As a community activist who worked in church-based organizing, Joe Ippolito often met priests who didn’t feel fully prepared to handle the challenges of modern-day leadership.
Says Ippolito, “Some were genuinely shocked at what was expected of them.”
Besides leading a congregation, counseling the faithful, promoting community outreach, and performing baptisms, weddings, and funerals—priests must perform all the business management and administrative tasks that keep a busy church afloat. These include building maintenance, staff supervision, events and program planning, financial bookkeeping, and implementing diocesan policies handed down from above.
Ippolito wanted to use what he’d learned as an EDC job skills assessment and training specialist to help Roman Catholic priests prepare for the demands of their vocational calling. He worked with academic deans from eight Midwest seminaries to develop In Fulfillment of Their Mission, guidelines to help seminary faculties and students assess the degree to which seminarians have mastered the skills needed to fulfill the enormous responsibilities they will face as church and community leaders.
What inspired you to want to help priests better prepare for service?
As a church-based community organizer, I spent many, many hours with ministers of various denominations, and I got to know them as friends. In the course of conversations, I’d hear stories about how they felt their seminary education had not been adequate enough for the challenges they faced once placed as leaders of a church community.
Much of the difficulty had to do with the inadequate preparation in practical skills, things like budgeting, bookkeeping, and administrative duties. Working at EDC on career development programs in manufacturing and information technology, I knew how to identify standards and skills that individuals need to know and be able to do to be successful in those particular fields. I thought our methods could work for priests and seminaries.
How does your publication help seminaries evaluate and train priests?
Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States are guided by a book called The Program of Priestly Formation, which states four qualities ordained priests should have: intellectual, human, spiritual, and pastoral. When you try to describe these human and spiritual qualities, the language can get very vague. Our publication is a framework that describes the specific skills, behaviors, knowledge, and resources that enable a priest to fulfill his responsibilities. This helps seminaries better identify priests’ strengths and areas where they need additional training.
What originally drew you into religious studies?
My interest in religion stems from two near-death experiences that I had when I was younger, which were related to an abnormal blood condition that led to my being considered for a bone marrow transplant. Somehow, the condition healed itself. That kind of experience impels a reflection within you to seek answers to all the big questions. From an intellectual standpoint, I’ve always found the kinds of questions religion and theology wrestle with to be especially interesting and meaningful.
What’s next for the project and your work?
A seminary here in Cleveland is using the framework to develop portfolios for seminarians. Other dioceses are using the document as an overview for individuals interested in the vocation, to show them what it’s actually like to be a priest. We are disseminating the results of the project nationally and exploring new applications of the materials with seminaries in the Midwest. We also hope to develop similar projects with other denominations.
We’re also in the process of starting a new project in Scotland, where the shortage of priests demands that lay people assume greater leadership roles in the church. The project will lead to the development of a self-assessment tool for priests, as well as a reflection guide to help lay leaders develop a greater awareness of the responsibilities placed upon priests and as a means of provoking discussions about stewardship.
It’s rewarding to see the methods that we’ve used at EDC for many years to be so very useful in the field of theological education.