I went back to school last week. I came home with new sympathy for lay ministers in the Church.
IT ALL BEGAN WHEN…
The Florida Mental Health Counselors Association held its annual statewide conference/convention last week, as it does every year, at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Lake Mary, Florida, a mere 30-minutes from my house. Hundreds of mental health folks from Key West to Pensacola attend every year, and while most therapists were enrapt last week in new and cutting-edge advances in the field, a tiny cohort of us—about twenty—spent two days off in a corner of the Marriott taking an intensive program, “Qualified Supervision Training.” This is a required certification for those who serve as supervisors for young therapists seeking licensure in Florida to practice independently, i.e., prepping them to go independent into private practice. Supervisors are required to meet biweekly with their interns for two years to review case files of their patients, assess competency, and [a new piece] to assist interns as they prepare for their national licensure exam, the final hoop, so to speak. We can provide intern licensure supervision for profit or pro bono. In very recent years, the disciplinary board of the Florida Department of Health has required that we supervisors get recertified periodically in this skill field. [I am pleased to tell you I was recertified for six years as an intern supervisor--till the age of 81.]
I don’t supervise psychotherapy interns anymore—as stimulating as that was years ago--but I found the skill set of professional supervision very helpful in my presentations and personal interactions with catechists, lay ministers, and school personnel in my diocese’s certification program over the years. Acquired supervisory skills have helped my writing the “Professional Development” stream of the Catechist Café blog, and even more recently, to advise on my diocese’s plan to train lay spiritual directors.
Did I learn new stuff last week? Well, I learned a lot of good new law. The state has toughened up “supervision” as an entity. During the program we had a two-hour meeting with the stern lady who writes the legislation up in Tallahassee. There has been significant consternation over the number of interns summoned to the disciplinary board for infractions up to and including cohabitation with and outright stealing from patients. [The same intern? Same patient? Nothing kills love like theft. I had to say that. Sorry.] To put it mildly, certification of supervisors needed more heft—more content, more frequency. In the past the state regarded certification of supervisors as a one-time deal, like those sacraments that leave an indelible mark on your soul. Tu es custodes in aeternum, or words to that effect. Now training and recertification is required every six years.
The next point made me sit up in my chair. I encountered a term I was unfamiliar with, vicarious liability. I can be sued for the malpractice of my interns—such as their failure to recognize suicidality or to report abuse. Today I have nothing to worry about—I am not actively practicing or supervising--but I realize now that twenty years ago I had significant exposure in some of the more lackluster locales I worked. I also learned that had I become a vicarious defendant, my attorney might have used the “frolic and detour defense.” There is such a thing.
I also learned that I am very lucky I took my pen-and-pencil state licensure exam back in 1998. Today’s test is longer and much more comprehensive. In last week’s course we were advised to recommend our interns take the test as early as possible, and not wait until the end of the two-year internship requirement. Evidently a lot of interns today fail on the first swing. [Actually, 40% according to the test’s website.] I remember I sat for my exam four days after I returned from my honeymoon. All I remember today about my test was the legal section—I needed a minimum of 24 correct answers to pass it, and I scored exactly 24. It reminded me of my ordination theology board exam; I needed to pass three out of four questions to be ordained, and I passed three. [I failed Canon Law.] Is part of aging the realization that one has dodged a lot of bullets over a lifetime?
Our presenter last week returned frequently to the role of supervisors as “gatekeepers” in the discipline of mental health practice. We are part of the chain that prevents incompetent or dangerous candidates from entering the mental health profession. But primarily we are part of the process that identifies and nurtures promising candidates toward long, fruitful, and innovative careers. We do not do this by ourselves. The universities, the state legislature, the insurance industry, and employers are or should be part of the formative process. But the expectation of the state—fairly—is that supervisors need to stay abreast with the theory, practice, and law if they are to ethically serve their interns and the good of society at large. [I’m afraid that when I’m 81 the state will require intern supervisors to pass the same test the interns take.]
My two supervisors/gatekeepers during my internship years were the clinical directors of a non-profit social service center in Deland, Florida, “The House Next Door.” I worked there for five years. [1996-2001]. My two supervisors were both marriage and family specialists, Regenia Proskine, LMFT and the late Candace Crownover, LMFT. I came to them with a psychoanalytic orientation and specialty in mood disorder. Candy and Regenia taught me to think “family systems” as a therapeutic mode, which later in turn has led me to study and reflect upon the relationships between dysfunctional systems, mental health, and spirituality. Candy was a devout Catholic and very active in church matters. When I closed my practice in 2014 and diocesan ministerial jaunts brought me to Deland, we would go to Mass and then talk for hours over breakfast about the state of the Church.
The State of Florida—despite its sometimes-ersatz reputation—takes the “gatekeeping principle” seriously in mental health practice, as do insurance companies, surprisingly. When I was a provider in the United Health Care System, for example, I was required to submit a patient questionnaire charting symptom reduction every six weeks or so. If my patient was reporting no improvement in mood, a clinician from United would contact me to suggest resources and alternative strategies.
