By ANDREW NELSON, Staff reporter | Published April 16, 2014
MARIETTA—A longtime leader of religious education in the Archdiocese of Atlanta earned a national award for her “unique approaches to fostering lifelong faith formation.”
Joyce Guris is being recognized as the 2014 recipient of the Religious Educational Excellence Award. She is to receive the award from the National Catholic Educational Association at its gathering in Pittsburgh in April.
“It’s all the people at Transfiguration who are involved. They tirelessly spread the message of God’s love. I’m just a really good cheerleader,” said Guris, the director of religious education and youth ministry.
The thriving parish in Marietta offers programs to convey the faith to the community, from the youngest in Sunday morning preschool to adults joining the church at the Easter Vigil. It is one of the largest churches in archdiocese, with more than 14,000 members and six weekend Masses.
The national award applauds parish leaders “whose programs offer new ideas or unique approaches fostering lifelong faith formation.”
Guris said the parish embraced the bishops’ message in “Renewing the Vision,” the American bishops’ blueprint for ministry, where leaders “minister to the whole person.” The 55-year-old Guris said the parish is a “faith community with a purpose.”
Indeed, the parish breaks new ground on how to share the Catholic faith. It has hosted a bilingual conference on its campus for eight years. The workshops connect hundreds of catechists with national speakers, allow for networking opportunities, and make it possible to share best practices.
There are some 700 adult leaders in the Transfiguration program, involving some 1,800 young people. Hundreds of other adults deepen their faith too, with three women’s Bible study groups, two men’s groups, and a variety of other opportunities to learn. The 725 teens in youth ministry are led by their peers. There are as many as 100 teenagers guiding the program.
“They are the ones witnessing. They have ownership,” Guris said.
There is also the BRITE (Bringing Religious Instruction to Everyone) to support students with developmental disabilities.
“I’ve been telling people for years that we have the best religious education program in the country. Now, the country has found out,” said Msgr. Patrick Bishop, the pastor of the parish. He called Guris an “incredible woman” who is very popular among the parish community. The parish, with Guris’ leadership, is talking with publishing firms to develop digital formats for religious education material.
“She’s taken the ball and run with it,” he said.
Guris and her husband, Chris, moved to Atlanta from New Jersey. They have three grown children and three grandchildren. Her vision was always to be a teacher. It was something she wanted to do from the youngest age. At 15, she had the opportunity to help in a religion class.
“It was just amazing because I could be a teacher and teach kids about God’s love,” she said.
Before their move here, the family had settled into a new parish in New Jersey, where she was approached to be director of religious education at St. Mark’s Church in Long Valley, N.J. The way she tells it, her decision to become involved as a parish leader was from a New Jersey priest who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“You’re the best we got,” he told Guris.
“Then you are in really sorry shape,” she responded.
Later, she became director of youth ministry at the Marietta parish in 1996. She has been involved with religious education for 21 years.
One of the best parts of her ministry is seeing how the encounter with God shapes people. She tells ministers to “trust God; you are just planting seeds.” Guris said she’s pleased to now be working alongside two former students. “I am grateful to see the harvest,” she said.
Julia Bacce, the parish youth minister, returned to the parish after being involved with the program as a student. She said Guris is “very intentional about creating a positive, supportive, and inclusive ministry that is for, by, and with our youth. Down to every last detail of our program, Joyce has made sure to put the youth first, and that they know that this is their program,” she said in an email.
Sheila Murray, another ministry leader, said, “The most important thing I have learned from Joyce is that God is love and that our response to God is love.”
Ministry gives a satisfaction that cannot be found elsewhere.
“When you are working in ministry, it’s about the heart,” Guris said. “You know people at a different level. It’s such a gift.”