Lay Ministry Institute provides spiritual, practical guidance
by Emily Czaplewski, '21
Often, the best innovations come from creative solutions to pressing needs. In 2007, the Saint Clare Center for Ministry and Leadership recognized that lay Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had a growing need and desire for formation in the areas of theology, Scripture, spirituality and ministry, but there were few places for a non-degree seeking individual to obtain such formation. To help fill this need, the Saint Clare Center launched their Saturday Institute for Lay Ministry.
Held at Cardinal Stritch University’s campus on six Saturdays each semester, the Saturday Institute – now part of the Saint Clare Center’s broader Lay Ministry Institute – offers parishioners, catechists, parish committee members and parish staff members a practical and immersive walk through Catholic-Christian spirituality, designed to deepen their faith and equip them to serve confidently and effectively in their parishes and beyond. Courses can be taken individually or as part of a two year/four semester program, which culminates in a Certificate of Completion in Lay Ministry.
To serve more of Milwaukee’s Catholic community, the Saint Clare Center offers sections of the Lay Ministry Institute in English and Spanish.
Over the years, many lay Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have participated in the Lay Ministry Institute to grow in faith and knowledge, including Gaby Jaramillo, who completed the Institute’s Spanish-speaking program to help her better serve her parish community.
Gaby works at Cardinal Stritch University as the assistant to the dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Outside of Stritch, she belongs to the parish community of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, where she is involved with lay ministry.
Despite Gaby’s busy work schedule and growing family life, she makes time to lead the Women’s Spirituality group for the Cathedral’s Spanish-speaking community and assists with other ministries.
“I love helping grow the Church!”
Gaby has been involved with women’s groups in the past, and when she first joined the Cathedral parish, she helped start a couple’s group. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the logistical implications put a pause on her efforts.
Gaby shared that it became much harder to run a couple’s group during the pandemic, since having both parents on Zoom left the kids alone, but that did not stop her from recognizing a new, growing need in her parish community.
“In the process, women said, ‘We really need something.’ It rose from the need to have a space to congregate, to share and to help each other grow spiritually.”
Previously, the Cathedral did not have anything specifically for the women of their Spanish-speaking community, and Gaby accepted the invitation to start a women’s group.
“Because I had experience from the previous group, I was asked to help get it off the ground.”
Gaby shared that her experience in the Lay Ministry Institute helped support her in this new chapter of ministry, too. She attended the Institute about four years ago, after learning about the program from one of the pastors at her former parish, who was an instructor in the program.
“He always promoted growth. He was a big influence, and always encouraged leaders to participate in faith and leadership formation programs.”
Asked what sparked her interest in the Lay Ministry Institute, Gaby shared, “I could see the excitement and the growth in others, and that sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know what all the hype was about. When others are excited, it’s contagious!”
Lay ministers Gaby had worked with at St. Adalbert’s, her previous parish, had already taken the course, and their testimonies were the impetus that led her to apply.
“They would talk about their projects and what they were learning. Students of the program would present on topics they learned and you could see and hear their growth, not just in knowledge but in spirituality. That sparked my curiosity and desire to learn more.”
And learn more, she did.
“We had courses spread out over four semesters. Each semester had three courses - two were faith or biblical based. The faith formation course filled us with knowledge, and the leadership courses helped us develop our skills and learn how to put it all together.”
Even though each semester covered a lot of ground, Gaby felt that the material was presented in a very engaging and manageable way, and the participants were excited to learn.
“The instructors also played a big role in the excitement because they were all very knowledgeable and good at teaching.”
Her favorite course, which explored the Old Testament, was taught by Fr. Jose Gonzalez, Vice-Rector at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
“Fr. Jose was instrumental in getting people in leadership capacities at the church involved in the program. He is a teacher by nature, so that got people involved. They knew he was a good teacher.”
In addition to her dynamic and supportive instructors, Gaby noted that the community of participants she journeyed with throughout the program also inspired her.
“We had people in our group that came from over an hour away. When you hear those things, that helps spark that curiosity. Why are people coming from so far? What’s this all about?”
She also shared that the witness of the Lay Ministry Institute’s many alumni – especially those who were at St. Adalbert’s – inspired and encouraged her.
“When you see the people that have gone through the program, you can definitely see the level of growth – not just in their leadership, but also (in) the spreading of the gospel, and the way they just carry it out.”
Gaby’s response to their witness?
“I want that.”
She shared that more than 10 individuals from her parish had completed the program, and that the parish community was very vibrant and encouraging because of it.
“There was a lot of collaboration and people working together towards the same goals.”
In addition to the impact the Lay Ministry Institute had on her church community, Gaby saw myriad ways her experience with the Saint Clare Center changed her own life.
“I really owe so much to the program. I feel in awe. Personally, spiritually, different relationship types. I feel like it helped me grow, not just in spirituality, but in having more courage. Having more courage to speak up against injustices. When you see something that isn’t right, having that courage to say so; helping people see that you need to be more compassionate. That you can be part of a solution and not just always standing by and watching everything happen.”
Gaby’s experience also impacted the lives of those closest to her through her relationships with her family members.
“Learning how to better handle relationships. How to forgive more. How to love more. There’s just so much!”
Just as her experience in the Lay Ministry Institute has shaped the way Gaby relates to her family, the program also changed the lens through which she sees the world.
One of the most significant changes Gaby noticed was “learning how to see Christ in other people.”
And, once Gaby began to recognize the Face of Christ in the people around her, she found herself focusing more on the person of Christ and how he lived, taking him as a model in her life, decisions, and ministry.
“One of the priests in our classes was talking about God’s love and how we respond to it, and how Christ lives in each person, and created each person. How you respond to each person is really how you’re treating Christ. It just made me think twice about how I treat people. About compassion.”
She found herself “trying to think about Jesus’ life and what he did, and trying to live a better life.”
This awareness translated into some very practical steps in Gaby’s everyday life.
“What would be the better way to handle this situation, with knowing how Jesus would do things? Knowing he had compassion and love for others, and forgiveness, how do I put that to play in today’s world, or in this situation? How do I help someone work through this situation and show the same compassion? I try to use that in any of my roles, whether it’s at work, or in my ministry at church.”
Gaby also emphasized that being able to recognize Christ in the people around her and learning to imitate his actions required, first and foremost, an open and quiet heart, attentive to the Lord in prayer.
“Just taking time to sit down and really listen.”
Through that listening, Gaby has found herself becoming more and more conformed to Christ, and she wants other Catholics to experience what she has found through a deeper relationship with the Lord and the mission of the Saint Clare Center. To anyone who is considering the Lay Ministry Institute, Gaby has some simple advice.
“I would say, just be trusting. Trust the process, and that it would be the best investment of you time, and the best gift you could give yourself, really.”
Practically speaking, she noted, “I think the Lay Ministry Institute is perfect for all those individuals who don’t have time for a four-year degree program but still want to learn more about religion, spirituality and leadership.”
And, for those who are taking the next steps to enroll in the program, Gaby wants to offer some wisdom she learned through her own experience.
“Give yourself the time to invest in the program and absorb all you can, because it goes by fast. Just go for it, and give yourself that gift of time to learn and better prepare. You will not regret it. It’s absolutely transformative!”
Gaby sees the transformation in her own life, and she hopes Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee recognize the opportunity before them and allow the Lord to transform their own lives and their parish communities, too.
“It touches so many different areas and it really helps you become a little more whole. I really, truly feel like I’m a different person because of it.”
If you or someone you know are ready to take the next step towards growing in faith, being formed for mission and drawing closer to Christ, visit the Saint Clare Center’s website and explore the Lay Ministry Institute in English and Spanish today!