GU vice president gives overview of changes in mission and ministry
Michelle Wheatley, Gonzaga University's vice president for mission and ministry, described the evolution of the mission and ministry team to serve not only students, but also the faculty and staff—the whole university.
Now her team is transitioning to digital as the campus has gone to online learning for spring.
"We are reflecting on what we are learning as we now reach new people online," she said. "Nothing will be the same after coronavirus. Attendance for some meetings and programs on Zoom has increased."
The mission and ministry team is responsible for three functions: educating on Gonzaga's mission, identity and purpose; providing pastoral and spiritual care, and giving formation for discernment and leadership.
Michelle came to Gonzaga 13 years ago to study public relations, earning a bachelor's degree. In her studies, she became involved in different ways with mission and ministry, so she completed a master's degree in religious studies in 2012 and a doctoral degree in ministry in 2019 from San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Impressed by her mentors in a Jesuit high school in Portland, she chose to come to Gonzaga. Some of those mentors were Zags with a passion for life and invested in Jesuit education.
In sports and campus ministry at GU, she found coaches created retreat-like experiences with prayer and reflective activities.
"My passion for campus ministry began in high school and was nurtured through studies at Gonzaga," said Michelle, who worked in the ministry office as a student and was hired into the program her senior year. She continued working with the program during her master's studies.
She became involved with the program administration and decided that was what she wanted to do. Experiencing the opportunities and challenges of the work, she felt called into it. After graduating, she worked two and a half years and decided to stay in ministry in higher education.
Working in mission and ministry since 2007, she has participated in restructuring it.
"I started as an entry level program coordinator and had opportunities to lead retreats, small groups and other programs," she said. "I experienced most of our programs."
In 2011, the role of assistant director for the team was created because the Jesuit director was chaplain for the men's basketball team and often away.
"We decided to adjust our structure to address the team's organization and management," said Michelle, who was put in the role to carry out ideas she suggested.
She worked in partnership with the director until he was called elsewhere. University leadership appointed her as director in 2013 because she had been active in leading the department, mentored closely by the director.
Although recognized as the first woman to serve in this role on an ongoing basis, Michelle acknowledges women who came before her served in transitional roles, guiding various dimensions of mission and ministry at Gonzaga.
In January 2017, Michelle became assistant vice president and then acting vice president in 2018. She was formally appointed vice president in December 2019, working in partnership with a mission and ministry leadership team.
Then the work restructured in another way. Previously University Ministries focused on students and the Office of Mission on staff and faculty. When Fr. Pat Lee, SJ, was vice president, he merged those teams in 2016.
Now Mission and Ministry serves students, staff and faculty with an integrated approach. The current team includes 14 people who are both academics and practitioners, as well as a network of students, faculty and staff who serve as interns, fellows, scholars, chaplains and program leaders.
"At Gonzaga, ministry is integrated with the university's academic mission," she said. "We have a distinct Catholic, humanistic mission, but are not a church or parachurch organization.
"We offer programs like other campus ministries, but they are aligned with the identity and purpose of the whole institution. Our office is to provide unique gifts to our community related to what the university is called to provide to the church and world," she said.
"As a Jesuit university, we are part of the worldwide Society of Jesus, which has discerned four priorities for the next decade," she said. They are: 1) to show the way to God through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and discernment; 2) to walk with the excluded; 3) to accompany youth in creating a hope-filled future, and 4) to collaborate in caring for our common home.
"My role is to guide us in weaving the priorities of our institution with the priorities of the Society of Jesus," she said.
This integration includes the recently-announced Opportunity Northeast, Gonzaga's place-based initiative that involves students, faculty and staff in transformative, experiential learning while they engage in community development.
"As a Jesuit university, we are called to apply our teaching and learning, scholarship and service toward creating a more just and humane world, to build up the reign of God, and a world as God's love would have it," she said.
Michelle said that this is an interesting time in institutional history to do this work because the university now has fewer Jesuits.
"We cannot assume people will understand the Jesuit charism or how to participate in it through osmosis," Michelle said. "We need to be intentional in cultivating spaces and resources to support people in participating fully in the life of our community.
"At best, our office gives voice to the deepest hopes and needs of our community," she said. "Our mission is ultimately about a journey we take over time as we discover who we want to be and how we can best serve our community and the world."
This mission continues, even and especially in the context of the global pandemic, Michelle said. So, Mission and Ministry has rebuilt its work for the rest of the semester, telecommuting, providing new virtual opportunities at least six days a week, developing new programs in a different format and meeting one-to-one through phone and Zoom.
Much of this work is on Instagram, where students are comfortable engaging, and on the website, Facebook and Twitter.
Mission and Ministry has a new weekly schedule: Monday is reflection night with a theme and prayer. Tuesday is "Pray Where You Are." Wednesday is "Word Wednesday" with scriptural discussion. Thursday, "Love Does" is about putting the word in action. There are virtual liturgies, podcasts, virtual church and one-to-ones.
"We don't want to lose connections even though we are physically at a distance," she said.
In March, students learned classes would move online and they would not return to campus after spring break.
"We are trying to walk with students, faculty and staff through anxiety and uncertainty, as well as unexpected blessings," she said. "There is grieving among seniors, who did not imagine a final year like this. People want to be at Gonzaga in a highly relational context. Being at a distance is painful, but we try to communicate hope and solidarity."
"Our Jesuit mission can give us strength and inspiration," said Michelle, referring to a picture of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, showing him when he was called to Rome, not Jerusalem, where he wanted to go.
Noting the context, she said the Pope asked Jesuits, "Why can't you make Rome your Jerusalem?"
"The questions for us is, 'Do you have a deep enough sense of who you are that you can persist in your purpose, even when you have to be flexible in your approach?' This is a key element of the spiritual exercises," Michelle said.
"We say in our tradition that anything has the potential to draw forth in us a deeper fullness of life, and I see that opportunity here now," she said of COVID-19 altering the way Gonzaga worked.
"Staff and faculty have done a remarkable job transitioning to the new format, even working two to three times as many hours to be present to students online," she said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2020