By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 15, 2009
By day, Maureen Alexander eyes numbers as an accountant, keeping track of IRS forms and watching the financial books for small businesses. By night, Alexander wrestled with the meaning of the Trinity, defended the incarnation of Jesus and studied the finer points of church ritual.
This summer, after a two-year effort, she earned a Certificate of Ecclesial Ministry from Spring Hill College, a Jesuit college in Alabama with a program here.
From Christology to the Trinity, Alexander was challenged to learn more about her faith. “It was amazing. I feel so enriched. It was serious. For me, it was in-depth. For me, it was really thrilling.”
Alexander is among trained lay leaders who are taking on responsibilities once handled by the clergy. “I can look at things and know why.”
From teaching young people about the faith to visiting the sick with Communion, these new lay leaders are earning advanced college degrees and certificates. More than 30,000 lay parish ministers work in the American church.
In August, some two dozen students earned the Certificate of Ecclesial Ministry. It was the first class to complete the Spring Hill College program, which required 10 classes to finish the course work.
Mary Smith, a religious education director at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Blairsville, said she felt “like I was driving without a license” before the program at Spring Hill College. Smith said she had long wanted a college program to give her professional competence to serve in the parish.
“That calling to serve the church was being met with an opportunity to grow intellectually, spiritually, personally and pastorally,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. Since earning the certificate, she has been made the pastoral assistant at the parish.
“It is like I have a new motor in my car. It may not be noticed on the outside, but through the workings of the Holy Spirit I am more confident and secure in this journey as a parish leader. It is as if I went from a four-cylinder car to a V-8,” she wrote.
Retired from IBM, Lynn LaBudde fulfilled a desire that goes back 40 years. Back then, he sat in classes by a priest who was a doctoral student at Emory University and it “lit a fire in me that smoldered for many years as we raised our children and as I nurtured my professional career.”
Being out of the classroom for many years, LaBudde, 68, said a challenge was to relearn how to be a student. He attends St. Brendan the Navigator Church in Cumming.
Now he is passing on what he learned to high school students in religious education courses.
“The most significant change has been the richness of our Catholicism that I’m able to bring to my catechetical classes, as well as an emphasis on spirituality,” he said.
Alexander, who said she is “older than 50” has a business degree. She has been a longtime teacher of religion and earned advanced certifications. But those classes just scratched the surface, she said.
“I was taught, once you acquire knowledge of the church, you have a responsibility to pass it on. I felt I knew it all, until I entered this class,” said Alexander, a parishioner at Most Blessed Sacrament Church, Atlanta. Alexander is now pursing a master’s in theology. Her first course is biblical Greek.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta has different options for students pursuing these types of studies. One innovation is an online program with the University of Dayton. Through the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation, students connect with faculty and other students over the Internet.
The U.S. bishops focused on the role of lay ministers in 2005 with the document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry.”
It highlighted how the service of the laity is done in connection with the church and is rooted in the baptismal call to service.
What do lay ministers do? According to the study, more than 40 percent are directors of religious education. About one-fourth are general pastoral associates, helping the pastor in a variety of tasks. Youth ministry, music ministry and liturgical planning or coordination are other forms of lay ecclesial ministry.
Lay ministers working in paid pastoral positions is now commonplace. Two out of three parishes have paid lay ministers, according to the U.S. bishops.
Spring Hill College in 1997 started its extension program here in collaboration with the archdiocese. It offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees.
“I always tell people the strengths are the students and faculty. It is not just show up, teach for a while and walk out. (And students) love learning and growing in their faith,” said Robert Rivers, the director of the program and an instructor on Scripture studies and the Second Vatican Council.
The Certificate of Ecclesial Ministry is the newest addition to Spring Hill’s Atlanta program. It offers courses on the foundations of Catholic theology. It can also be used to count toward an undergraduate degree.
That’s what Anne Stephens did.
She said it was “many, many years” since she had been in a classroom.
There were the assigned readings, papers and projects on top of working full time as a youth minister at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta, she said.
“The classes have given me so much more confidence in my ability to do my job and in my ability to support my faith. It’s amazing to be able to speak with confidence on issues in the church—to give educated answers,” she said.
“The classes have definitely broadened my views, perspectives, knowledge,” she said.