Preparing the Way of the Lord

Author: John Monczunski

Mike Buckler was a little late for work one morning at South Bend’s Chapin Street Clinic. As he hung up his coat, he smiled at the lone woman sitting in the waiting room of the free health clinic.

“I just said ‘Hi, how are ya?’ and she immediately started bawling,” Buckler recalls. When he sat down next to the woman, the story gushed out. The day before, her son had been sentenced to life in prison. She came to the clinic because throughout her son’s trial she had been experiencing chest pains from all the stress.

“She was early for her appointment. I just sat with her for maybe half an hour or so. Just listening.” Lending a friendly ear and offering a good word when he could was, in fact, Buckler’s assignment last year. As a first-year student in Notre Dame’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program, Buckler had interned as a chaplain at the clinic as part of his training for ministry in the Catholic church.

“My goal was to bring people to a deep center, a place where they could unwind a little bit, get something off their shoulders, relax and know that someone has cared for them,” says the University of Florida graduate.

Sharpening such one-on-one counseling skills is a focus of the M.Div. first-year field experience. The three-year graduate degree program, originally designated at Notre Dame as an M.Th. degree and later changed to M.Div., was established in 1968 to provide ministerial training for Holy Cross seminarians. Buckler, however, has no desire to be a priest. As a member of the laity, he hopes one day to work full time in ministry. Currently there are 23 lay students and 20 seminarians in the Notre Dame M.Div. program, which began admitting lay students around the time the program changed its degree name in the ‘70s.

Professional lay ministers, virtually unheard of before Vatican II, have become increasingly important in the life of the Catholic church. The numbers tell the tale. In just five years, from 1992 to 1997, the number of priests in the United States fell 12 percent to 47,000. In the same time span the number of lay ministers increased 35 percent from 21,569 to 29,146. Also in the same time frame, the number of parishes employing lay ministers rose from 54 to 63 percent. Increasingly, lay ministers have been compelled to take leadership roles administering parishes because of the priest shortage.

While the growth of lay ministry is partly a result of the shrinking pool of priests, there’s more to it than that. It is a logical consequence of the theology of Vatican II, notes Father Michael Connors, CSC, ‘83M.Div., director of Notre Dame’s divinity program. “Collaborative ministry is not just a good idea because many hands make light work. It goes to the very nature of the church, working together in the body of Christ.”

The trend also goes beyond theology and demographics. “I think a lot more is expected out of a parish now than just father saying Mass on Sundays,” says Connors. "We expect parishes today to offer a range of services that require more professional qualifications.

“I served at South Bend’s Little Flower Catholic church in the ‘80s, and at that time we had a staff of seven full-time ministers, just two of whom were priests. And this is only a moderate-sized parish. It’s not unusual today for some parishes to have professional marriage counselors on staff or a nurse.”

Sister Ann Goggin, R.C., director of lay formation in the ND program, adds, “Lay ministers will be increasingly needed as we have a much more diverse parish life. In some instances lay people can minister to other lay people more effectively because what they say has added weight just by the fact they are lay people. There are things that mothers can say that nobody else can say because they have that lived experience.”

Notre Dame made a commitment to support lay leadership in the church by offering full-tuition scholarships to all students studying for the Master of Divinity degree. The program has 24 full scholarships reserved for lay students and an unlimited number for seminarians. “This commitment to lay leadership is one of the things that distinguishes our program,” Connors says. “It wasn’t a particular endowment or donor who came forward to do it. This is something that the University decided was important for the church.”

Last year, in an effort to increase the strength and diversity of its applicant pool, the program launched a recruitment initiative with a refurbished website and slick mailings to theology departments, Newman Centers, bishops and volunteer organizations. “One day we would also like to offer stipends as well as minority scholarships,” says Connors.

In addition to offering full scholarships to all lay students, Notre Dame’s M.Div. program is distinctive in two other ways. It is one of only a handful nationwide that trains both lay students and seminarians together. Also, unlike most programs, it attracts primarily younger lay students.

“Traditionally, M.Div. students have been folks who have been working in the church for many years but want more training and a formal credential,” Connors says. “But since we are a full-time residential program with no evening courses we tend to attract younger, first-career students.” For admission to its program, Notre Dame requires a minimum of one-year’s experience in social work or ministry.

