Not in it for the money: Why some Catholics jump off the corporate ladder and into church ministry
Those who enter lay ecclesial formation programs do so for a variety of reasons, but not usually because they expect to find a job with a whopping paycheck at the end.
“Financially – if it were a pure financial decision, it would not make a lot of sense” to go to graduate school for such work, said Marti Jewell, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas, who has studied the development of lay formation programs.
“You put a lot of money out for a degree,” Jewell said. “If you’re a lay person, by and large that cost is not subsidized by the diocese.” A graduate degree may be useful for career advancement for certain positions. But chances are, even with the degree, “you’re not going to get rich.”
Lay people do enter these programs, however – often for reasons having to do with personal spiritual growth and a deepening sense of call to ministry.
Joe Cotton, 33, is studying for a master of arts in pastoral studies degree at Seattle University, through the Christifideles program, co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Seattle. He sees the graduate work he’s doing now – made affordable by tuition subsidies from the archdiocese and the university – as an extension and expansion of the justice ministry work he’s been doing for years, working in parish youth ministry; with at-risk children in foster care; at an orphanage in Nicaragua. He now oversees the chaplaincy program for the King County juvenile detention facility.
Cotton doesn’t expect to get rich, but said he’s a much better minister because of the theological and pastoral training he’s receiving.
“These programs are designed to engage people in the places of the world that matter the most,” he said. “People who have made God their ultimate concern in life--here’s a program that grounds them in the gospel, preparing us to work with the most marginalized, to make us the hands and feet of Christ . . . I get to do that. That’s more exciting to me than earning a lot of money. It really is the gospel that motivates me.”
And students enter such programs at all different stages of their careers--both earlier in life, intending to make a career in ministry, and as job-switchers or even in retirement.
Barbara Jean Daly Horell, coordinator of the Catholic Biblical School--a lay formation program in Hartford, Connecticut--recently spoke with a woman in her 30s who’s in the third year of the program and who has also enrolled in a graduate program at Fordham University.
“She wants to change careers,” Daly Horell said. “She makes a very good living financing sports cars, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. But she isn’t satisfied. She wants to leave all of that and become a parish director of religious education.”
Sharon Pechacek, 67, waited until she retired from her parish job to enter the three-year Institute of Lay Ministry program  in the Diocese of Winona in Minnesota, earning a certificate in pastoral ministry plus 18 college credits at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota .
Pechacek knew she’d reap no financial benefit from all that work. When people asked her why she was entering the program so late in her career, “I said `Because I want to. This is for me.’”
Pechacek waited until her children were grown and until she retired, to make room for all the reading and other academic work. “It had been 40 years since I had done anything like this, or more . . . I wanted to get as much out of it as I could. I waited until I had more time to devote to it.”
And she uses what she’s learned in her work as a volunteer in a cluster of three rural parishes in southern Minnesota, working in ministry with the elderly and in outreach to Hispanic immigrants.
Among the students in such courses are church professionals, but also those in other lines of work – including teachers, engineers, nurses, and trade workers with a high school education, Daly Horell said. Some are parish volunteers who’ve been asked to teach and often “they feel very inadequate in that task” without some kind of training.
Kathi Bonner graduated from the Catholic Biblical School in 2011, and said students in her class “were from their mid-20s to their mid-70s,” from a variety of professions and backgrounds. They were curious about Catholic history and liturgy, and sometimes admitted that even after years of Catholic school they knew relatively little about the Bible.
The common denominator: “They wanted to know more.”
This article is a web-only sidebar that accompanies Off the corporate ladder , published in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, pages 22-26).