Degrees of service: More on lay ministry programs

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What types of lay ministry formation programs are available?

The answer varies—from shorter-term diocesan programs that might involve a class taken at night or on Saturdays for a month or two to formal university graduate school programs lasting several years.

Some diocesan programs can be rigorous, too. The Catholic Biblical School in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, for example, is a four-year certificate program, with 30 weekly sessions a year. It provides a “very systematic and comprehensive” study of the entire Bible, and a “healthy balance of faith formation and academic rigor,” says its coordinator, Barbara Jean Daly Horell. Students who complete requirements can earn a certificate in biblical studies from St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

A report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that about two thirds of students enrolled in lay ministry training programs in 2010-11 were in certificate programs, and about a third were enrolled in graduate degree programs.

Those deciding among programs are likely to take a number of factors into account, including cost, the amount of time needed to complete a program, their specific career goals, and what’s available locally (or online). Dioceses and parishes can vary in what degrees they require in order to hire for specific jobs.

Distance learning. Some programs offer online courses, which give students flexibility to participate even if they live far from a university or need to wedge classes between other commitments. The University of Notre Dame’s Satellite Theological Education Program, known as STEP, offers online adult formation courses on subjects ranging from church doctrine and history to liturgy, prayer, and the Bible.

Multicultural. Some focus on training people for ministry in multicultural settings. The Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, for example, offers courses in both English and Spanish. And the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California offers a master’s program in Ministry for a Multicultural Church.

Specialized training. Some programs offer training for particular types of ministry, such as hospital chaplaincy or youth ministry.

Partnerships. Some programs are offered through partnerships between local dioceses and nearby colleges or universities. That sometimes means cost-sharing arrangements—with the tuition potentially divided between the school, the diocese, the parish, and the student.

When the priest at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, California told pastoral administrator Kathleen Jensen he wanted her to consider entering a graduate program in pastoral ministry, her first instinct was to tell him “No, thanks.”
“My initial reaction was ‘I’m not going back to school.’ I already had a master’s degree in economics. I thought I was way too old for this,” says Jensen, 66. She asked her pastor, “ ‘What if I don’t like it?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, you quit.’ ” So she decided to give it a try.

Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles had joined forces to create a new partnership in Orange, including a cost-sharing arrangement. The professors also traveled to the diocese to teach classes, saving the students a long commute.

Jensen enrolled in a master’s program in pastoral theology in 2006, part of a cohort of 20 people enrolled through the new partnership. All finished and graduated together, including deacons, music ministers, and religious educators.

Jensen started working at Our Lady Queen of Angels more than 20 years ago, initially as a part-time bookkeeper. She was then given more responsibility over time until she became the parish administrator. The degree “gave me more credibility,” she says. She now teaches classes in the diocese for prospective deacons and their wives and for catechetical volunteers.

She also takes pride in earning a degree from Loyola Marymount, her father’s alma mater. The school did not accept women when she first went to college.

Upon graduating, Jensen and four other women from her diocesan group were inducted into the Jesuit Honor Society Alpha Sigma Nu because of their academic achievements. Her father was a member of the same honor society. “It just all came around full circle,” Jensen says. “That meant a lot to me."

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, page 25). 

Image: Tina Herman