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Fall Ministries

Aspiring to lead on lay ministry

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

There can be no doubt that the ground beneath the Catholic parish is shifting. Vatican II prompted a profound sense that the faithful are a “priesthood of believers.” Meanwhile, the increasing ratio of Catholics in the pews to ordained priests begs serious questions: How do the sacraments get delivered and how does pastoral ministry, liturgical planning, social outreach, religious education and parish administration get done -- and done well?

One parish in suburban Minneapolis, a microcosm of the burgeoning suburban community in which it is located and a model in many ways for the church of today, has decided to take the lead. In 1995, the parish council of Pax Christi Catholic Community, a 3,950-household parish in Eden Prairie, Minn., boldly stated that one of its five-year goals was to have the parish recognized nationally as a center for lay ministry and worship by the year 2000.

Today, with just months to go to that deadline, the Leaven Center is up -- and if not running at full speed just yet, at least toddling with all the exuberance of a tenacious, purposeful 2-year-old.

The Leaven Center is named after the parable (Luke 13:20-21) in which the Kingdom of God is likened to the leaven, or yeast, that a woman folded into three measures of flour to make the bread rise. Fr. Timothy Power, Pax Christi’s pastor, said that the Leaven Center will focus on “strengthening people, structures and ministries.” But many hope the organization gives life to a groundswell of grassroots ownership of Catholic life, worship and culture.

Leaven Center director Trish Vanni describes the center’s three program areas: Spiritual Scholars, a curriculum of learning opportunities for lifelong faith formation; Ministry Incubator, providing development money and administrative support for new ministries addressing new or evolving needs; and the Catholic Leadership Network, which will convene small groups of ministry innovators - lay and ordained, salaried and unsalaried - from all over the country for facilitated dialogue and discussion.

The last program is modeled directly after Leadership Network, a 15-year-old Dallas-based ecumenical organization convening pastors and leaders of large Christian churches to share their experiences, successes and challenges. Leadership Network’s founder, philanthropist Bob Buford, said his organization began with 20 leaders in 1984, and last year counted 4,000 participants in its seminars and leadership forums, and 13,000 on its database.

Back up a few years, to 1996. Vanni, a New Jersey consultant specializing in information services and technology (her clientele included America Online, Dow Jones, Knight Ridder, MCI and AT&T among others) was about halfway through a master’s degree program in theology. She prayed: “If I’m staying Catholic, God, use me.” She knew she wanted to engage her professional background in service to the church, though she wasn’t exactly sure what kinds of jobs were out there for someone like her.

In 1997, she saw a National Catholic Reporter classified ad for a director for The Leaven Center. Curious, she called Pax Christi “just to find out more.” Having no intention of moving her husband and two children halfway across the country, she was nevertheless eventually invited to interview for the job. What she found compelled her to uproot her family and take a leap of faith.

“We were really blessed to find Trish,” said Pax Christi pastor Fr. Timothy Power. “She has a passion for the faith as a lay woman. She cares that the tradition survives -- not just survives but thrives -- and she sees the potential for that. She also has the marketing and organizational skills and kind of that East Coast chutzpah,” he said.

Benedictine Sr. Colman O’Connell, a Leaven Center board member and former president of the College of St. Benedict (St. Joseph, Minn.) agrees that Vanni is personally and professionally suited to lead the venture. “Trish is a marvelous example of a traditional Irish Catholic, and with it, an American of 1999, and not just because she knows technology. When she speaks of Catholicism with such pride, that’s not a marketing thing. She is a deeply committed Catholic.”

In the fall of 1997, Vanni arrived in Minnesota to find somewhat to her surprise, “not a detailed plan, but a simple grid,” she said. “It was my job to fill in the grid.” She spent the next nine months calling on Catholic leaders -- and high-profile potential benefactors -- across the country, visiting Protestant congregations, and learning about Pax Christi itself.

