Sisters count on the 'multiplication factor' of lay partners in their ministries

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Click here to read more about the panelists for The Life, GSR's monthly feature about the unique, challenging and very specific lives of women religious around the world.

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This month, The Life panelists reflected on how laypeople are true partners in their ministry, advancing the mission of their congregations and teaching them useful lessons in life. They responded to this question:

What are ways that partnering with laity has made your ministry more effective? What have you learned through this experience?

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Editor's note: Because sisters are not ordained, they are considered part of the laity, not the clergy. Sometimes, they are called "consecrated" or "vowed" laity. Rather than defining the rest of the laity as "non-vowed" or "non-consecrated" — defining them by what they are not — the editors decided to generally use the simpler and commonly accepted understanding of laity and sisters.

Teresa Anyabuike is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur living in Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. For a time, she was the coordinator of a Catholic community self-help association and a department of justice development and peace mission in the Ilorin Diocese. Currently, she is serving as a website manager for her congregation and manages her congregation's social media outreach.

Every person has a gift that they bring with them, no matter how insignificant. I can only be aware of this gift if I am open and accept the possibility of change. So partnering/working with non-vowed people has positively made my life and ministry more effective.

I worked with a young woman whom I see as the epitome of honesty and transparency. In my work, I have to give an accurate, updated account of the funds of a group of people. This young woman helped me through it. She is very accurate in accounting for the funds that come in and go out of the office.

One day, I was so confused about how to fix a mistake I had made in my accounting. She gently stepped in and asked me to calm down, stop looking at the account for a while and come back to it later so I would have a clearer picture of the figures. Then she would help me fix it. Working with her has made me more trustful and open to others.

Sometimes I had more money than I was supposed to have and could not account for it. She would help me track it. Many more times, she would find missing funds for me. I became confident in her and could leave my office in her care to attend to seminars/workshops that are crucial to the development of the office, and I gave her the opportunity to do the same.

I felt greatly challenged, meeting a young woman with such honesty. Sometimes, I would tell her: "You challenge me and would make a good religious." Her honesty and transparency were not only in financial matters, but beyond that. Even when certain people would say to her: "Sister would not know," implying she could act differently when I'm not present!

Partnering/working with laypeople has also challenged me to see things differently. Once, in a parish, some people started gossiping about a man. A concerned parishioner said to me: "Sister, could you please ask him to tell you his own side of the story?" I was ashamed because it hadn't occurred to me to talk with the man. But I did, and he was so grateful to me for giving him the opportunity to tell his story. And that changed my view of rumors! I learned to ask before jumping to conclusions.

Catherine Soley is a member of the Religious of the Assumption. A "late vocation," she has two daughters and two grandsons. Her ministries have included teaching and directing an English-as-a-second-language program, helping with after-school mentoring, working with college students and elementary-age children of recent immigrants, and overseeing the community garden. Currently, she is the primary caregiver for her mother, practices spiritual direction and serves as provincial councilor.

"Come, follow me." When Jesus called his first disciples, he spoke to ordinary people from various walks of life who were drawn to what he was about. He was looking for those open to something new, something that could not be poured into old wineskins.

Response to the needs of the times, calls of the church and our own charism has led us into different forms of association with laypeople. I have had very positive experiences collaborating with them in our community garden; as peers in spirituality groups; in mentoring young adult volunteers; and working on vocation promotion. These experiences have been foundational for what is ahead, for what I now can only glimpse.

With participants of our Taizé prayer group, we have begun a journey into uncharted waters. What began as the recognition of a common experience of coming closer to God with each other has become a movement from "I" to "we." As one participant exclaimed: "We are an apostleship! Not quite understanding what we are up to and uncertain of the future, only sure of the one who calls us."

Participants of Taizé prayer group (Cecilia Hervas)

In sisters, people see the joy of a life centered in God. They have experienced our house as a place of prayer and hospitality. And we see lives marked by a deep faith forged in the struggle to live a God-centered life while balancing the demands of family, work and church.

Still in the early stages, we have just begun to move beyond our initial knowing of one another; we haven't traveled very far into areas of potential conflict. I hear in Jesus' call an invitation to open to the reality of the other, to allow that reality to touch and even transform me. To simply be with the reality of my brother or sister is also a movement from "I" to "we." In this process, we will be drawn together into the one who beckons.

Many questions remain. Doubts arise. I talk about genuine partnerships. This demands a movement beyond doing together what "I think" needs to be done toward an invitation into the "thinking" itself! I am energized by the Spirit alive in our group! Am I willing to be stretched into a new wineskin to receive the ever-new wine being offered?

"Come, follow me." Jesus continues to call women and men into new configurations of discipleship. Am I listening?

Monica Nyachowe is a Dominican sister from Zimbabwe. She has more than 20 years of experience in teaching and administration of schools at various levels, including as the head of the Dominican Convent School in Harare. Her academic work included early childhood education, educational leadership, management and policy. She moved into university teaching in educational studies and presently teaches at Arrupe Jesuit University in leadership and governance.

Just like many other congregations all over the world, we, the Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had to realize and accept we no longer have enough personnel to run our institutions on our own. We then began working with collaborators to assist us in making sure our institutions still remain Dominican in nature and ethos.

The involvement of ministry partners has taught us how to let go and to be more trusting of others. When a sister is running one of our institutions, we believe our Dominican ethos is being promoted without much effort. When, however, a non-Dominican person is collaborating with us, we have to initiate her/him into our Dominican spirituality and history to assure a Dominican spirit prevails and continues to be known and lived in our school, hospital or children's home.

