By Mary Morrell | Contributing Editor
In the world of continuing education, there is no such thing as one size fits all. Whether undergraduate or graduate degrees, credit or non-credit certificates, workshops, seminars, conferences or independent study, continuing education makes viable the ideal that learning is a lifelong endeavor.
For those serving in ministry or professional work in the Church, continuing education offers a significant value to both learners and those they serve, not simply by providing information, but ultimately, faith formation and enrichment.
Peg Hensler, diocesan associate director of Marriage Ministry and Natural Family Planning, recalled her educational journey. “Despite my liberal arts background and years of experience in volunteer ministry, I realized early on just how much I didn’t know. I realized that all of us, regardless of age, must be lifelong learners, especially when it comes to our faith and spiritual life.”
Hensler, who earned a bachelor’s degree in food marketing from St. Joseph University, Philadelphia, entered into master’s degree work after being hired by the Diocese of Trenton in 2004 in what is now the Department of Evangelization and Family Life.
“A requirement of my position was to complete graduate work for a master of arts in theology,” said Hensler, who began her graduate work in 2010 at LaSalle University, Philadelphia, balancing a demanding work schedule and family responsibilities. She earned her master of arts degree in 2014.
“When I first started my job in 2004, I had no real context for ecclesial and theological language, so I struggled with every church-related document,” said Hensler, who knew she needed to be patient with herself, having come from the business world, and from raising children.
“My dad had given a copy of the catechism to each of us, his six children, when we were young adults. Though I had referred to it on occasion to answer some basic questions about my faith, once immersed in theological studies, I began to see the catechism as a stunningly beautiful and powerful document, where all the elements of my Catholic faith were explained, and my faith became truly alive,” Hensler shared.
For Laura Kowalick, who has spent some 28 years in catechetical ministry in her parish of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Moorestown, continuing education has been a pivotal experience of leadership and formation. Early in her ministry, Kowalick earned certificates in both parish administration and catechesis before undertaking the LaSalle University Pastoral Ministry Certificate Program “to better develop an understanding and knowledge of the Catholic faith, and to further develop leadership skills in serving as a ministry leader in the parish community,” she explained.
Kowalick, who has been parish office manager for Religious Education Ministry for 21 years and director of Noah’s Ark Church Readiness Ministry for 24 years, believes that “through participation in the LaSalle Pastoral Ministry Program, I not only grew in my knowledge of the faith, but I also built community with fellow ministry leaders through faith-sharing and empowering each other in our ministries. My faith and spirituality were renewed and energized during the course, and I took on tasks with new insight, knowledge and skills.”
In addition, she said, “I became a better witness of faith in parish ministry, developed stronger communication and leadership skills, and developed a broader perspective of my faith with a world-view vision of Catholic teachings, and the ability to make the faith realistic to those I serve.”
Following God’s Will
Bruno Multari, a parishioner in St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, took a long educational road to a ministry God had called him to years earlier.
Multari became involved in the diocesan program for lay ecclesial ministry, with courses in Georgian Court University, Lakewood, when he discerned a desire to become a spiritual director. A friend advised him to continue because if the desire to become a spiritual director was from God, it wouldn’t disappear.
Multari listened and stayed on at Georgian Court to complete his master’s degree in theology, and while he found great value in the education itself, an added value was in “gaining a new perspective, being challenged, expanding my understanding of what it means to be in the Body of Christ.”
Multari noted he was “invited to learn about other faith traditions, to come together with other individuals in conversation,” an experience initially outside of his comfort zone. “Now, I can have an enjoyable conversation about where we are, or where we are not, in our relationship.”
Because of this experience, he said, “I’ve grown stronger in my faith, and it is easier to share.” This was an important transition for Multari, who continued on with his education after his master’s degree, applying to the Upper Room Spiritual Center, Neptune, for the spiritual director certificate program.
“As a spiritual director, I need to be open, to listen without judgement,” said Multari, who serves as a spiritual director in the Bayville parish.
Music and Liturgy
Justin Connors, who has served as director of music and liturgy in St. Thomas the Apostle, Old Bridge, for 10 years, earned his master’s degree in sacred music from Westminster Choir College, Princeton. He stressed the importance of continuing education for Church musicians and liturgists. “Sacred music should draw us closer and deeper into worship. If the music is warm, well-delivered and inviting, and we do what the liturgy asks of us, the natural conduit is then present for participation.
“Since our primary goal is to help lead the congregation in song, which helps others to pray, being properly trained in Church music is critical. If the music is quality filled, it will encourage others to participate, pray and fully enter into every liturgical celebration.”
Connors encouraged those in music ministry “to study sacred music either by degree or personal research, spanning from chant, English church music, American church music and contemporary church music. A full palate will help us serve each other and our congregations the best way possible.”
Learning Never Ends
People are different, they have different lives and different levels of faith, said Multari. While not everyone has the time or resources to avail themselves of degree courses, he noted, there is estimable value in continuing education in whatever form is possible. Simply put, he said, “It’s important to keep going. It just helps everyone.”
Kowalick agrees. “In any field or profession, it is vital to stay current and updated, and continue to develop new skills and approaches while serving as a leader,” she said. “In Church ministry, those in leadership positions need to be sure that they are sharing current, accurate teachings and beliefs. We need to prioritize developing our skills and gifts we share within the parish community.”