Meeting the changing demographics of the church in America

Meeting the changing demographics of the church in America

This week, I was one of a few faculty members and program directors representing Loyola at the annual meeting of the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry (AGPIM) in Tucson, Arizona. The 28-member Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities also uses the wider meeting as an opportunity to gather in the preceding days to exchange information, challenges and planning about our network. I was particularly delighted to hear about my alma mater Fordham’s developing relationship with the Archdiocese of New York and their adult education efforts, which will undoubtedly be a boon to their program and to the local church there if and when it becomes formalized.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas came to speak to the participants about the history of the USCCB’s 2005 document Co-Workers in the “Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry.” The document recognizes the “significant degree of preparation, formation and professional competence” required to serve the church in many of these capacities. While the AGPIM schools may have broader scopes in their curricula than “lay ministry,” (Loyola, for instance, offers MA degrees with specialized focuses in social justice, contemporary spirituality, church management, digital communication in ministry, and more), much of the work of the member institutions does in fact center on these three important aims. All of these schools seek to cultivate a collaborative vision of the church, drawing on the resources and charisms of the laity, the ordained, and the schola theologorum — the theologians, who may belong to either of these groups.

The keynote and lead facilitator of the conference was Father Ed Foley, O.F.M., Cap., the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality at Catholic Theological Union and founder of their Ecumenical Doctorate in Ministry program. Father Foley has written over 20 books on everything from music and ritual to effective preaching to pedagogy and diversity. He has spent a substantial amount of time in France, as well as lecturing all over Europe, India, Korea, the Philippines and Australia.

Some of the data presented by Father Foley was challenging, if unsurprising, focusing on the shifting demographics of the church in America and beyond, including skyrocketing disaffiliation rates. The distrust of institutional authority among millennials is noteworthy and is having lasting ramifications on Christianity in the 21st century. In terms of raw numbers — which pollsters know well are not a self-interpreting reality or the complete picture of any story — the personal popularity of Pope Francis has done little to stem this hemorrhaging. One particularly salient statistic speaking to the future face of our church here in the United States: over 50 percent of children under 5 in this country are from “minority” groups. The overwhelmingly white bishops and leaders in academic ministry formation programs are not (or best not be!) unaware of these realities if they hope to serve the church and society effectively beyond our contemporary moment.

The conference was hosted by the Redemptorists, whose property in the Sonoran desert among the ancient Native American petroglyphs carved into the surrounding mountains long before Christianity ever reached these shores, is simply breathtaking. My daily jogs through the adjacent Saguaro National Park were a highlight of my first visit to the city. If anyone is familiar with Willa Cather’s masterpiece about the missionaries to the Southwest, there was a “Death Comes for the Archbishop” feel to the atmosphere, though those of us gathered were trying to support one another in ensuring that we tap into the life-giving veins of dynamism and creativity pulsating through our church.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago, and is a former resident of the Diocese of Camden.

Categories: As I See It, Columns

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