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Love's labor lost

It was a match made in heaven -- or so it appeared. A married couple deeply involved in lay ministry most of their lives, looking to work as a team in a parish, preferably rural, preferably in the Midwest. A Midwest diocese severely hit by the priest shortage. A small but thriving rural parish in that diocese that had just lost its resident pastor and was looking for competent, experienced lay help to take over day-to-day administrative duties. A hard-working pastor living at the neighboring parish who would oversee this new venture.

The omens were good. After all, laity have been serving as administrators in this country since the late 1960s, and their numbers have reportedly doubled in the past eight years. "No turning back" has become the unofficial motto of all forms of lay ministry as the church faces the new millennium. In 1996 the U.S. bishops launched a three-year study of lay ministry with specific recommendations slated for November 1999. The goal is to establish lay ministry as a genuine vocation fully recognized and adequately buttressed with provisions in church law and practice.

But the experience of Jim and Mary Jean Smith in the beautiful country church in Lima, Wis., points to serious flaws in the current implementation of lay ministry and suggests that much remains to be done in both law and practice. Their story is a cautionary tale.

In April 1996, the Smiths, both 59 that year, saw a classified ad in the National Catholic Reporter and were immediately intrigued: "Two west-central Wisconsin parishes soon to share pastor are seeking full-time minister/pastoral associate to be part of joint parish staff." Among the duties were direction of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), liturgical ministries, adult and high school religious education and involvement in pastoral and finance councils. The address was Holy Rosary Parish, Durand, Wis., in the LaCrosse diocese.

"We had been dreaming about something like this all our lives," said Mary Jean. "We were waiting for the opportunity." The Smiths had spent most of their 38 years of married life in Connecticut.

Jim, white-haired with a neatly groomed beard, was a calm, organized man with a straightforward manner. He was department manager of an electrical manufacturing company in South Windsor, Conn. Mary Jean, outgoing and warm, was a registered nurse with experience in geriatric health care and school nursing.

In their early years of marriage, they had gotten involved in retreat work and for 15 years were leaders of a team working with college-age singles and engaged and married couples at a Passionist retreat center in Connecticut. In addition, both had earned master's degrees in pastoral ministry from St. Joseph's College in West Hartford. Jim had also gotten a certificate in spiritual direction and Mary Jean a certificate in clinical pastoral education. While raising five daughters, they were constantly at work in every imaginable form of ministry in their parish, and both served on several Hartford diocesan boards concerned with sex education and youth ministry. With their children raised and on their own, they decided now was the time for full-time church work.

In June 1996, the Smiths traveled to Durand for an interview with Fr. Ed Shuttleworth. He had been pastor of the country parish of Holy Rosary in the township of Lima, but had just been transferred to St. Mary's Assumption Parish in the city of Durand (population 2,000), some six miles away.

Though there is no town of Lima (not even a post office), Holy Rosary, established in 1866, is far from a typical, small rural mission. The well preserved brick and stone church, built in the 1930s and sitting atop a hill, can accommodate 400 people. The parish, with a school, a convent and modern rectory, has some 300 families who take great pride in the complex and its activities. The new school building, erected in 1981, was paid for by 1984.

Mutual admiration

The Lima township, which was originally settled by Austrian dairy farmers, is still heavily Catholic and heavily Austrian. Innumerable Holy Rosary families are named Bauer (German for farmer), though many of the Bauer clans are unrelated. The parish has gained wide notice for its Lima Polka Choir, which travels around the region performing at Masses.

"We liked everything about the place," said Jim Smith, "the people, the church, the area. There was even the empty rectory at Lima where we could live." They were also impressed with Shuttleworth, a man in his mid-30s who was considered a good liturgist, a talented musician and an excellent preacher. And the priest was apparently impressed with the Smiths' experience, dedication and the opportunity, as Jim expressed it, "to get two for the price of one."

Jim Smith took an early retirement; the couple pulled up stakes and prepared to move halfway across the country. The job description provided by Shuttleworth called them "pastoral associates." As such they would assist the pastor at both parishes, though their major concentration would be at Holy Rosary in Lima where they would supervise the parish staff, schedule activities and handle overall, day-to-day operations of the parish. They would also preside at weekday celebrations of the word on days when Mass was not celebrated. Their joint salary, $26,000, hardly compared with their Connecticut income, and Mary Jean confessed she would miss the children and six grandchildren who were concentrated in the East, but such was the cost of fulfilling a dream.

Back at their Connecticut parish, St. Elizabeth Seton in Rocky Hills, parishioners held a sending-forth ceremony for the couple, and a reporter for The Catholic Transcript, the Hartford diocesan newspaper, interviewed Shuttleworth by phone. He said the Smiths would be formally installed as pastoral associates in a ceremony at which Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse would preside, though the date of the event had not been determined.