Parish-based, parish-focused

Eighteen-year-old Pax Christi, Eden Prairie’s only Catholic church, has 12,300 members and schedules five weekend Masses. The church is the scene of 75 weddings and 300 baptisms each year. It has a $3.2 million budget and employs one priest, Fr. Power. Having reached a plateau in numbers after years of astonishing growth, the parish, which has always been at the forefront of lay involvement, is a ripe environment for the kind of metamorphosis the Leaven Center envisions.

Power speaks, for example, about governance and decision-making as the kind of issue with which Leaven Center participants might wrestle - as his own parish has wrestled. “How do you structure and make decisions at a parish level that is not so focused on the presbyter? When you begin to image yourself differently there are so many implications,” he said. “You start seeing a faith community as not just a pastor and a few others kind of directing everybody in their faith, but as a group of blessed people, each called by God to radically proclaim the Good News. Boy! That’s tough. It’s messy. We don’t have a lot of track record, but the good old Spirit keeps breaking into our history again and again.”

“The Pax Christi community envisioned and called us forth,” said Vanni of the Leaven Center. “Our focus is on lived experience in the parish: What do people in the pews need to thrive? What is the transformational process that people need to undergo [in order to fully participate in shared ministry]? What kind of spirituality? What skill sets? What relationship to Jesus and the gospels?” Vanni asked rhetorically.

“Right now, the Leaven Center is building on the traditional faith formation activities that Pax Christi has done well for a number of years. But Pax is also the petri dish, or the playground, on which some new ideas can be tested.”

Ministry Incubator initiatives to date include a program addressing the worship needs of families with children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition affecting more than 6 percent of American families. The initiative has involved physicians, sign language specialists, learning experts and parents. Other developments in the works include a program to help newly married couples through the first few vulnerable years of marriage, and a summer institute for catechists.

The Leaven Center is unabashedly grounded in Vatican II theology. Said Fr. Bill Huebsch, author of Vatican II in Plain English, who is also director of the Vatican II Project, and an adviser to Vanni and the Leaven Center board: “Since the council ended, most pastoral planning in the Catholic church has focused on the growth and organization of the parish. As we get into the new century -- and I think it takes this long to implement a big council -- we see our job as not to build splendid parishes but to animate the world with the spirit of Christ. Pastoral planners and consultants who guide pastoral planning must take stock of this, and ask, ‘What are our pastoral plans to bring that spirit to the world?’ ”

“This is not the Constantinian world,” comments Vanni, in which church and culture were one and the same. “Now, you cross the threshold of the church, and you’re in the mission.”

Pragmatism, idealism attract supporters

Some supporters believe The Leaven Center’s raison d’être is a pragmatic one, namely that the shortage of clergy combined with the “mega-parish” phenomenon will be resolved only by efficiently involving, training and retaining lay volunteers.

Said longtime Pax Christi parishioner and Leaven Center founding board member Dale LaFrenz, “The problem that I wanted to address is how does a community built on lay ministry not only survive but thrive? How do we import the best practices from around the country? How do we export our best practices to others who may be in the same situation?” LaFrenz, a software entrepreneur, is frank: “One never wants to use the ‘B-word’ but if we don’t run the business side of the parish effectively and efficiently, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Others, like O’Connell, stress motivating and educating lay people to the vitality of their baptismal call. “Ministers are not just singers, ushers and readers, important though that work is. We really have something broader in mind,” said O’Connell. “One of our trustees speaks about the importance of being alive to the call of Jesus while we’re at work, not just at church. There isn’t much attempt to assist us to do that.”

The Leaven Center’s answer is its Spiritual Scholars curriculum, supervised by an advisory group of regional academics, volunteer and salaried ministers, and diocesan representatives who will make sure the Leaven Center’s offerings are relevant to real-life parish ministry and do not duplicate existing formation programs.

Scott Hippert, executive coordinator of the Institute for Christian Life and Ministry of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, expects little overlap with diocesan programs. He said, “I’m very excited about what they’re doing. My feeling is that the church is very diverse. With the evolution of lay ministry, we’re still trying to identify ministerial roles and determine how we can all work collaboratively with each other.”

