Words of wisdom: Survival tips for working in the church

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Article Parish Life Women

Find or be a mentor. Ministry associations are great, but informal groups work, too. “I’ve really found a lot of support in the older women who have paved the way for me,” says Tracy Rodenborn, a high school campus minister in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, newbies can add an infusion of energy and idealism.

Share your story. And listen to others’. Admitting you work for the church—or even that you’re a practicing Catholic—can result in a barrage of complaints about the church from acquaintances and even strangers. Arguing rarely changes anyone’s mind. “Usually if you just listen, they will eventually ask what it’s like for you,” says Erin Neal, catechesis assistant at St. Clement.

Get all the education you can. Education helps women land church jobs and earns them more respect as professionals. “We try to give students a good critical consciousness, but also spiritual formation so they don’t burn out quickly,” adds Thomas Groome of Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.

Find a female-friendly parish. Flo Merkl-Deutsch grew up with few role models in church, but her current parish changed that. “I knew from the moment I stepped foot into the parish that it was a good fit for me,” says Merkl-Deutsch, now liturgy coordinator at St. Clement in Chicago.

See men as allies, not the enemy. Non-ordained men face many of the same limitations in the church that women do. Not only did a new pastor mistreat Sharon Smith, but he also lashed out at a male lay minister, parishioners, and even his associate pastors. “I always wondered if it was because I was a woman, but I knew it was also clericalism,” she says.

Sometimes you have to leave. If a situation becomes emotionally unhealthy or abusive, it might be best to remove yourself from it. For Ann Ruggaber that meant resigning from a parish job before she had found another one. “It was affecting my health and my spirituality,” she recalls.

Practice the spiritual disciplines of acceptance and letting go. Women have to recognize the reality of today’s church. The roles of women and men in professional ministry are simply different. “Given that I’ve accepted that parameter, my experiences have been more positive than negative,” says Diana Vella, a pastoral associate in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

This article appeared in the January 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 1, pages 12-17).