The curriculum is essentially the same for both seminarians and lay students. Courses include study of sacred scripture, the history of the Christian tradition, systematic theology, liturgical theology, Christian ethics, and homiletics, the art of preaching. Beyond the basics, the program offers four areas of concentration: pastoral counseling, Hispanic ministry, religious education and youth ministry. Those studying for the priesthood have a few more requirements: a sacramental theology course, a course in reconciliation ministry and an extra preaching course.

The divinity students take a minimum of two liturgy courses and two preaching courses. “In the first liturgy course we look at daily prayer and the Eucharist and in the second we examine the pastoral rites: baptism, weddings, funerals, anointings,” says Father John Melloh, S.M., director of the Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics. “In the first course, for instance, seminarians practice the Eucharistic rite, while lay students practice the communion rite for Sunday liturgies without a priest. We videotape them and go over very practical things: How do you walk? What do you do with your hands? When do gestures look ridiculous? It’s all about learning a certain discipline so that the leader of prayer helps the people pray and doesn’t get in the way of their prayer.”

The first preaching course focuses on public speaking and the special nature of the liturgical homily. The second introduces methods of scriptural interpretation and preaching techniques. While the third course, which is optional for lay students but usually taken, covers preaching about social issues and develops a theology of preaching.

The preaching courses are equally important to lay students as well as seminarians, Melloh says. “The opportunities to preach are not confined to the Sunday celebration. People preach in retreat settings, in youth ministry, while bringing communion to the sick.”

Arguably the best way to learn ministry is to do ministry, and so the divinity program features three years of field study, one more than most divinity or pastoral studies programs. With a minister as their mentor, students intern in a variety of settings from parishes to hospitals.

Field work follows a progression of themes. First-year students are encouraged to work in hospitals and social service agencies to sharpen one-on-one interpersonal skills. "In the first year we emphasize integrating practical experience and theology, " says Jan Poorman, director of field service.

Articulating faith is the theme for the second year. Field work often involves work in Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) programs or preparing couples for the sacrament of matrimony. “We encourage our students to engage in faith sharing and reflection. We talk about teaching the faith in parish settings, secular settings, school settings and social service settings,” Poorman says.

The final year focuses on leadership. “Students are encouraged to work in collaborative leadership settings, in acknowledgment that ours is a church and society that places high value on working well with others,” says Poorman. “We discuss models of leadership, power and empowerment, decision-making and delegating.”

Beyond the course work and field study, the lay spiritual formation program is one of the hallmarks of Notre Dame’s divinity curriculum. “This is something the lay students really seem to want,” Sister Ann Goggin says. “Traditionally, religious formation has included training in prayer and traditions of community life in order to facilitate transforming the candidate into a more Christlike life for ministerial activity or life in Christian community. When it comes to lay formation the book is still being written.”

Spiritual formation includes a weekly gathering of all lay students for common prayer, a shared meal and talks or discussions on issues related to ministry. The lay students also attend a weekend retreat in January and meet once a semester as a group with the seminarians, who have their own formation program geared toward their vocation. “Most of the students also have personal spiritual directors, and many attend Thursday night Lucernarium, a solemn evening prayer at Moreau Seminary at which seminarians preach,” Goggin adds.

A phenomenal 99 percent of Notre Dame’s lay M.Div. students find jobs in ministry within a year of graduation. About half go into parish work of some kind, whether it’s as director of religious education, youth minister or pastoral associate. The other half usually accept jobs in hospital ministry, high school or college campus ministry or some form of social justice ministry. A recent survey of M.Div. alumni found the vast majority are still involved in ministry 15 years after graduation. Those who are no longer involved usually say they’ve chosen to pause their ministry career in order to raise a family, Connors notes.

“Somehow these young people catch a glimpse of discipleship with Christ that is so compelling that they can’t do anything else,” says Goggin. “That is how you will walk 40 years in the desert. Not from church acclamation, not from big salaries. You are not going to get rich working in a parish.”

“Our students tend to be about theology as ‘lived reality’ and a desire to make it so for others,” says Jan Poorman.