According to The Catholic Transcript, the priest said the Smiths were chosen from a field of about 30 because of their "long list of credentials." He foresaw no problems of adjustment. He was quoted as saying, "In fact, as we were making the decision, we consulted with the parishioners, and you could see their faces light up when we told them about the Smiths. They were very excited, and I think they especially liked the idea of having a married couple."

In July 1996 the Smiths arrived in Lima and signed what was presented as a one-year contract; it was titled "formal agreement on ministry" and specified their duties, especially the daily operation of Holy Rosary. "As far as we were concerned, it was a three-year commitment," said Jim. "In retrospect, we were terribly naive."

The Smiths hurled themselves into their new job with gusto and considerable success, according to Holy Rosary parishioners. "At first I wondered what they were doing here," said Byron Bauer, a 36-year-old husband, father of three and member of numerous committees. "They were always around and always busy. But I came to see they were good at meetings. I learned a lot about my faith, and they knew a lot about raising kids. You know, I never got close to the priests here in the past, so they [the Smiths] got to be the church people I could really relate to."

Jackie Danzinger, 37, said she had mixed feelings about the Smiths at first but found them "so approachable that they became my connection with the parish." Danzinger, a member of the Holy Rosary parish council and the education committee, is becoming a eucharistic minister, and her 16-year-old daughter is a lector.

Nancy Wayne, a parishioner at St. Mary's Assumption in Durand who often goes to Mass at the Lima church, spoke about the welcoming effect of the Smiths on the church. "For the first time ever we were getting greeted with a hug," she said. "These people had a loosening effect on a lot of us."

Lorena Weiss, 63, spoke of a serious difficulty she had experienced. "All I can say is I needed support, and the Smiths were there for me," she said, restraining tears.

The Rev. Elden Simonson, pastor of a local Lutheran church, praised the Smiths' initiative in establishing an ecumenical, county-wide food pantry and training the volunteers. Relations between Catholics and Lutherans are now "the best in 15 years," he said.

"The Smiths were there for all of us," said Lima parishioner Tom Bauer, 45, (no relation to Byron). "They never had opposition here from the time they came as far I could see. There were no screw-ups."

There were of course problems -- minor ones at first, in the Smiths' opinion. Shuttleworth became uncharacteristically upset when they began dismissing the catechumenate candidates after the Creed in the Mass and insisted the practice stop. It did. He criticized the wording of the Mass petitions by Mary Jean and got upset when the Smiths sought to turn the unused first floor of the Lima convent into a meeting room. More disturbing to them was the fact that the promised collaboration did not occur, and their formal acceptance as pastoral associates was continually delayed.

`Not working'

Nor did they believe they were receiving constructive feedback on their performance from the pastor. Still, they found their pastoral work stimulating and rewarding beyond expectations, and they acknowledged that Shuttleworth was a dedicated, hard-working pastor.

In June 1997, nearing the first anniversary of their arrival, Shuttleworth presented the couple with a one-year renewal of their "formal agreement" -- with one change. They would be required henceforth to "actively consult the pastor in all decision-making processes." He also told him, said Jim, that he sometimes felt "threatened" by their presence and feared they were "trying to take the Lima church away" from him.

Shaken and seeking to clear the air for the term ahead, Jim and Mary Jean wrote -- and read to Shuttleworth -- a letter in reply. "We may have taken some actions that you may not have agreed with," they wrote, "but we are not guilty of any wrongdoing. Everything we have done ... has been for the temporal and spiritual good of our parish communities. ... A year ago ... we were given a job description for `pastoral associate.' To our knowledge, there has been no initiative made to bring about this appointment. ... There has been little collaboration here. ... Collaboration allows for an open and honest forum in which thoughts, ideas and feelings can be explored and responded to with gentleness and dignity. ... We have been engaged in ministry nearly as long as you have been alive! ... Our combined gifts and experience deserve at least as much respect as your priesthood. ... "

Shuttleworth, they said, seemed moved almost to tears by their letter and agreed to remove the new wording from the agreement, which the Smiths then signed. The priest said a reconsideration of their title and status would occur in January. Relieved, the Smiths resumed their duties and reported no confrontations over the next six months.

On Jan. 27, 1998, Shuttleworth led a meeting of the Lima parish council, making no mention of the Smiths. The next day, as the Smiths were preparing for a vacation in Connecticut, he summoned them and said, "It's not working." He asked for an immediate letter of resignation.

