Lay Leadership Program making a difference in rural communities
CRL’s executive director Jim Ennis checked in on pilot programs in Huron, S.D. and Adrian, Minn.
CRL’s executive director Jim Ennis spent a good chunk of his time last week checking in on one of the organization’s most important endeavors: the Lay Leadership Program
Ennis visited pilot programs in Huron, S.D. and Adrian, Minn. to talk with lay leadership trainees. For the past few years, seven leaders in Huron and two in Adrian, who are trained in CRL’s program, have facilitated small group discussions in their parishes that introduce rural laymen to Church teaching in the form of Scripture, papal letters, and selections from the Catechism.
“Each of them have their own story of what God has been doing through His Holy Spirit and through encountering the teachings of Christ by coming face-to-face with these primary documents,” said Ennis. “It’s been extremely encouraging to see their growth as leaders and facilitators.”
The leaders in Huron have explored the concept of the Body of Christ by reading St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Pope Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi, and the third part of the Catechism. Ennis relayed the story of one trainee, who said she was able to have a powerful discussion with a fallen-away Catholic about the significance of Mass and the sacraments.
“She said she normally would’ve just made a joke, but she was able to have a conversation with substance because she was reading these important documents,” said Ennis.
While stories like this aren’t uncommon, most of the Lay Leadership Program’s impact occurs in the classroom, where the leadership trainees facilitate class discussions.
Ennis says one critique of the program is that people in rural areas, who often don’t have formal education beyond high school, won’t be able to handle some of the more theological reading material. Ennis says the key is introducing texts that are accessible.
“Most of them saw the fruit of their labor by working hard to read these documents. It’s a struggle sometimes, but they’re exercising those intellectual muscles,” he said.
Communities in Need
The Lay Leadership Program was introduced three years ago to address a severe deficiency in rural America. With a single priest often assigned to clusters of three or more parishes and focusing on liturgy and the sacraments, rural parishes don’t have the human resources to focus on spiritual and intellectual enrichment beyond Mass.
Ennis says many rural Catholics are “not very confident” in encountering Scriptures or reading the teachings of the Church on their own. “They might not be familiar with the modern letters of the Church,” he added. “Even the Catechism is not a very well read book in many rural communities.”
“Rural Catholics have a lot of unread mail,” he quipped.
The Lay Leadership Program seeks to address this “disconnect” by training lay leaders who are knowledgeable about Church teaching, and in turn can teach these truths to others in their community. Ennis says the program is inspired by the teachings of the Church, which emphasize the role of the laity in forming communities centered around prayer and support of the Church. This practice, he says, is especially important in rural communities where priests are already stretched “really, really thin.”
Ennis says his recent visits to Adrian and Huron, which in addition to Roseville, Minn. are the three cities where CRL Lay Leadership Programs are active, was an important opportunity to evaluate the progress of these pilot programs.
‘We’re learning how to identify potential leaders who can be good facilitators,” he said, noting that not everyone has that particular charism, and others are better suited as assistants.
The eventual goal of the Lay Leadership Program is for participants to put what they’ve learned about Catholic Social Teaching into action. But Ennis stretches the need to be well-grounded in the teachings as a prerequisite of action.
“If there’s no connection to Catholic Social Teaching, than we have a lot of activists, but they’re not grounded in their faith,” he said.
Ennis hopes that by first providing lay Catholics in rural areas with the wisdom of the Church, they can go on to address other issues in their communities that don’t receive enough attention, such as poverty and discrimination.
Room for Growth
Ennis says the success of the pilot programs in Minnesota and South Dakota ensure that CRL will be expanding the effort to different areas– but he stressed that the expansion will be very intentional and deliberate.
“Training rural leaders is a big endeavor, and we need to make sure that we’re walking alongside these leaders to prepare them for the small group leadership that’s at the core of what they’ll be doing,” he explained. “We accompany and support them throughout the year, so we want to make sure we have the pieces in place to be able to do that.
Ennis said rural people interested in starting a Lay Leadership Program at their parish or community should contact CRL’s programs coordinator, Beth Hyser, by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or giving her a call at 651-962-5955.
“The Lay Leadership Program is a dedicated resource of CRL,” Ennis emphasized, “so we’ll grow as our capacity allows us to.”