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.