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Embracing diversity strengthens formation at Ministry Institute

For Shonna Bartlett, diversity entails much more than potlucks she experienced as a child in Chugwater, Wyo., population 250, where people brought dishes from their Bohemian, Jewish, Irish and western European heritages.

Shonna Bartlett at The Ministry Institute
Shonna Bartlett

Diversity for her now includes ecumenical understandings and international connections she encounters as director of formation and sabbatical programs at The Ministry Institute at Mater Dei, 405 E. Sinto near Gonzaga University.

Diversity for her now also involves sensitivities she needs in a multi-racial family, knowing when to advocate for her Irish- and African-American children.  That includes her involvement in the multi-cultural St. Ann’s Catholic Church.

Starting in chemistry at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Shonna shifted to opera before she graduated in 1973.  Her senior year, she met her husband, Bob. 

They married in April 1974 and lived 11 years in Grand Junction, Colo., where she worked as a legal secretary and piano teacher before coming to Pullman, where she ran an at-home typing business. 

Shonna moved to Spokane in 1989 when Bob, came to Gonzaga University, after completing a master’s degree at Washington State University.  He is now director of multi-cultural education at Gonzaga’s Unity House.

In Spokane, she worked 13 years in various roles with Cancer Care Northwest, including as a telephone operator.

“One day, I looked out the window and realized I wanted to walk with people on their spiritual journeys,” said Shonna.

So she completed a master’s degree in pastoral ministry at Gonzaga in 2002.

At the Ministry Institute since 2005, she finds her work taps both her education and her informal experience in formation.

The formation program is for students in Gongaza’s Religious Studies master’s programs. 

The sabbatical program is for priests and women religious on sabbatical from around the world—this year from Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and South Dakota. 

Coming for four months to a year for rest and renewal, they audit religious studies and other courses.  For example, a nun is studying special education.  Some study English as a second language, and others have progressed into doctoral programs.

The Ministry Institute started in 1981, when Father Armand Nigro, SJ, Father Vince Buezer, SJ, and Father Jack Evoy, SJ, anticipating a shortage of priests, found men who had been widowed and in other careers, but were interested in serving as Catholic priests.  Conventional seminary training was not appropriate, so they established Mater Dei as a seminary to train second-vocation men for the priesthood.

In the mid-1990s it ceased to be a seminary.  In the late 1990s, plans began to use the building for lay and ordained Catholics, and for non-Catholics in the Religious Studies graduate program, which gained accreditation of the Association of Theological Schools several years ago.  Now non-Catholics can transfer credit for their work to seminaries in their denominations.

In the 1990s, the former CREDO and FOCUS programs, which brought priests and nuns from around the world for sabbatical studies, became the Ministry Institute’s sabbatical program.

Shonna’s informal experience in formation began when at 14 she helped plan liturgy as choir director at the Catholic church she attended.  She later helped her mother, who was Methodist, study to become Catholic.

Rearing her children, Alicia, Erin, John and Jamie, gave her more skills in formation.  Bob, who grew up in the Church of God in Christ, Episcopal and Methodist churches, became Catholic in 1981, with her assistance. 

As mother of a multi-racial family, formation is more than teaching beliefs.  Shonna is aware of how easy it is for people to have a commitment to justice but not speak up.  She is called to speak when her children need her to stand up for them.

She has also been “formed” by the “skill set” Bob brings.  For example, one day when the family was driving home from church with the children, someone shook his fist and yelled at them because they are a mixed-racial family.

“I was naïve and would have driven home, but Bob drove around and then towards the police station as the car followed us,” she said.  

“Being in a multicultural family, I am more aware of victims of harassment and of hate crimes.  I can relate faces to what happens,” Shonna said.  “I also see the incredible faith of people in spite of how they are treated and ignored.”

At St. Ann’s, Shonna is choir director and on the liturgy committee.  She and Bob, who is writing a doctoral dissertation on African-American Catholics, are on the preaching team.  Their daughters are active: Jamie is a lector and on the parish council.  Alisha is church secretary. Erin directed the Christmas pageant.   John, their son, is in Eugene.

They are one of 150 families on the rolls, which include African-American, Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Filipino and French families. One way they honor their differences is to sing in different languages.

Sabbatical students help at St. Ann’s, bringing their cultural insights to worship and community life.  In addition, the parish offers two African style services each year—Christ the King in November and Pentecost.

In the formationprogram, she now has formal opportunities to share in gatherings and seminars. 

Weekly meetings formation and sabbatical students for worship, a meal and a community evening are an opportunity for the master’s students who are entering ministry to engage with people who have wisdom from years of ministry, she commented.

The theme for a fall 2006 series was “Living the Beatitudes:  Ministerial Growth in Community, Justice and Diversity.”  She also developed a four-month series for the community on “Listening for God’s Word.” It ends in March.  Sessions explored spiritual direction, journaling, prayer and silence to help people listen as part of acting and speaking truth.

“I led the session on silence because I need it.  Silence helps to settle us.  With so much sadness and craziness in life, silence can be healing,” she said. 

“Students who are so involved in ministry need a chance to draw back and receive the gift of silence,” she noted.

Aware of the struggles in the Catholic Church, Shonna, who is a board member for Call to Action, added that “if we call people to responsibility or to speak the truth, we must do it from a place that is grounded and centered in God.

“People are hungry to find ways to deal with the tensions we face,” she said.  “Speaking truth involves looking at both legal and faith perspectives.”

As groups such as Call to Action invite church leaders to listen to the need for more lay participation in decision-making and for healing for all people in the diocese, she is aware that the Ministry Institute supports such programs for lay and ordained ministers.

“The emphasis is on everyone’s ministry, using gifts of all people for good in all the world,” she said.

“We continue to look for ways to support ministries in the diocese, especially as pressures about the bankruptcy distract priests and non-ordained members from doing the ministry they love,” Shonna said.

As a tool to help discern some issues for people in ministry and for congregations, the Ministry Institute for five years has used a survey and interviews in “Profiles of Ministry.”

Shonna said that it helps seminary students consider how their personal characteristics relate to their ministries and helps the institute look at curriculum needs based on where the students are.   It helps both students and ministers be aware of the need for self care, as well as care for others.

Last year, students from different denominations used the Profiles of Ministry to discuss their different responses to different scenarios based on their personal backgrounds and denominational approaches.

Shonna has found that Profiles of Ministry can also be used as a tool to build awareness of pluralism, diversity and social action.

“Every time I engage with another culture I’m enriched,” Shonna said, adding that there are challenges.

She also cited the words of St. Francis:  “Preach the Gospel always and if you have to, use words.”

“The challenge for every person of any faith is to live it so people can see it,” she said.

For information, call 323-6012.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © March 2007