"It was like a lightning bolt," said Mary Jean. "We were devastated. I kept asking why. I said, `Give us some specifics!' " Shuttleworth, she said, raised several issues that had not been discussed before, including the complaint of a parishioner that a prayer service they led seemed "disorganized."

"What if we don't resign?" asked Jim, noting they had a signed agreement through July 1998. They were told, said the Smiths, that in that case they would "be through" at once, would be denied six weeks' severance pay and would not be given a letter of recommendation. He also insisted they vacate the Lima rectory by March 16, the effective day of resignation.

Jim checked with a lawyer concerning the "formal agreement on ministry" they had signed in 1996 and re-signed in 1997, only to discover it had no legal validity since it mentioned neither a starting nor ending date for employment. Reluctantly, they submitted a letter of resignation but asked if they could remain in the empty rectory beyond March 16, until they found suitable housing.

In a letter Shuttleworth told them, "I expect you to be moved out ... at the latest [by] March 16." The Smiths then packed up and rented an old farm house a few miles from the Lima church to sort through their thoughts and determine where to go from there. "We came in very, very naive, and we're smarter now," said Mary Jean. "We'd never jump into a situation like this again without knowing more."

"But it takes a toll," added Jim. "I don't know if we'd have the sheer emotional energy to relocate."

Asked by NCR to comment on the situation, Fr. Shuttleworth declined, saying the issue was handled at the local level, and the Smiths, in any event, were the ones who had resigned. No more detailed explanation than that has been provided to parishioners at Lima or Durand. When questions arose at the March Lima parish council meeting (from which Shuttleworth was absent), "the chairman said the pastor has the right to hire and fire, and that's the end of it," said Jackie Danzinger. "It was very cut and dry."

Mary Ann Pattison, a 37-year parishioner, said she asked Shuttleworth if the Smiths had been teaching heresy and was told they had not; their departure was due simply to their resignation.

"I don't understand this at all," said Lorena Weiss. "As a church we're supposed to accept lesbians and divorced people, and we even have women as lectors and Communion ministers. And we don't have room for these people [the Smiths] with all their experience? It seems like such a waste of talent and life." Mystery remains

Some parishioners were guarded in comment. "I think the Smiths did OK and seemed to care about us," said Mary Hanson, a member of the education committee, "but, you know, I don't want to rock the boat."

People in Lima are not very confrontational, explained Tom Bauer, "but I can tell you this: Church attendance and weekly income is down at our church."

In late March Shuttleworth wrote in the parish bulletin, "Spreading rumors, idle talk and malicious gossip can quickly kill any life in a community -- especially small communities where such things spread quickly. (Need I say more?)"

Meanwhile, the Smiths wrote to current LaCrosse Bishop Raymond Burke about their plight. "We believe Fr. Shuttleworth's action was abusive and unjust," they said. "We were completely unaware that such serious problems existed as to warrant our dismissal at midyear when positions in ministry are not available." With no foreseeable means of income and employment and only temporary housing, they said, "we are too young to retire and too old to seek conventional employment. How does one get away with such an abuse of power?"

Burke replied in a letter, "I have spoken to Fr. Shuttleworth about the matter, and he informed me that he had indicated to you on more than one occasion his difficulties in working with you. ... I appreciate the challenge which you have at present," but "I do not believe it is fair on your part to place the burden of your future housing and financial well-being on the Diocese of LaCrosse. ... Thank you for the service you have given. ... "

The LaCrosse chancellor, Franciscan Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, said pastoral associates usually receive a letter of appointment from the bishop and are installed at a ceremony in the parish soon after their arrival. Since she did not have a "full file" on this case, she could not explain why no steps had been taken to formalize the Smiths' status during their 20 months on the job. In any event, explained Weisenbeck, the fact that they were essentially dismissed in the midst of their second year of service is immaterial, since all LaCrosse diocesan employees (with the exception of school teachers) serve "at the will" of the administration; neither pastoral associates nor ministers of any kind are provided contracts. Nor, she added, are there any plans in the diocese to change that policy.

Why the Smiths were forced out remains a mystery. Did their ministry become an intolerable threat to the pastor? Did they offend some other church employee or exceptionally important parishioner, leaving Shuttleworth with little choice? An answer will probably never come because, as the chancellor pointed out, decisions on matters like this are left to the pastor's discretion, according to the Catholic "principle of subsidiarity."

The Smiths' situation, ironically, has sent shock waves as far away as their former parish in Connecticut where they had been extremely active. Fr. James Shanley, pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton, said, "It's even raised issues here about what kind of agreements we have with pastoral associates and directors of music and recreation. People wonder, if agreements with the church go both ways or only one way? After all, the Smiths gave up everything to go out there."

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998