Off the corporate ladder: Working for the church

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Article Parish Life Spirituality
Some professionals are quitting their day jobs and stepping up to a new spiritual calling.

if someone had told Barbara Evans a decade ago that she’d be working as the director of religious education for a parish in New Jersey, responsible for the faith formation of children and teenagers, she’d have told them they were crazy.

She had a solid corporate job as director of financial operations for a computer company. She made good money and volunteered as a catechist in her Connecticut parish. And then one year for Lent, she decided to take a class on the Bible to take on a spiritual challenge for Lent, rather than give something up.

One class led to another, as well as to an increasing hunger for something solid, for a deep Catholic theological base. One Sunday after Mass, in the back of church she saw a flyer for the Catholic Biblical School, an intensive, four-year lay ministry training program sponsored by the Archdiocese of Hartford. Holding that paper in her hand, Evans’ heart told her this was exactly what she’d been looking for.

When she called to ask for more information, she learned they were looking for “serious” students. “I had a busy schedule,” Evans says. “I almost backed out. But from the moment I walked into the room, I knew that’s where I was meant to be . . . I couldn’t get enough.”

She completed the program, followed what she discerned as a clear call from God, quit her corporate job, and last August began working—for significantly less money—as the director of religious education for St. Denis Parish in Manasquan, New Jersey.

“It’s absolutely wonderful. I’m in heaven,” Evans says. “God’s been leading me the whole way.”

Continuing ed

The Catholic Biblical School is one of a new generation of lay ministry programs being offered at both the diocesan and the university level. They are having a significant impact both on parishes and other Catholic institutions, as well as on the lives of those who enroll in them.

The students range from people like Evans—parish volunteers seeking a deeper understanding of their faith—to those who already work professionally for the church or aspire to do so. That includes those who sort of slid into professional ministry, longtime volunteers who move into paid positions, as well as those planning for a career in Catholic institutions—such as parishes, schools, and hospitals—who need academic credentials to make that possible.

Lay formation is a post-Vatican II phenomenon. “It began like dandelions in the spring, in multiple places,” said Zeni Fox, professor of pastoral theology at the Seton Hall University School of Theology, in her January 2011 U.S. Catholic interview.
These programs developed in part for practical reasons. The decline in the number of priests and women religious means that in many parishes laypeople do more of the work, handling everything from pastoral administration to youth ministry. Some may end up in positions of significant responsibility in large, merged parishes or parish clusters, in some cases as parish administrators with no full-time priest assigned.

In many congregations, the parish staff “is doing pretty much all of the overall day-to-day work of the parish,” says Marti Jewell, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas and former director of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project. “It’s moved into their hands. One would only hope these people are well-educated in ministry and theology. I think the people of God deserve that.” In addition to the practical considerations, there are theological reasons as well for lay ministry training. These reasons represent a shift in thinking from the old “pray, pay, and obey” view of laity to the idea that all the baptized have a Christian vocation. Documents such as the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity from the Second Vatican Council, and in the U.S. bishops’ statements Called and Gifted (1980) and Coworkers in the Vineyard of the Lord (2005) affirm the gifts of laypersons as ministers of the church.

Students completing some diocesan programs leave with a certificate, which in some cases can earn them college credits through partnership arrangements with colleges and universities. In other cases, students enter a full-fledged graduate degree program.

Job shift

Wendy Enloe, director of religious education at Holy Rosary Parish in Saint Amont, Louisiana, hopes to graduate in May with a master’s degree in religious education from Loyola Institute for Ministry at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Her story is an example of a mid-career shift: a Catholic who gave up a job in the secular world after feeling a pull toward full-time ministry.

Although she worked for 25 years as an interior designer, Enloe, 47, also had become increasingly involved in parish work. As a volunteer catechist, she began taking courses through a lay ecclesial certification program offered by the Diocese of Baton Rouge, “wanting to go deeper and wanting to know more about my own faith.”

Upon finishing the program, Enloe was encouraged to consider graduate school by a Loyola University faculty member. Around that time, Holy Rosary’s director of religious education retired, and a requirement was written into the job description that the candidate for the position either have a master’s in religious education or be pursuing such a degree.

So Enloe took the job and enrolled in the Loyola program. “Things just kept falling into place,” she says.

Enloe says her classes at Loyola and through the diocesan program have strengthened her ministry in the parish, where she works with about 650 children and teenagers in sacramental preparation and religious education.