Still other supporters believe the most exciting aspect of the Leaven Center will be the Catholic Leadership Network, which will provide forums for groups of 40 people and a trained peer facilitator. The groups will follow two of Leadership Network’s primary techniques, use of “the rabbinic method,” explains Buford, “which always starts with, ‘Let me tell you a story,’ ” and the application of the best practices in the secular world to church life, a process he calls “transfer innovation.”

Catholic leaders, including Fr. Power, have participated in Leadership Network gatherings, said Buford, but he adds, “Many Catholic churches are large and complex for different reasons than Protestant churches. Catholics have enough issues that are particular to Catholicism that it would be helpful if the Leadership Network methodology -- the no-agenda sharing of ideas -- were applied in a group of people who really understand what the words Vatican II mean. That doesn’t have nearly the richness for a Baptist or a Presbyterian.”

Vanni has already planted seeds nationwide among candidates for the invitation-only leadership forums. “We will be cherry-picking innovators from around the country,” she said. “We’re getting very positive feedback from the people we’ve talked to.”

If you build it, they will come

Vanni and her three coworkers are setting the stage for a major opus without having a producer committed to backing the production. Buford, who has subsidized nearly half the cost of Leadership Network with his own millions, provided $25,000 in seed money earmarked for the Catholic Leadership Network start-up, as well as invaluable advice to Vanni. But securing ongoing funding is necessary for the Leaven Center to rise to its full potential.

Pax Christi provides office space and has partially subsidized the Center’s budget from interest on a $400,000 gift to the parish. Additionally, one board member has provided two years of operating costs and recently issued a $100,000 challenge grant. The Leaven Center’s current budget is $225,000, but in order to add staff and underwrite participants’ costs of Catholic Leadership Network forums, Vanni would like to command a budget nearly three times that size. Seeking donors, she has pitched the Leaven Center to prominent Catholics and has made grant proposals to several foundations.

O’Connell said, “We are planning a fund-raising initiative with the assistance of a consultant. We’ve got the case now.” In the charitable-giving world, that means they have a plan of action, and a clear idea of what the results will be. “We’d like a gift of a million,” she stated optimistically. “Especially right now in America, there are people who are prospering from their investments. Once we have individual support and a track record of at least a year, then we can more easily approach foundations.”

“Maybe we need a Catholic Bob Buford who believes in Vatican II,” said Power.

From shaky ground to common ground

It is entirely possible to call into question whether the Leaven Center is confronting what some Catholics feel are the most urgent issues in the church today, such as the preferential option for the poor, racism in America or injustices within the church itself. Supporters acknowledge that the Leaven Center’s agenda may not overtly reflect such critical social concerns, but that doesn’t mean the Leaven Center is of the elite, by the elite and for the elite.

“It’s not one or the other,” said Huebsch. “Maybe some places like Pax Christi are in a privileged place, but maybe their privilege can serve the church by providing some bold experimentation. I hope it’s extremely practical. I don’t think we need many more mission statements.”

LaFrenz bristles at the idea that the Leaven Center might be anything but beneficial to Catholic life. “It is highly advantageous to people who are social-justice oriented to have a vibrant, ongoing healthy, wealthy structure from which they can extract funds,” he said. “I’m going to get a lot more out of this white, suburban, upper income place if I organize it.”

And ultimately The Leaven Center may be about more than creating programs that fill people’s craving for spiritual knowledge, or help the director of religious education recruit and train catechists. Vanni believes that in our American “culture of accomplishment,” people want the credential, the certificate that says we’re expertly trained to do a certain job, but that this attitude misses the mark. “How do we shift from that to the idea that ‘I’m on this lifelong journey with Jesus Christ as my brother,’ ” Vanni said. “Faith development and ministry formation evolves, ongoing, until you breathe your last.”

Vanni also believes her work is about bridging the chasm of understanding that often seems to divide people who disagree about what the Catholic church’s history has to teach us about its future. “I see the work of the center not just as the programs we are trying to build, but in all kinds of odd blips that are off the radar,” she said.

“As I go out to raise money, I talk to the Knights of Malta and Call to Action about supporting us, and both groups are excited about what we’re doing. That’s what really lights me up and gets me on fire for doing this work.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999