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Teaching in the lay ministry formation program

“I learn more from you than you do from me.”

In the May 2006 issue of FAITH, we shared the story of Sister Marilyn Barnett, OP, who coordinates the program in theological studies for Siena Heights University in Adrian. The program, which is a partnership between the Diocese of Lansing and Siena Heights, is one of the ways that new or currently serving professionals in lay ministry receive solid academic and spiritual formation. Through 12 courses, the students, most of whom are already working in some capacity in parish ministry or who are contemplating work in the church, are offered a solid grounding in Sacred Scripture, theology, church history and liturgy. If a student completes all 12 courses, he or she will have earned the equivalent of an undergraduate major in theology.   

I have been serving as an instructor in the program since fall 2001 and have loved every minute of it. In the time since, I have taught courses in the church’s liturgy, sacramental theology and Christology – our theological understanding of who Jesus is. My class sizes have ranged anywhere from a dozen students to nearly 30, depending on the time of year and the demand for a particular course.

When I meet with a group of students for our first class, I tell them, “Believe it or not, by the time this semester is finished, I will have learned more from you than you will have learned from me.”  As I reflect back on almost 10 years of teaching (and learning) in the program, that has been the truth for each class. Students in my classes have ranged from folks are who beginning the ministerial discernment process at the urging of their pastor to people who have been “in the trenches” of parish ministry, so to speak, for more years than I have been ordained. The collective wisdom that gathers each time a class meets is very impressive. Yet it is not just the wisdom I find impressive, it is the powerful witness of faith that I find so moving.

I’m sure this isn’t breaking news to anyone, but a parish can be a very challenging place in which to minister and work. Parish ministry requires a unique combination of skills and personal qualities: diplomacy, energy, vision, motivation, sensitivity, empathy, honesty, dedication, self-sacrifice and (depending on one’s state in life) a supportive spouse and family. All of these are held together by the gift of a living and dynamic faith. These are the qualities that I see and experience in the students who have taken part in my classes over the years.

I have found it very moving to see younger students learn powerful lessons from older, more experienced fellow travelers. It is also inspiring to see older students caught up with a sort of youthful enthusiasm. It has been my experience that almost none of our time is spent on “If only...”  Instead, the vast majority of our class time is reflective of people who love their faith and the life of ministry to which they have been called both by God and by the church.

By the time we reach our final class each semester, I am careful to thank the members of each class for the wisdom they have shared with me and with one another. Together, we pray for God’s continued blessing on our current or future ministry. Then, we go in peace, to love and serve the Lord and one another. We take back to our respective parishes and ministries all that has been shared and learned through a unique series of grace-filled gatherings. And so, our journey in FAITH continues.