Women gain influence in Catholic Church
BY SAM HODGES, The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS, June 5, 2006 (www.fortwayne.com) - Lari Newman-Williams had grown used to 50-hour weeks as pastoral administrator at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Dallas. She also was taking graduate courses in pastoral ministry, and singing alto in Holy Cross' renowned Union Performance Choir.
"I wear a lot of hats," she said.
A few weeks ago, the hats increased, and her life went from busy to crazy busy. That's because the Rev. Timothy Gollob, Holy Cross' pastor for nearly four decades, had a heart attack.
While the 71-year-old priest recovers, Newman-Williams, 47, has been carrying the load.
That means supervising the staff, keeping the books, finding substitute priests to celebrate Mass, working with various church committees and riding herd on Holy Cross' ongoing 50th-anniversary celebration.
"We had a funeral last Monday," said Gollob by phone. "She not only arranged the funeral and got the priest in to help with the Mass, she also sang the solos."
For many U.S. Catholics, it's a hard-to-miss irony that their church - so thoroughly identified with male hierarchy - is to a large degree now being run by professional female staff members like Newman-Williams.
At the parish level, women have become as indispensable as staff sergeants, keeping things going as the ranks of priests and nuns have shrunk.=
"Right now the public face of the average parish is more apt to be a female lay parish minister than a male priest," said Peter Steinfels, author of "A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America."
The Catholic Church describes as lay parish ministers those unordained women and men who, for modest pay, hold such key positions as pastoral administrator, worship director, religious education director, minister of music, youth minister, school principal and chaplain.
The Second Vatican Council - the revolutionary set of reforms undertaken by the church in the early 1960s - encouraged parishes to involve lay people more in ministry. Over time, the priest and nun shortage, attributed to everything from cultural changes to the priest sex abuse scandals, has provided parishes an urgency to do so.
In the United States, the number of lay parish ministers went from tiny in the 1960s to 22,000 in 1990. There are now almost 31,000. For the last few years, lay parish ministers have narrowly outnumbered diocesan priests.
"Most Catholics over 40 can remember when parish ministry was primarily the realm of the priesthood, but within a generation we've seen a dramatic shift," said David DeLambo, associate director of pastoral planning for the Diocese of Cleveland.
About 80 percent of lay parish ministers are women, according to a study by DeLambo for the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City.
One example of the feminization of parish staffs is Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Plano, Texas. It didn't open until 1991, but now serves about 7,000 people. Of the church's 15 pastoral staff members, 10 are women.
"I couldn't function without them," said the Rev. James Balint, the church's pastor.
The University of Dallas' Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies was created in the late 1980s, largely to train lay parish ministers. About 120 students, including Newman-Williams, currently are pursuing master's degrees with a focus in areas such as pastoral administration, health care ministries, family ministries and Hispanic ministries.
"For the past three years, every one of our graduates has either had a job as soon as they graduated or before they graduated," said Brian Schmisek, institute director.
Two-thirds of the students in his program, and programs like it across the country, are women, he added. Often they enroll at middle age, when their children are well along or grown. And often they have also had a successful first professional career.
Almost always, Schmisek said, they report feeling divinely directed to serve the church.
"It's not simply a job," he said. "They use that vocational language of `call' and `ministry.'"
Money is certainly not the major pull. DeLambo's national survey found the average salary for a pastoral administrator is $34,000, about what a new public school teacher makes.
Newman-Williams wouldn't disclose her salary but did say that she would be earning twice as much had she stayed in the corporate world.
Not that she's sorry.
"The joy and fulfillment of what I feel now is worth to me anything," she said.