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As the director of a graduate program in lay ministry formation, I often serve as informal counselor or cheerleader for students who face inevitable and often crushing struggles in their ministry. Recently I found myself in such a conversation with a student I will call Hannah. In her midlife, Hannah gave up a long and distinguished career as a Montessori school teacher and principal because she felt strongly called to a full-time lay ministry position at a parish. I watched her come alive with excitement about her ministry and her theological education.

She called me recently, however, and tearfully related a story all too similar to others I have heard from other ministry students: how her parish work had fallen apart when a new priest took over her parish. Though she spoke of him with charity, it became clear that the newly assigned priest was an incompetent administrator who had become a wrecking ball among the heretofore well-functioning parish staff. He had quickly undone much good work from the previous pastor and had strained relationships among both staff and parishioners.

Long experienced with human resource and leadership issues from her career in school administration, Hannah attempted to approach the new pastor about the problems. When she and others on the parish staff got nowhere, she turned to the diocese. Diocesan personnel made it clear that unless this priest committed sexual or financial malfeasance, the severe clergy shortage in the diocese made him “untouchable.” Ultimately, Hannah saw no other option but to resign; several other parish staff members followed suit.

We spoke only a few days after she left. I have known Hannah to be a strong, contagiously enthusiastic woman, but the depth of her grief and sadness was heartbreaking. She doubted her church and wondered aloud whether she had deluded herself in thinking that the church truly had room for the gifts that she and others like her (especially women) so longed to offer in its service.

Hannah’s Montessori background has given me a way to reflect on her experience of parish ministry gone awry. The fundamental premise of Montessori education is that children have an innate capacity to learn, and that if given an environment of freedom, trust and appropriate structure, they will thrive and develop in their own unique ways. The Catholic Church has affirmed the Montessori approach to learning, even adapting it for religious education under the title Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Might the church also embody Montessori principles to create healthy work environments for its lay and ordained ministers? How might ministers be given the freedom and responsibility to live in fulfillment of their baptismal call and offer their distinctive ministry talents for the blossoming of the church?

To create such ministry-nurturing environments in current ecclesial and cultural circumstances is a daunting challenge. Many bishops and diocesan personnel already squeeze blood from stones simply to keep parishes open and staffed amid a serious shortfall of capital and clergy. Should it be any surprise that some adopt a mindset of scarcity and defensive retrenchment, which would keep incapable ministers in their prescribed roles simply because no other options seem possible?

Other options are possible. How might things have played out differently in Hannah’s case, for example, if her priest had been given mainly sacramental duties, while the pastoral and administrative tasks to which he was ill-suited were taken up by qualified lay ecclesial ministers or permanent deacons? The church can look to a number of parishes, domestically and globally, where creative, nontraditional staffing configurations work magnificently.

Embracing new and inchoate forms of ministry requires a great deal of trust that the Holy Spirit still abides in the church and animates it. It requires trust that ministry can be vibrant and effective even when it does not conform to models we have known in the past.

Fear and fortress-building seem to be the default approach of human nature, especially in our present age of uncertainty and change. Trust, on the other hand, is always a leap of faith and a divine gift. In allowing human history to unfold freely, God has placed a tremendous amount of trust in us. Perhaps it is time to return the favor.

Kyle T. Kramer is the author of A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt (Sorin Books, 2010).

Comments

Richard Warren | 3/22/2012 - 4:04pm

Kyle Kramer’s “Montessori Ministry” (3/19) is a moving account paralleling my own experience in two parishes. I read his column after praying over today’s scripture readings. The Exodus selection, especially the opening, verses 7-8, seemed to shed a light on what’s happening in our church today. Calling the Israelites depraved, The Lord continued with “They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it …”



Our molten calf is the monarchial model of hierarchy we’ve had foisted on us since Constantine. Even after exposing the outrageous behavior of the ‘ordained’, we’re still asked to worship and sacrifice for absolutism and continue to accept the foolishness that defends incompetent ‘office’ holders (ordained) over the ‘function’ of talented and dedicated laity.



Vatican II planted the seeds of reform which have been heavily trodden upon my subsequent popes and their branch-manager bishops. The Council taught that the Eucharist was confected by the Spirit, through the faith of the people. Scripture and the history of the early church show us that serious public sin is forgiven by the church and that all else should be taken directly to Jesus. Even Baptism was defined as the communal action of the parish congregation.



So, why the call for sacramental ministers? We’re all sacramental ministers! Waiting for ‘other options’ to be approved by those with most to lose doesn’t seem to be an answer worth considering.


