A Sacred Trust

Book cover
Called and Chosenby Edited by Zeni Fox and Regina Bechtle, S.C.Rowman & Littlefield. 196p $21.95

It is no secret that in the last 40 years there has been a steep decline in the number of clergy working in parishes as well as religious congregations staffing schools and other Catholic institutions. In parishes, the women and men filling the roles once performed exclusively by clergy and religious are generally known as lay ecclesial ministers. Much has been written about them and their ministry, including a forthcoming document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Other institutions once staffed by priests and religious congregationssuch as Catholic schools at all levels as well as heath care institutionsdon’t seem to have gotten as much attention. Called and Chosen: Toward a Spirituality for Lay Leaders remedies that situation admirably.


This is so on several accounts. First, its editorsZeni Fox, associate professor of pastoral theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, with extensive experience in the area of lay leadership formation, and Regina Bechtle, S.C.make clear from the beginning why this book came into being, its intended audience and its core concerns. Second, the authors engage the reader in a stimulating dialogue on the book’s themes. Third, unlike some edited volumes, the material is consistently well written and on point. And the reflection questions are excellent.

As the book’s title puts it, the focus is on the spirituality of lay leaders working in Catholic educational institutions, although those working in Catholic health care and other Catholic institutions will find here much that is rewarding. Ms. Fox expresses concern that those working in these institutions understand their leadership positions in terms of the language of ministry and call, as do lay ecclesial ministers who work in parishes.

Another express concern is whether our Catholic institutions can maintain their Catholic identity when they are lay led. The authors would answer yes. Likewise, they believe the shift from staffing led by clergy and vowed religious to lay-led staffing of Catholic institutions presents a challenge. Nowhere is this more clearly articulated than in Chapter 2, in which Michael Downey frames the challenge this way: My concern is this: How do leaders of Catholic enterprises in an increasingly nonreligious milieu recognize the gift and task of their mission and the mission of their enterprises as a way of deepening their own spiritual lives and the lives of others?

Sister Bechtle’s contribution comes out of her conviction that spirituality has everything to do with leadership. Working with leaders in different institutional settings to explore where leadership and spirituality meet and interconnect, Sister Bechtle describes how these discussions of their personal lives and their institutional working lives inevitably turned on the spiritual meaning of their service. That is to say, those in leadership positions in Catholic educational and health care institutions saw their work as much more than work and the institution as more than an institution. Importantly, both Bechtle and Fox discovered that the received language of the church’s tradition was seldom the way in which this more was articulated. In moving toward a spirituality for lay leaders, then, the first chapter explores the language of call and of vocation.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I focuses on the leader as person. If we have discovered anything in lay leadership formation, it is that there is no better or more respectful way to begin a process of discovery or exploration. The chapters encompass the leaders’ spirituality, sense of vocation and core values. Part II moves from the person of the minister to the missionthat is, the part he or she plays in continuing Jesus’ mission of teaching, healing and serving through a leadership role in a Catholic institution.

Part III looks at the spiritual life of institutions, employing language we usually associate with individuals to describe institutions as embodied spirits and enspirited bodies which have their own spirituality. I came away with a vision of institutions as more than brick and mortar. In other words, institutions, too, leap off the page and become real.

Part IV returns to the person of the leader, now with attention to the legacy, really a sacred trust, which these new leaders are carrying forward. In doing so, lay leaders of Catholic institutions need to rely on more than managerial expertise and professional savvy.

This is brought forward in several ways: through the spiritual stories of three persons who serve as prototypes of the spirituality to which administrators are called; in a reflection on the interrelationship between faith and education; and a chapter on the terms power and authority.

Though relatively short, this is a rich book, both in breadth and depth. Much of its richness lies in the reflection questions that conclude each chapter. As anyone who has had the experience knows, such questions are a challenge to formulate. Here the questions are personal, direct and right on target. For example, before the first chapter, the reader is invited to respond to these questions: Why do I do what I do? Would it make any difference if I engaged my work as a sacred and empowering calling (vocation)? What shapes the way I habitually think, choose, and act? What are my lived values? Where did I get them?

I hope lay leaders in Catholic educational, health care and other institutions will get hold of this book and use it. It offers possibilities for group processese.g., during days of recollection or other gatherings of institutional professionals. The material can also be expanded into a workbook that would discuss more fully the themes presented. However this book is used, it will help lay leaders of Catholic institutions in coming to recognize themselves for who they are: called and chosen to carry on the church’s mission, which is always Jesus’ mission to heal, educate and serve.

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