Lynn Streefland, a second-year student from Webster, Minnesota, is typical of many in the program. Streefland was involved in volunteer service in high school and was active in campus ministry in college. After a year of service working at a Catholic high school in Milwaukee, she says she felt called to work full time in the church but wanted more training. "I know this is what I want to do with my life. I enjoy walking with people on their faith journey, leading discussions on religious issues.

“There’s something new happening in the church,” she says. “And I’m not sure exactly what it is yet. But I can sense it, and I feel that it’s where I need to be. I definitely believe lay ministry is what I am called to, because it leaves so many options open.”

Colleen Moore ‘98, who graduated from the program last May and currently is coordinator of formation activities with Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life, saw the divinity degree as a logical next step in her own spiritual journey. After a two-year stint with the Holy Cross Associates in Chile working in a parish and teaching at a Catholic boarding school, Moore decided she needed to deepen her understanding of Catholicism.

Like many younger Catholics, Moore felt shortchanged in her development in the faith. “I said to my dad once, ‘My generation doesn’t have a lot to grasp onto because your generation was filled with the fear of God and dread in Catholic elementary school and rejected that. So then when I went through catechesis it was all love and rainbows. And that’s just not it either. So now many people my age and younger don’t understand why we do what we do, the rich meaning behind our rituals.”

Stacey and Josh Noem, both 1999 graduates of Notre Dame, were the first married couple admitted to the program. They decided to pursue the M.Div. degree after completing a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Sitka, Alaska, and working for the church in Florida for two years. Their JVC experience had a profound effect on them. It emphasized working for social justice, living simply, living in community and spirituality. Upon completing their service commitment, the couple decided they wanted careers in a setting compatible with those goals.

“It seemed to us that working for the church would be more conducive to this than corporate jobs,” says Josh. He found a job as an editor/reporter for the Diocese of Venice edition of the Florida Catholic newspaper. Stacey, who by then had given birth to their son, Oscar, became a co-director of the diocesan Family Life Office, which oversees the domestic violence task force, parenting groups, natural family planning and marriage enrichment groups.

After working in Florida, the couple, who are third-year students, decided they needed “more tools to sustain our service.” At a 2001 family life conference in Washington, D.C., Stacey discovered she felt energized by church work. “I like helping families grow closer to God. At the same time I also knew I had no theological training and it might be worthwhile to have that.”

Meanwhile, Josh found he had an “overarching interest” in helping adults connect with their faith. “I also had the growing realization that the printed word can only go so far in inspiring conversion. I had become really interested in reawakening the faith life in adults, and it became clear that we both were interested in further education and wanted a professional degree to help us serve.”

The couple chose Notre Dame because they liked the balance between pastoral involvement, lay formation and excellence in academics. “There is this incredible world-class faculty here, like Eugene Ulrich, one of the main international authorities working on the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Josh says.

When he graduates, Josh says, he intends to seek work in adult faith formation tied to social justice. “It comes down to engaging with the question of suffering in the world. I’m not sure exactly where this will lead me, a position with a parish, at the diocesan level, Catholic charities or something else.” Stacey, meanwhile, hopes to continue working in family life. “We like to think of ourselves as a package, two-for-one,” she says.

First-year students Grace and Jason Simon, like the Noems, are married. They have an infant son, Nathan. “We’ve really been inspired by Josh and Stacey,” Grace says. “We wondered if working on this degree together was really doable, and they’ve shown us it can be done.”

The couple, who were high school sweethearts and married right after college, had been involved in ministry for five years before joining Notre Dame’s divinity program. After graduation from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Spanish, Grace took a part-time teaching job and began volunteering at the University Catholic Center on the Madison campus. Soon that led to a full-time position on the campus ministry staff.

Jason, who had been raised in a Pentecostal church, converted to Catholicism a year after their wedding. An engineer, he took a job with a software development company. Six months later his career path took a major turn when the pastor of their parish asked him if he would be interested in becoming director of religious education.

“Our pastor was interested in having a DRE who didn’t fit the normal mold. He wanted someone . . . who could make religious education fun for kids,” Jason says. “Actually some type of ministry had been in the back of my mind at some point—I was thinking maybe in five years after our loans were paid off—but after our priest called and we had this great conversation, it just became clear that this was where God was leading us.”

