Religious Education: Faith, Academics & the Wider World Community
Intro: Do you have a heart for youth or families? Would you like to have a hand in developing an aspect of their life that will carry them throughout the years? Then, maybe a place in ministry is for you. Read about Irene Lucas, one of the lay ministers in a Pennsylvania parish and see if a job like hers rouses your interest.
The Story: My name is Irene Lucas and I am the Director of Life Long Faith Formation at a Roman Catholic Parish. (I frequently teased that this title would easily fit on any business card at least the size of a small billboard!) More often, though, laity in my position are referred to as Directors of Religious Education. Because of the nature of the work where the responsibilities are ever evolving and changing, I have yet to see two days alike.
Depending on the diocese, size of parish, and community setting, the pay, job training, and job description can be quite varied. In smaller parishes, a part-time person with primarily "on-the-job" training may be employed at a stipend level. However, in large metropolitan parishes, several full-time positions may be needed to cover all the various aspects that round out this field.
Prior to accepting this position, I worked in a shelter for women in crisis and for a Catholic pacifist non-profit organization, yet my professional training did not begin in this field. My bachelor's degree is in biology, but after working as a full-time volunteer at a Christian mission in Appalachia, I returned to school for graduate work in theology.
When I first took the position of Director of Life Long Faith Formation, my job responsibilities centered on the parish's ministries to children and youth. I recruited, trained, and supervised volunteers who taught religious education classes to children from age 4 to 17. I worked with parents who were seeking sacramental celebrations for their children and oversaw the implementation of the diocesan curriculum for children and youth instruction. I also conducted retreats, service opportunities, and community-building events for teens. These things and working with staff, parents, volunteers, and young people to further the development of their faith were just a few aspects of my work.
The parish was particularly interested in creating an active youth ministry program when I was hired. Therefore, a significant portion of my time was dedicated to developing this ministry. On any given day you could find me working with a group of volunteers to plan a special event, instructing a group of parents about First Reconciliation, teaching small children a song for First Eucharist, running a sex ed class for young adolescents, taking teens on a camping/canoe trip, or supervising an all-night event to raise money for the missions. Some of the less apparent aspects of my job, then and now, are being responsible for maintaining all records, including financial reports, ensuring student discipline, communicating with the diocese, and planning for the future.
About six years ago a change in parish personnel and the growth of the youth ministry program resulted in a change to my job description. Another person was hired to allow for more concentrated development of youth ministry, and adult faith formation was added to my responsibilities. Although I no longer take kids camping, plan teen dances, or run all-night lock-ins, I am still responsible for the religious education programs for teens, preparation for Confirmation in the eleventh grade, and other formal elements of instruction of teens.
In addition to the religious education of children and youth, now I am also responsible for planning adult retreats, coordinating speaker series, running Bible studies, offering reading material, and implementing the process for initiating adults into the Catholic faith. And, there are various other elements of ongoing faith formation for the adult members of the parish community. I also work with staff members to unfold a vision for the continuing spiritual growth of the parish family. One area of need that is currently attracting my attention is to challenge the parish in its commitment to the social mission of the Gospel.
Two years ago, my job title and corresponding description changed again. The cause of this change was due to shifts in parish needs. Some responses to these needs I have already begun putting in place. We are looking at an increase in multi-generational events: catechetical, social, service, etc. Recently, for example, I coordinated a Mardi Gras celebration for the parish that included a Chili Cook-Off, games and crafts for young children, an Amazing Race event for teens, Chinese Auction, and Trivial Pursuit game for families and prayer. There are times when I function like a director, getting various players to come together for a terrific performance. Other times I am "on stage"—teaching, leading, facilitating. And, there is also the role of the producer, which I sometimes take on by recruiting the right people and providing the resources, then stepping back. Flexibility, adaptability, and a thick skin are all necessary skills; as with many positions of this type, I am usually held responsible when things go wrong and when they succeed, share the credit with the pastor or parish volunteers.
In terms of adaptive equipment, I use a computer assisted with JAWS and a scanner which allows me to read print through Open Book. Not being able to drive was a true limitation when I did youth ministry. I have had to cultivate a terrific and flexible team of adults who could assist in driving, shopping for supplies, and assisting me in supervising students, especially when in public spaces. Because I now know the voices of most of my families and youth, I can easily handle groups of kids on parish property. I may be a bit stricter than other volunteers, but kids respect my willingness to be fair and consistent, which enables me to maintain discipline and safety.
Having a history of experiencing rather quick boredom in previous jobs once my duties were mastered, I was always off looking for new responsibilities. Therefore, I especially love the ever-evolving, shifting, changing nature of my work and this position has allowed me to constantly take on new elements. I can develop a program or event, run it until it is established in the parish and the kinks are worked out, then recruit and train a parishioner to take it over. I also enjoy the fact that I am involved in a ministry rather than simply a job. Of course, this means that I work ungodly hours (every pun intended) for minimal financial compensation, but that is easier to do when you believe absolutely in what you do. However, the long hours, weekend and evening work requirements, and low pay are also limiting factors in attracting young people to the field.
With a Masters in the field, I started out with an annual salary of $16,000 and now make $27,000 a year. However, my diocese is on the lowest end of the average pay for most church positions. The structure of the Catholic Church, which does not allow women to advance into most of the higher positions, is one of my greatest frustrations. No matter how well I perform, how creatively I work, how faithfully I serve, I can never hope for a promotion or advancement. The structure of the Catholic Church also prohibits any type of job security. Contracts are not permitted for parish employees in my diocese. Because of the ministerial clause to employment law, I can be fired for any reason, including gender or disability.
The current pastor of this parish has given me a tremendous amount of freedom in programming. However, the assignment of a new pastor, which could occur with no warning, could dismantle everything I have developed during those past 15 years. It could also mean a change of any or all staff members with no cause required. So the lack of job security and possibility of professional advancement are the two most disheartening aspects of my profession.
I am now in my fifteenth year in the parish and continue to develop the ministry. This summer, our parish will be the first in our diocese to take a multi-generational mission trip which is my obligation to oversee. The parish leadership has articulated a desire to assist the faithful in better understanding and living out the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church. To that end, I have implemented a 30-week curriculum on contemporary social issues for adult parishioners. The upcoming mission trips are part of that vision.
Although the lack of a driver's license is becoming a greater handicap as I begin to assist other parishes and the diocese in forming other lay ministers, I'm offering days of reflection for a variety of groups and in the fall will begin to teach courses at the local Catholic college.
Would I encourage a young person to enter this field? Definitely, if they fully understood the demands, the long hours, lack of praise, the job insecurity, and most importantly, if they felt called to ministry, loved the people of God, and wanted to pour themselves out for something greater than themselves. If this is the case, then I would tell them that this could be the best job they could ever be a part of as they make a world-changing difference, one life at a time.
The Contact: Irene Lucas