend and what needs to be on a website, and do I even need a website? And that mentor, a trusted advisor and dear friend and easily my favorite “speaker” (though he wouldn’t necessarily call himself that) told me this: “Why do you want to do this? And do you trust that the community will call you forward?” He went on then (and reminds me all the time now) that it’s not about “looking for” gigs - but about being my authentic self, with a love of Jesus, and a desire to share Him. And if what you’re saying and doing is what the Lord wants, then it’ll be said and done where He wants you to say and do it, and the community will call you forward.
All of that, combined with trying to live life no differently whether at an event, on a stage, in the classroom or youth house, or in my living room, led to a “job” that many seem to desire. And you know what: you’re not wrong to think that it is fun or exciting to “be a speaker.” There’s a thrill and a rush. There’s an excitement and joy unparalleled, knowing that for a few moments I get to tell stories, make people laugh, break open Scripture, and ultimately help people meet Jesus. It’s some of the most fun I have. But it’s an honor not because of the externals.
It’s an honor, stage or no stage, microphone, fancy lights, big crowd, thousands of followers, or not: it is an honor, gift, challenge, and joy to share Jesus because nothing is more important than sharing Him. And you don’t have to be a “speaker on a stage” to do that. You just have to have a heartbeat, love Jesus, and have the courage to witness.
That’s what you (and I) should seek first…not the “gigs” or the “fame” or the “riches.” Seek Him, and He will lead you to where He wants you. Share Him, and take joy in that. Because it’s really neat to see how the Lord works, wherever you are, with however many people, whether they know your name, buy your book, take your picture, follow you on social media, or not. It's about Him...not you. And the "speakers" that "make it" get that, believe that, live that, and know that Jesus is the end game...always.