AND ON TO CATHOLIC “GATEKEEPING” AND OUR LAY MINISTERS…
All the above brings us around to a painful question: Does the Catholic Church exercise “gatekeeping responsibilities” commensurate with other professional bodies in its training, and support of its ministers?
It is my impression that as a Church we burn through ministers—particularly young ones--at a disturbing rate—at both the diocesan and the parochial level. For years in my own parish, we were changing youth ministers more frequently than I change the oil in my car. There were many reasons for this, but my main concern is that no competent and idealistic Catholic should ever leave our employment with a sense that the Church has let them down, treated them unfairly, expected the impossible, or outright abused them. So, I listed a number of factors that impede our “gatekeeping” ministry, things that may strengthen our current ministers and better prepare those considering careers in the Church.
 If you stay current with the national Catholic press, you are no doubt aware that many bishops of the United States—not all--are in a state of near panic about the continuing exodus of Catholics from sacramental practice, and most pastors share this angst, too. Moreover, Catholic University’s Well Being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests  revealed, among other things, that “only 24% [of priests] expressed confidence in the leadership and decision making of the bishops. Sadly, the shepherds are in disarray.
 At the same time, many clerical leaders are in denial about the possible/probable reasons for these departures as well as the decline in the quality of ministry across the board. Two examples: the bishops could easily employ researchers—be they Catholic, such as CARA/Georgetown, or independent, such as PEW—for an in-depth analysis of Catholic sentiment and concerns that might account for departures and discontent. Of course, it might have been cheaper [and more obedient] if most dioceses had followed Pope Francis’ directive on conducting the local synodal process. Have you ever wondered why your parish/diocese did not engage in this universal project of the Church if it did not?
 Consequently, we have what my family therapy supervisors Candy and Regenia might have called “an ugly family secret,” much like alcoholism, incest, infidelity, etc. Ugly family secrets  effectively block truthful communication, and  cause a raft of avoidance and circumventing behaviors and unhealthy strategies. Our church secret is that institutional Catholicism as we have known in our lifetime is passing away. This is a troubling thought, even frightening for those who only know “the old way,” such as bishops and many pastors. The old buttons on the control panel are being pushed, and nothing happens. See Villanova University Professor Massimo Faggioli’s ”No Longer the Bishops’ Church? Catholicism’s Episcopal Crisis” in Commonweal Magazine. How difficult must it be, particularly for new and idealistic lay ministers, to undertake their missions with this secret that few dare to say out loud?
 Theology and religious studies are in serious decline. Theology is a sacred science, but it is still a science like other disciplines that require a firm base of principles to be taught and understood across the board. Science requires openness to reality and continuous reexamination, in the venerable tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. “Gatekeepers,” be they theological or medical, must bring a critical and testing eye to their disciplines. As a therapist, for example, it is my duty, in communion with my peers and the organs of my discipline, to weigh evidence on such recent developments such as transgender medicine—is this a humanitarian breakthrough or a trendy episode which in this case is abusive to children? When a discipline freezes in place, it ceases being a science and instead becomes indoctrination. The ongoing search for truth is the search for God, and the Church is not exempt from this principle.
 Proceeding from the previous point, Kenneth Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek for 38 years, makes the point that each generation of Catholics is exponentially less educated in the faith than the previous one. This is both a policy issue and a political one, I believe. Our creeping policy over the generations has been to accept lower standards of education for lay ministers because this is cheaper and imposes less preparatory and ongoing education. It also avoids the unpleasant truth that religious sisters and brothers carried the financial weight and the educational preparatory grunt work of parochial faith formation, while my generation got the high quality at a bargain basement price. Woodward would agree, I think, that the highest levels of Church management have never truly digested this enormous loss to pastoral ministry and have been applying ill-fitting bandages on a gaping wound.
Politically, I sense that many pastors are, at some level, uncomfortable with a “reading public.” I have attended the same church for 27 years, and I have never heard a recommendation for adult reading in a sermon. My present pastor preaches every week on prayer—and has never mentioned the works of any historical or contemporary spiritual author such as Thomas Merton or Father James Martin, S.J., whose bestselling Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone  is in the top 1% of Amazon purchases as of this writing. [I forgot! So is Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)]
 Woodward, cited above, points to research that the best predictor of a child’s remaining in the Catholic Church is the practiced faith of the mother, and particularly the father, given that men are usually not notoriously expressive of their inner lives. And yet, we tend to put all our parochial energies into the formation of children. Is it possible that one subconscious motivation at work is the fact that it harder, ministerially speaking, to engage and evangelize adults than pliable children?
 There is a dynamic at play in many of our parishes and chanceries that those with the least to lose and political immunity [i.e., bishops, pastors, and senior officers] are demanding solutions to contemporary problems of the Church from those on the front lines of parish and diocesan ministry with the highest level of vulnerability. Let me put that another way. We hire youth ministers, for example, to get young people involved in the Church when our conference of bishops has no idea how to do it, nor frankly, do the national organizations of such ministers as far as I can see. We hire religious education personnel to get parents and their children back into sacramental practice when pastors and bishops have no idea how to stem the hemorrhage of Catholics from practice and have been failing at it for years now. And what is the criterion used by pastors to assess success or failures of lay ministers? Let’s face it: numbers. Here is the vicarious liability principle turned upside down: pastorally speaking, church responsibility is currently running downhill, not uphill. The interns, so to speak, get fired instead of the supervisors. And yet, the same criterion—attendance—would be more damaging to those to lead the local communities and dioceses in Eucharist and tenor, if this was a fair world.