After working in ministry for a while, the couple decided they needed advanced training and enrolled in the summer master’s program in theology at Notre Dame. However, they were frustrated by the part-time aspect of that degree program. “To be formed by something, you really need to be immersed,” Jason says. “And we realized that’s what we wanted and so switched over to the M.Div. program. We both wanted to broaden our experience in ministry and this offers the structure to do that.”

Like Stacey and Josh, Grace and Jason hope to split a position in ministry after completing the program. “We both would like to be at home with our children at some level and want to work for the same community that our family is part of. Right now, we feel drawn to campus ministry work,” Grace says. “Both Jason and I enjoy that age and believe it’s a real prime time for people to experience God in their lives.”

Mimi Arima ‘98, who received her M.Div. last May, came to the divinity program after three years as the youth minister for three parishes clustered under one pastor in Seattle. “It was good experience; I got a good look at the workings of parish life and youth ministry for high school-aged students,” she says. Arima, who double majored in theology and Japanese as a Notre Dame undergraduate, decided to pursue the M.Div degree to improve her effectiveness as a minister. "I was sure of my faith and had a firm foundation, but I found I couldn’t articulate it as well as I wanted to, as well as I felt I should."

The 27-year-old native of Maryland said she felt called to some form of ministry her junior year when she declared theology as her major. “I started thinking about how best I could serve God. I was really excited about my faith. The more I learned, the more I fell in love with the church, the treasures that are in the Catholic church. I remember thinking, ’I’m a cradle Catholic, why don’t I know all this about my faith?’ I felt as if I had just found a pot of gold and wanted to share it with everybody I knew.”

Following M.Div. graduation, Arima returned to parish work in the Seattle area. High on her list in seeking employment was to find a situation with a cooperative spirit. “I want to work somewhere that has a healthy collaborative team setting, a healthy staff. That can make or break a job,” she notes.

Fostering such collaboration is the goal of the third year of field education. But students in the program reflect tensions within the church as a whole, so achieving that collaborative spirit has not always been easy.

“The issue of women’s ordination is a flashpoint, with lots of pain on both sides,” Goggin observes. “It puts seminarians on the defensive. When it comes time for ordination, and the women feel they are really called to it, it’s heartrending.” At least two female graduates of the program have left the Catholic church in order to be ordained, one in the Lutheran church, the other in the Episcopal church.

It would be a mistake to characterize the division among students as simply lay-clerical. Some lay students are more traditional; some seminarians are more progressive. “It often comes down to different experiences of church,” Father Connors say. “And different expectations of what it means to be church.”

Two years ago tensions were so high that seminarians did not attend the commissioning service for their lay classmates. Last year’s graduating class, however, worked hard at collegiality and cooperation. Seminarians were involved in the service and the celebration was hosted by Moreau Seminary.

Colleen Moore’s attitude characterizes her class. “I realized I can’t expect to go out and work in a parish and preach the gospel in all that I do if I’m alienating a classmate who doesn’t agree with the same theology I do,” she says.

“One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t pigeonhole people,” Lynn Streefland adds. “We all have very traditional views on some things and progressive views on others. People are open and willing to listen to one another, even if we don’t always agree. We all came here to learn.”

The Noems see a harmonious relationship between lay students and seminarians as a strength of the program. “One of the benefits for Stacey and me,” Josh says, “has been the dynamic between the lay students and the seminarians. There has been a mutual enhancement of our vocations. In fact, we’ve had some discussions with our seminarian friends, and they’ve said, ‘I see you and Stacey as an example of how I can be a better brother to my fellow seminarian.’”

“Lay and ordained vocations complement each other. Each of our vocations offers complementary talents and skills and has complementary roles to fulfill in the church. The two pieces fit together to make the whole stronger,” Stacey adds.

Making both of those pieces stronger, training both the laity and the clergy for leadership roles in the church to serve the faithful, give good counsel and preach the gospel is precisely the goal of M.Div. at Notre Dame, Connors says. “That’s what we’re all about.”

John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.