Catholic Rural Life’s Life in Christ initiative has enjoyed steady expansion since its inception five years ago, but the lay leadership program is poised for its biggest breakthrough yet.
Life in Christ, which trains laypeople in rural areas to lead a series of small group discussions on Catholic social teaching, is set to go live in up to eight parishes in the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota, in Fall 2015.
“This is a great opportunity,” said Deacon Chris Walchuk, the diocese’s Director of Rural Life, who has been working closely with CRL executive director Jim Ennis on the expansion since this past fall. “The greatest need in our rural parishes is to integrate Catholic social teaching into the everyday lives of our Catholics, along with the sacraments and along with the Gospel.”
Ennis traveled to Winona last week to present before the diocese’s social concerns committee at the invitation of Deacon Walchuk. Although the diocese was already on board with the expanded implementation of Catholic Rural Life, it was a good opportunity for Ennis to share Life in Christ with a diverse committee, whose members include priests, a deacon, a woman religious, lay leaders, and a representative of the Hispanic community.
“[Ennis] solidified our commitment and gave us the details we need to move forward,” said Deacon Walchuk. “We’re really excited about what this will mean for the practice of the faith in our rural parishes.”
Lay formation has been a big area of focus for the Diocese of Winona, and the diocese has an entire office and institute devoted to the task. Deacon Walchuk says that even before the diocese discovered Catholic Rural Life’s lay leadership program, the Diocesan Social Concerns Committee had developed a model for obtaining desired outcomes in education and ministry.
When Deacon Walchuk was appointed to his position, he discovered that CRL’s Life in Christ program fit the criteria of what they were looking for.
“I realized that the objectives of the lay leadership program lined up with the model we’d independently come up with,” he recalls. “Bringing the program to the diocese made perfect sense.”
Life in Christ had previously been implemented as a pilot program within the Diocese of Winona at the St. Adrian Cluster in Adrian, Minn. But deacon Walchuk underscores that new approach will have a much broader reach.
“We’re actively promoting this at the diocesan level,” he said. “We should have about eight parishes participating fully in the fall. These are very generous-hearted people who are hungry for opportunities to incorporate their faith into their lives.”
Deacon Walchuk says that part of the beauty of the Life in Christ lay leadership program is that it integrates well with the resources and programs for lay formation already in place, noting how the diocese currently has over 200 trained lay ministers who simply need to be provided with the program and materials to engage in effective faith formation.
This is a huge asset in rural parishes, where priests already have enough responsibilities on their plate without also needing to take the lead in developing lay formation programs and training leaders.
“Fr. Gregory Leif, a member of the Social Concerns Committee, said, ‘I’m so happy to see this, because I don’t have to come up with it on my own’,” shared Deacon Walchuk.
Another huge plus of the Life in Christ program is that it provides on-going support beyond the initial implementation.
“Everybody likes the infrastructure behind it,” shared Deacon Walchuk, referencing the annual leader formation retreat and CRL’s continual follow-up with lay leaders.”The ongoing support is what makes Life in Christ so much more valuable than other programs.”
The deacon noted that the diocese has great educational material focusing on Catholic social teaching, but needs an ongoing program like Life in Christ to really make it stick.
“Parishioners get excited after seeing a presentation on Catholic social teaching, but then what? How are they going to make it a part of their life? The lay leadership program, with its small groups and sustained effort, provides the means to make this an actual part of someone’s life.”
“Lay people develop ownership of this part of practicing their faith, as well,” added Deacon Walchuk.
Finally, the Life in Christ lay leadership program has garnered popularity among officials in the Diocese of Winona for its loyalty to the Gospel. Deacon Walchuk pointed to his pastor, Fr. Jason Kern of St. Teresa in Mapleton, Minn., in example.
“[Fr. Kern] is behind this so much, because he sees it as a vehicle for creating disciples,” explained the deacon.
And that’s a truth that was shared by Jim Ennis with the diocesan committee during his presentation last week.
“Jim underscored that living the Church’s social teaching is one of the ways we show our love for God,” recalls Deacon Walchuk. Scripture and the doctrines of the Church are essentially “love letters from God” that we should spend time with, and incorporate into our everyday lives.
“Jim said that if your fiancé or your spouse wrote you a love letter, you don’t leave it sitting on the shelf. You bring it out with you. That’s what the Life in Christ lay leadership program helps us to do with the Word of God.”
To learn more about bringing CRL’s Life in Christ lay leadership program to your parish or diocese, contact Executive Director Jim Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org .