The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock
Young adults at St. Ste-
phen Church in Bentonville 
socialize and discuss recent 
readings for their Theology of 
the Body class. The group is 
having a social potluck Feb. 
8 and starting a meditation 
program during Lent. (Courtesy Jessica Petter)

Deanery fosters young adult ministry in NW Arkansas

Activities, worship aim to increase young Catholic involvement after college

Published: February 5, 2024      
Courtesy Justine Coussoule
Justin Coussoule, a member of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville and the new young adult ministry coordinator in northwest Arkansas, is working to grow the young Catholic population in the northwest Arkansas deanery.

Northwest Arkansas parishes, in partnership with the Diocese of Little Rock, are making an effort to increase lifelong involvement in the Church through young adult ministry. 

The latest development is hiring a diocesan young adult ministry coordinator to promote events in the parishes and offer support to young leaders. 

Research shows the young adult age group is in need of ministry. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center showed less than half of Americans aged 23 to 38 call themselves Christians. A 2016 study by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed only 15 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 identify as Catholic. The study also noted that young Catholics are leaving the Church at higher rates than nearly any other religious group. 

Jeff Hines, diocesan faith formation director, said there is a need for young adult faith formation. 

“Young adults, I’m going to theorize, maybe are finding the Church not relevant to their lives,” Hines said. “They’ve got their life and career and families. At the same time, there’s a growing sense of hopelessness. Now there’s concern about the environment. There’s concern about the economy — many youth are saddled with debt coming out of college — there’s political divisiveness, the global political situation. Even Pope Francis says we’re in a piecemeal World War III. I think it would be reasonable to say that there’s a lack of hope.”


An ongoing effort

For years, priests in northwest Arkansas have been working to make young adult faith formation a reality. Shortly after his ordination in 2019, Father Jon Miskin worked with young adults at St. Raphael Church in Springdale before he was transferred to Batesville. 

Father Jason Sharbaugh works with college students at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish at the University of Arkansas. 

“The Church has answers to things … for people in those age groups and young professionals, there’s a lot of things that can make their life more adventurous and mission-driven,” Father Sharbaugh said. “There are plenty of things to get people focused on the presence of God and how that affects one’s whole life in relation to the Gospel, and then the differing functions and facets of life. Because this is the real world — this isn’t fairy tales and genies in a bottle — there are going to be things that are really difficult.”

Father Sharbaugh, college students and other priests began cultivating a fire in young Catholic adults and feared that without something to plug into after college graduation, the fire might die out.

“The pastors in that area, for several years … decided that they would like to be able to share resources in order to get some economy of scale — young adults want to meet with other young adults, and everything will feed back into the parish — the desire is to help them build relationships more than anything,” Hines said.  


A new ministry coordinator

The diocese partnered with the West Ozark Deanery parishes to hire Justin Coussoule Dec. 1 as the young adult ministry coordinator for northwest Arkansas. 

After serving in the Army as an officer, Coussoule went to law school and worked in corporate America. Coussoule and his family settled at St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville in 2011 where he spent the next 13 years as a stay-at-home dad. He enrolled in the Little Rock Theology Institute to deepen his faith and met Hines during the three-year program. 

Coussoule became more active in his parish, lectoring and teaching children’s religious education. Teaching business law at UA Fayetteville allowed Coussoule to be around the age group he would later work with as a young adult ministry coordinator. 

In his new role, Coussoule supports young adult ministry in the West River and West Ozark deaneries, primarily in Washington and Benton counties. He said this pilot program is geared toward adults ages 18 to 39. 

The diocese’s role is to work with parishes in the area and promote their young adult ministry events to nearby parishes and the community. 

“All of the data and statistics about when you lose this age group — which seems to be the age group that the Church is losing the most —  show that increasingly they’re not coming back,” Coussoule said. “There used to be an old sense that ‘we’ll get them when they get married and have kids because that’s when they’ll come back to church.’ But that’s not as true as it was at one time. We want to create a lifetime of engagement with the Church.”


Working at the parish level

Coussoule said the diocese is not creating events for young adults as a “pseudo-parish” but is instead working with the parishes to promote events to each other.

“The groundswell of this will be at the parish level,” Coussoule said, hoping each parish reaches the point where they have leaders specifically overseeing young adult faith formation. 

“St. Stephen (in Bentonville), for example, has a dedicated person who does this specifically. She’s already doing this at the parish level … We’re still working to find out who the other parishes are and their coordinators operating toward the broader regional vision that the pastors have but also what’s happening at the parish level.”

Coussoule said he hopes that as parishes share information about young adult faith formation events, more activities will emerge.

“On the faith formation side, activities could look like a weekly Bible study, a book or catechism study, retreats or going to Mass or adoration as a group,” Coussoule said. “On the fellowship side, it could be going to dinner or a happy hour together, a basketball or kickball league or hiking. There’s a breadth of activities that bring the young adults together that they want to do from the ground up and really run at that parish level.”

Coussoule is using the Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit City on a Hill as an example to follow. The Catholic Young Adult Community nonprofit encourages the growth and retention of young Catholic adults in the area through sports leagues, social and signature events and men’s and women’s communities. 

For Coussoule, this companionship and relationship will grow into a love for Christ, which will in turn grow parishes.

“If you can build this young adult Catholic community in the region, you can begin to infuse in it some sort of focus and direction in a catechetical focus,” Coussoule said. “Think of it as training the trainers. Grow those ministers at the parish level, the directors of the young faith formation, who can, in turn, grow and direct others in a spiritual direction.” 

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