 Following up on the above point, lay Catholics in church employment enjoy little or no protection. They are expected to be perfect—" Practice of the Catholic faith is required. Church employees must conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with and supportive of the mission and purpose of the Church. Their public behavior must not violate the faith, morals or laws of the Church or the policies of the diocese.” [From my diocese’s current national ad for a diocesan youth minister]. Indeed, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. There is no protection of an annual contract, nor arbitration board for contested firings.
Candidates for hire are asked to do the impossible—" Knows how to develop and implement comprehensive ministry programming.” [op. cit.] There aren’t five pastors in the country who know how to do that; this is at the heart of the American Catholic evangelical crisis across the board.
 As a former EAP counselor for my diocese, and a daily follower of several religious education blogsites, it becomes clear to me that pastors and religious administrators could do far more to assist their employees and volunteers in their professional growth. For starters, it is probably safe to say that a new hire, such as a parish religious education director, has not had the benefit of a Boston College, Catholic University, University of Dayton, Villanova or Notre Dame master’s education in religious formation or an equivalent degree. Many are coming to church work with the degree they could afford—the on-line programs which vary greatly in quality—or as often happens, they progressed up the local church ladder from volunteer teaching to program assistant to parish director. Like it or not, lay ministers need much more supportive counsel and guidance in their work than they are currently getting.
 Job descriptions need to be realistic and precise. I wish I had a dime for every time a patient told me his or her pastor dumped a new responsibility on the minister’s desk, usually upon a whim. I advised them to ask the pastor which of the employee’s current responsibilities should be dropped to meet this new project. Unfortunately, most patients needed their jobs and/or were afraid to negotiate with a priest, and now I understand that better. Many pastors interpret such a request as a challenge to their authority and insubordination. Given the absence of detailed and realistic contracts and authentic appeals boards, a lay person working for the church works in the unsettling, no-win environment of clericalism. [For the record, in my parishes, all my staff would have told me to go to hell. Nicely, but firmly.]
Conversely, pastors—like any Catholic employer in public life—are responsible to see that the family and personal lives of employees are protected by establishing reasonable time expectations and boundaries. No business emails at home in the evening. Similarly, time for continued education, reading, and spiritual retreat need to be respected and included in the compensation package, as it was in my contracts as a priest.
 I suspect that many pastors are not aware of the pastoral satisfaction that comes from supervising staff, particularly those employees new to the pastoral field. This can be achieved through regular meetings, as in the case of clinical supervision and “case studies,” or through actual ministerial happenings.
One summer I had a seminarian assigned to my parish, and after supper I would invite him to join me in my office as I returned the day’s pile of phone messages. I would dial the number, and then say, “I have a seminarian with me tonight who is learning what it’s like to be a pastor. Would you mind if he joined us in our conversation?” Nobody ever refused. In fact, they seemed rather honored to help and, to judge by the content, nobody seemed inhibited. In fact, when I made [non-confessional] counseling appointments on the phone, several folks asked if the seminarian could be there, too!
As a pastor/employer/supervisor I didn’t have the precise skill sets of everyone who worked with me and for me. To remedy that, I attended liturgical music conventions, religious education conventions, Catholic school conventions, and Canon Law conventions [Canon Law, my nemesis!] with the appropriate staff, which boosted staff morale and made for lively general staff meetings. I made many mistakes as a pastor, but I do feel that those who worked for me went on to satisfying and better-paying ministerial opportunities. And I certainly enjoyed seeing them come into their own.
I may have left the reader with more questions than answers. This is not always a bad thing; it is better than fools’ certainty. There is no getting around the fact that our Church is troubled, and that ministry of any sort is a complicated proposition.
That said, let me offer a few words of hope to build on.
First, seek communion with God. Or more correctly, let God seek communion with you. Find that quiet place and time to open the Bible or another spiritual text, and let the words take over your imagination and your emotions. The very physical act of rest itself is a sacramental message that God is responsible for your very being and will carry you through. You are not alone, and you do not have to save the Church by yourself. It is God’s Church. [I bring a hot cup of coffee into my time with God.]
Regard every human encounter as a moment of grace. We begin every Mass with the salute that the Spirit of God “be with you.” Be that Spirit. Nothing we teach or donate is as valuable a gift as a sincere wish of God’s upon a fellow human being. This is the first necessary step to evangelization.
Read. If you are a baptized adult, whether you currently minister or not, immerse yourself in the wisdom of the saints, lessons of history, the personal journeys of Church folks before us, and the deep thoughts of Augustine and Aquinas. It will make your Church membership a truly tangible reality in your consciousness.
P.S. I try to keep a stream of such books coming up on the Café posts. Unfortunately, I must read them first, LOL. So be patient with me. And I include Catholic novelists as well, whose tales reveal the presence of God in ways that only a true storyteller can weave.
On My Mind