"Together in God's Service"
By Kate Blain
ALBANY, NY -- "Discernment" is part of the process for those considering a vocation to religious life. People interested in lay ministry should go through a discernment process too, say experts in the field.
Preparing to become a "lay ecclesial minister" -- the newest term for laity serving the Church -- takes both academic and spiritual preparation, said Maureen O'Brien of Duquesne University, president of the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry. The association encompasses more than 50 graduate education programs in the United States.
Most of those involved in lay ministry are middle-aged women, many with grown children. A new book from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Catholicism USA: A Portrait of the Catholic Church in the United States, cites the average age of lay ecclesial ministers as 50 and notes that the majority are Caucasian. But an increasing number of post-college-age people of various races are being drawn toward lay ministry.
"We're getting more people who are younger," said Betsy Rowe, director of the two-year Formation for Ministry Program (FMP) for the Diocese of Albany, New York. The program trains lay people to use their gifts in ministry. This year, its youngest participants are in their late 20s and early 30s. Several African Americans and Hispanics are participating.
Ms. O'Brien said a positive campus ministry experience during college or volunteering with an organization like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps leads young people to feel called to lay ministry.
"Virtually everyone I talk to sees it as a call," she said.
Deciding whether to pursue a career as a youth minister, director of religious education or pastoral associate should not be a snap decision, the experts agreed.
"It's a process of discernment: looking at yourself and having dialogue with those who know you well, who can listen and give honest feedback," Ms. O'Brien stated. "An [internal] call is vital, but you need a sense of external call."
Those not already active in a faith community probably aren't appropriate for lay ministry careers, Ms. Rowe noted. She said active laity should ask themselves, "What are my gifts? Where is my passion? What kind of work gives me life?"
"Talk to people already involved in ministry and have them tell their stories," she urged.
Next, said the experts, lay persons should find out what credentials are necessary for the area of ministry that interests them.
Ms. O'Brien said each diocese has different requirements; religious education directors usually need a master's degree, and one may be required for pastoral associates, as well. Some dioceses require a pastor's recommendation for acceptance into a pastoral-formation program.
Lay ministry formation programs are just being instituted in many dioceses, Ms. O'Brien said. "There's an attempt to create something appropriate to the lives and call of lay people." Laity may have to explore outside their own dioceses to find an appropriate program, she added.
Some dioceses have internship programs that help laity gain skills while discerning their call. Ms. O'Brien believes some type of "supervised placement" is necessary.
Academically, she said, lay ministers need a grounding in traditional areas of theology, including Scripture, Christology and ethics; and ministerial skills, including pastoral counseling, communication skills, planning liturgies and, for religious education directors, catechesis.
"You need appropriate credentials," Ms. Rowe stated. "I'm not sure that's a master's in theology. It could be a degree in social work with theology credits."
Spiritual formation is as important as academics, the pair said. "What the best programs are coming to [believe] is that lay people grow individually and communally," Ms. O'Brien said. She recommended reflecting on one's call through Bible study or Renew 2000 groups, and said formation also should include spiritual direction and/or retreats.
Ms. Rowe noted that every Formation for Ministry Program session includes a half-hour to 45 minutes of "faith-sharing and `breaking open the Gospel,' telling our stories as they relate to the Gospel."
"Spiritual formation is the core," says Rowe. "It's a huge mistake if you focus only on academics."
Kate Blain is assistant editor of The Evangelist, the newspaper of the Diocese of Albany, NY.