Detroit — Whether it’s in a television news room, in an ad agency or on the golf course, Chris Werner loves a good challenge.
It’s that desire to take on new projects that drew him to the Archdiocese of Detroit as the new executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization, succeeding outgoing director Suzanne Heath, who served the organization for 26 years.
“I’ve done a lot of 501(c)3 work before with nonprofits, spent a lot of time doing work with the Knights of Columbus down in Atlanta; nonprofits are in my blood,” said Werner, who for the past 31 years worked in Atlanta with an ad agency he opened and doing consultation work for golf courses.
Originally a native of Ferndale and St. James Parish, Werner looks forward to helping advance the mission of the CYO.
“What drew me to the position was the challenge,” Werner said. “CYO is a great, established brand that needs some polish. In the conversations with the executive board, they need some fundraising help, need some executive help to help promote the brand. And that’s where I can help.”
CYO wasn’t around when Werner was at St. James — his family moved to Traverse City in 1972 — but his love of sports was nurtured while at the parish.
“Like everyone else in junior high school, all my friends went out for football, so I did too,” Werner said. “Then it was swimming, and then I moved on and learned golf, skiing and all the crazy sports kids do. It ended up being golf and tennis.”
With the entire archdiocese charged with re-examining and reforming its mission under “Unleash the Gospel,” Werner said CYO already has programs to create young disciples, but wants to work with other departments to expand the organization’s mission.
“Our youth leadership program is a major arm of our evangelization efforts, and Spiritual Scouting is another arm,” Werner said. “There is a lot of evangelization that goes on at camp. The kids disconnect for a week and focus on being a person, dealing with other people, learning to connect with others on a personal level.”
Werner said one of his first challenges will be adding more spirituality to CYO athletics, working with the Office of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools to incorporate more of the mission into sports.
“Our challenge is to take the evangelization elements we have in our other programs and move them into athletics,” Werner said. “We’ll be working with the athletic directors across the archdiocese and see what things we can do to incorporate spirituality with sports. Fr. Steve Pullis (director of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools) and I have already been having conversations about how we can blend athletics and evangelization.”
For decades, CYO was the primary opportunity for sports and extra-curricular activities. But with today’s travel sports, music camps and summer activities, the schedule of today’s youth often resembles that of an executive.
“Kids today are over programmed, they really are,” Werner said. “But a lot of times, whether it’s AAU basketball, ASYO for soccer or music camps, it’s because kids want the extra time, the extra training. Things like camps help a lot with the disconnecting process. But with CYO, kids come expecting to hear that message. It’s up to us to figure out ways to diversify that message delivery.”
With a history that dates back a century, Werner said the next challenge for CYO is to retell its story, offering a unique, effective evangelization tool for today’s young people.
“When kids sign up for CYO, they’re expecting to hear the message,” Werner said. “They’re giving themselves over to talk about prayer and their relationship with God in different settings. We start with the fact God gave you the talent to do what you do. And if you approach it that way, they can take the spirituality they learn at CYO and stretch it across their lives.
“It goes back to how you deliver that message so it’s not old and stodgy,” Werner added. “That’s the challenge with working with middle school kids. In some ways, they’re smarter than us. And we have to figure out new ways to reach them.”