Richard Warren | 3/22/2012 - 3:58pm

Kyle Kramer’s “Montessori Ministry” (3/19) is a moving account paralleling my own experience in two parishes. I read his column after praying over today’s (3/22) scripture readings. The Exodus selection, especially the opening in verses 7-8, seemed to shed a light on what’s happening in our church today. Calling the Israelites depraved, The Lord continued with “They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it …”



Our molten calf is the monarchial model of hierarchy we’ve had foisted on us since Constantine. Even after exposing the outrageous behavior of the ‘ordained’, we’re still asked to worship and sacrifice for absolutism and continue to accept the foolishness that defends incompetent ‘office’ holders (ordained) over the ‘function’ of talented and dedicated laity.



Vatican II planted the seeds of reform which have been heavily trodden upon my subsequent popes and their branch-manager bishops. The Council taught that the Eucharist was confected by the Spirit, through the faith of the people. Scripture and the history of the early church show us that serious public sin is forgiven publicly by the church and that all others should be taken directly to Jesus. Even Baptism was defined as the communal action of the parish congregation.



So, why the call for sacramental ministers? We’re all sacramental ministers! Waiting for ‘other options’ to be approved by those with most to lose doesn’t seem to be an answer worth considering.


ed gleason | 3/11/2012 - 12:16am

As some who worked at the Archdiocesan chancery for ten years the clerical culture problem toward lay ministry is un-fixable for at least a few more papal regimes. Unpaid deacons are barely tolerated even though they are ordained canonically.


Lay formation programs OUGHT to point out that the lay ministry job is a minefield and it will be impossible for a minister to not eventually be blown up. { Most priests and bishops will never refer to you as A MINISTER in private and in correspondence] ...and I'm sorry that is not an exaggeration. But don't lose your faith over it .. some few priests will respect your contribution It would be wise to find one as confessor mentor and one who will keep you connected when the mine field explodes on you....

Lisa Weber | 3/10/2012 - 11:23pm
@ D. Gilmore - What you say about the trend to deny that Vatican II ever happened is so true!  Of course, it is not universal, and that is cause for hope, but I sometimes wonder how those with the truly benighted attitudes expect anyone to be able to evangelize for the Church.
Denise Gilmore | 3/10/2012 - 10:32am
Unfortunately there are many Hannah stories in the Church today. Some of the details may be different, but pastors and bishops do establish a willingness to invite and welcome partners in ministry. The trend is to deny that Vatican II happened and head back to the future.
More Latin, more distance, more men and boys! Pitiful and sinful to relegate the gifts of so many willing to share their call of baptism and the Spirit.
Lisa Weber | 3/9/2012 - 6:40pm
It seems to me that separating administrative functions from sacramental functions would be wise in many cases.  One doesn't need to be ordained to manage staff, maintain buildings, or organize parish activities. 
Lucie Johnson | 3/9/2012 - 12:42pm
Why was mediation not used in a case such as this? When there are problems, it is not just about firing someone (either the priest or the staff person)... especially it should not be in a church setting.  The young priest needs to learn and be given the help he needs. The staff would have the opportunity to understand the young priest better. It is no favor to anyone (including the priest) for the archdiocese to ignore the problem...  
LEONARD VILLA | 3/9/2012 - 12:32pm
I suspect relevant details are being left out here. It would be good to hear from the priest since he is being accused of being an "administrative incompetent" and anti-woman. That could easily be a smokescreen. For example were there any doctrinal concerns? Is the above-name program and lay person mentioned in accord with the detailed document from the Holy See on the collaboration of the lay faithful with the clergy or the synodal document on the vocation of lay faithful in the church. In that perspective the focus is not a clercalized laity and a secularized clergy. The main goal of the laity is the sanctification and evangelization of the secular.
JAMES DOHERTY REV | 3/9/2012 - 12:27pm
I believe we are all called by the Holy Spirit to use our gifts for the building up of the kingdom of God. Within the Catholic Church, women lay ministers are not valued by the Church hierarchy. As one who experienced having my position eliminated due to the whims of the pastor, I also had to come to terms with my "lack of value" as I had no recourse. As my spiritual director once told me, "Those in power will not willingly give up their power." Unfortunately, rather than being welcomed as individuals being called forth by the same Holy Spirit, for the same mission, we are viewed as suspect, especially if we are valued by the community in which we serve.
Joan Carroll | 3/9/2012 - 11:41am
Training lay ministers, especially lay women, is like training slaves to manage the plantation. No amount of training is going to make up for the fact that they are female and not ordained.

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