US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Stories from the trenches

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January’s “Expert Witness” interviewee Zeni Fox is inspired by her former students ministering in the church. 

Guest blog by Zeni Fox

As a teacher of many, many years, one of the delights of my life is meeting some of the men and women who were once students of mine. So many are women, and so many have faithfully continued serving the church.

I have heard many stories about the difficulties they have faced. In the early years of the emergence of those we now call lay ecclesial ministers, the stories were often of the difficulty of being accepted by clergy and laypeople alike, in their roles as leaders in ministry.

I remember one woman who had become the director of religious education in her own parish. “They want me back behind the table serving, and in the kitchen cooking, for the festival,” she told me, “but my educational preparation and my role call me to focus on teacher preparation, parent education, and curriculum development. I can’t go back!” Interestingly, as they served faithfully in their roles over a number of years, they found that the acceptance they desired—and indeed needed—grew over time.

In more recent years, the stories have often been over the pain experienced when pastoral leadership changed—a new pastor, even a new associate pastor, or a new bishop. Sometimes lay ministers lose their jobs, but more often the difficulty is adjusting to a different style of leader with a different vision. Some feel this most keenly when the new leader is younger than they and relatively inexperienced—“wet behind the ears,” as one woman exclaimed.

Many veteran lay pastoral leaders have experienced a keen sense of loss as the programs they have carefully built with the people of the parish or diocese have been dismantled by a new leader. One woman said, “I thought that if it were of God, it would last. What does this mean? Was my work not of God?” As such women have explored their pain in prayer, in spiritual direction, living into the pain, they grow in a sense of identification with Jesus, who had himself suffered such loss in his own ministry.

What sustains them, as they struggle for acceptance or as they experience the pain of loss? The myriad stories I have heard leads me to some conclusions. First, I think they are sustained by the love of what they do—the love for the ministry to which they feel they are called, the love for the people they serve. Second, I’ve noted that they place themselves in God’s hands, the God they know walks with them in the joys of ministry, and in its struggles and sorrows. They seek God’s will in all things. Third, they walk with others—spouses and family members, friends, colleagues in ministry (ordained and lay), guides of various kinds, those they serve—all companions on the journey.

These ministers, and their stories of faithful service, have been a great gift in my life!

Guest blogger Zeni Fox is a professor of pastoral theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. She talked to U.S. Catholic about lay ministry in the January 2011 Expert Witness interview, Follow the laity.

As a supplement of the January 2011 special issue on women, U.S. Catholic is asking guest bloggers, “How do you keep the faith as a woman in the church?” To submit your answer (about 500 words), e-mail

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.