Important feast days for our congregation and the knowledge of important dates and people of our order are handed on. We have learned it is good to have frequent visits from the congregational leadership to review and offer a standardized way of running our institutions. This helps in keeping up contact with the people and the institutions to assure a lasting mutual relationship. Even in institutions where our Dominican presence is minimal, the leadership visits are helpful in supporting and encouraging the sisters who are working closely with our ministry partners.

Working with collaborators can surely be a "multiplication factor." If the right kinds of people are chosen — people who are enthusiastic about Dominican spirituality — they can be most effective and help us reach and serve more people. God's message can be brought to a wider circle of society, who will enjoy the knowledge of being in the loving hands of God. We have learned that in collaborating with others, we also empower them as they get to know our spirituality and participate in understanding the Dominican ethos.

When working with non-Dominican partners, we have learned there can be complexity in managing different interests. Some of our collaborators might put their own emphasis on a project that might not be in line with our charism and the vision we have for an institution. Management board meetings have proven to be helpful in managing our institutions and are mutually beneficial for the partnership. There are ways of getting our ministry partners to see issues from our perspective without hurting anyone but rather encouraging free participation.

(Unsplash / Kristel Hayes)

Barbara Valuckas, a School Sister of Notre Dame currently based in Connecticut, has a communications background. She taught in schools and via educational television in the Brooklyn Diocese, New York. Both before and after serving in province leadership as councilor and provincial leader, she ministers as a facilitator and consultant for parishes in the United States and with religious congregations internationally.

A group of pilgrims in Bavaria, a team of educators in Haiti, and a staff of researchers in Minnesota: all lay collaborators with the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) in North America.

The pilgrims are administrators and staff from SSND-sponsored schools, visiting our foundation sites in Germany to imbibe the spirit of our foundress, Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger: her passion for unity, dedication to the education of girls and women, her international vision. The teachers in Haiti from Notre Dame of Maryland University are training Haitian teachers to educate girls and to heighten awareness of human trafficking. The researchers in Minnesota have been partnering with SSND senior sisters in a longitudinal study of Alzheimer's disease and have already made significant contributions to the understanding of Alzheimer's.

The rest of us — sisters and associates — keep up with them at province assemblies and through our province website. We believe that through our awareness, prayer and support, we are all present wherever any SSNDs and our collaborators are.

I am directly involved in other collaborative efforts, as with a group of women of diverse spiritualities who help each other grow in our commitment to and practice of nonviolence. Though they would not identify themselves as collaborators in the SSND mission and ministry, I have been able to share their nonviolent communication principles with many religious congregations with whom I work as an international facilitator, such as in Lithuania, a country that experienced many forms of violence during decades of Soviet occupation. Those sisters have continued to study, practice and share nonviolent communication skills with other Lithuanians.

Our congregation's nongovernmental organization representatives at the U.N. sent me a report that resulted in a Lithuanian community joining RENATE, an organization of European sisters formed to combat human trafficking (a community focus). My collaboration with an organization that helps women in Lithuania provided the legal assistance needed for two young Lithuanian women — offered jobs as waitresses or models in unidentified other countries — to avoid being trafficked.

Mike and Diane Rokosky giving their presentation on their School Sisters of Notre Dame Mission Awareness Program to the Council of Catholic Women of St. John the Evangelist parish in Watertown, Connecticutt. (Barbara Valuckas)

Mission Awareness Program (MAP), another SSND initiative in North America, provides volunteer experiences of a week or more with our sisters working with poor and marginalized people. Last year, two parishioners responding to a MAP invitation I put in our parish bulletin spent a week in Arizona with our sisters at the border. Moved by their experiences, they have been sharing their learnings with parish groups.

Collaboration comes in many forms — all in service of Jesus' desire "that all may be one."

Sandra Wiafewa Agyeman (Ofia) is a Ghanaian member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit. She began her ministry in a school in Ghana as an account clerk, helping with registration and admission. Later ministries there included pastoral work with people living with HIV/AIDS, ensuring their children's education, and organizing prayer experiences and recollections. For the past year, she has been attending the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies in the Philippines.

Our lives as religious women and as women disciples have been a privilege and a gift. We can boldly count ourselves as creatures in whom the creator finds beauty and worth to partner with in bringing goodness and relief to those in the margins and to all who need the touch of Christ in a special way. And an especially joyful part of our life, in terms of our ministries, are the non-vowed people God sends us to help bring our apostolate to perfection.

Our partners among the laity, even though they may have family and businesses where they invest part of their time, prove to be dedicated laborers.

In these times of aging members, low vocation numbers and lack of personnel, we count on our lay partners. With a little training in our spirituality and mode of operation, some of our institutions — education, health, pastoral, women and youth empowerment and the like — are still growing. Their partnership with us makes it so easy to move on to new apostolates and new areas where our presence is needed.

In one of our schools for indigenous people, the pupils are so much more comfortable with and able to approach lay teachers who are indigenous themselves. When I first encountered the students, I was moved to praise God for the lives of our co-workers. Their contribution made our ideas and desires to bring education to the children very effective and more easily embraced.

Our pastoral apostolate in both urban and rural centers is much more effective with the help of our co-workers, as their contributions facilitate dialogue and communication with the ordinary folks to whom we minister. Through our co-workers, God's love is brought to all.

In my experience with lay partners, especially in our apostolate with people living with HIV and AIDS, we couldn't have started the program by ourselves. They help seek out patients who otherwise would not want to come out because of feeling stigmatized. They help organize monthly meetings and other things we might not be able to do ourselves.

Through our co-workers, the patients can trust us and allow us into their lives because we are in league with their own people. I see God at work in our non-vowed partners and consider them my equals in the sight of God, who finds us all worthy to work with him in his vineyard.

(Unsplash / Nathan Dumlao)

Read more in Global Sisters Report's The Life series.

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