Many who have competed lay ministry formation programs tell of it giving them both greater confidence and theological expertise—so they feel prepared to teach others how to deepen their faith.

The Loyola graduate program “helped me to know how to teach,” Enloe says. “They gave me a sense of how people came to understand their faith” and of techniques she could use, such as how to come up with better questions to spark discussion and how to answer questions people ask about Catholic doctrine and history. “I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing not having the experience at Loyola,” she says.

Number crunch

As valuable as many students consider lay ministry training programs to be, enrollment in them actually has declined in recent years in the United States—in part because dioceses cutting their budgets have pared back support for such programs.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University collects such data biannually. In 2010-11, it identified 240 active lay ministry formation programs in the United States, a 10-percent drop from the 266 active programs identified in 2009-10.

While the number of programs declined, the number of enrolled students increased during that time, from 17,935 people in 2009-10 to 18,493 in 2010-11.

Most of those enrolled—about 62 percent—are women. Half are in their 40s and 50s, about 4 in 10 are under 40, and about 1 in 10 is 60 or older. Nearly 60 percent of the students are white, and another third are Latino.

The overall enrollment trends are a little complex, with both the numbers of programs and overall enrollment having grown significantly since the center began compiling statistics in the mid-1980s. Still, overall enrollment is down significantly from the peak of about 36,000 students enrolled in such programs in 2002-03, roughly a decade ago.

“The reasons [for cancelling and closing programs] are probably multiple and complex,” Jewell says. “Some of it has to do with money. It’s awkward at a time when laypeople are taking more and more responsibility in the parishes.”

Jewell also has some ideas as to why more women than men enroll in such classes.

“For those getting degrees, the financial question of being able to support a family may be more acute for men,” Jewell says. “These are often underpaid positions. For the certificate programs, people are studying to do more in their parish and the Catholic community, and often this role is taken by women.”

When Zeni Fox of Seton Hall did a study 25 years ago of students enrolled in such programs, 85 percent were women and there were almost no married men. “The issue: the salaries and the absence of a career path that could sustain a family,” says Fox. “I doubt that has changed.”

Student teachers

While the pay may not be high, graduates of lay formation programs often fill important roles in parishes, high schools, hospitals, and on college campuses. The degrees can open doors—in some cases, parishes, dioceses, or other employers prefer to hire those with a specific graduate degree or lay ministry formation certificate.

Rosina Hendrickson, 31, already had earned a master’s degree in Catholic studies from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota when she began taking online courses through the Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP) at the University of Notre Dame.

“I am a perpetual student,” says Hendrickson, now the coordinator of child and adult faith formation for St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in McKinney, Texas. “I am always looking for ways to increase my own knowledge, academically, spiritually, theologically. It makes me a better minister.”

Hendrickson followed what is a traditional career path in other professions: moving across the country to take an available job for which she already had the credentials, first in Alabama and later in Texas.

“Parishes and dioceses that have the funds to do so want to hire people who already have a master’s degree level of education in theology or a related field,” she says. “We’re seeing this trend toward having the education to back up what you’re doing in ministry.”

Kathi Bonner, director of religious education at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in West Simsbury, Connecticut, completed the four years of training in the Catholic Biblical School in the spring of 2011.

“It’s not for the faint of heart, [but] I loved it, I loved every minute,” Bonner says—even though that meant digging hard into reading, writing papers, and engaging in class discussions. “We studied every book of the Bible. It was challenging, but it was so enriching and enlightening. I’m so glad that I did it.”

Bonner is a classic volunteer-turned-director of religious education who started off as a catechist in her former parish, took some classes, and now works at her current parish after her family moved to Connecticut.

“The longer I’m in my ministry, the more I become aware that I need to study more about the Bible, about the Judeo-Christian roots of our faith,” she said. “Once my last child was off to college, I knew I could finally make the commitment to do it.”

After completing the program, “I feel far more connected to my church, far more connected to my faith.”

“What [lay formation] programs around the country are doing is preparing people to claim their voices,” says Bryan Froehle, a professor of pastoral theology and director of the doctoral program in the School of Theology and Ministry at the University of St. Thomas in Miami.

“It has resulted in an amazing flowering of gifts in the church today, that not only has transformed individual persons’ lives and empowered them, but has also transformed the church.”

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, pages 22-26).

Image: Tina Herman