Pastoral associate earns national certification

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Mary Jean Gandolfo
Mary Jean Gandolfo

For Mary Jean Gandolfo, the notion that the church is many parts but one body, can be applied to the parish office as well.

As the pastoral associate for Holy Trinity Church, she sees herself as just one of many on the staff —  a staff that is shepherded as one body by their pastor.

“None of us knows every area,” she said of the parish staff. “So you have to put together a team. And it really works.”

In May, Gandolfo became the second person in the nation to receive certification as a pastoral associate from the National Association for Lay Ministry.

The distinction isn’t one that’s required to serve as a pastoral associate. But for Gandolfo, the certification served a few purposes. The certification, she said, gives her the sense that her pastor and parishioners are getting her best; that her skills are sufficient for the task.

The process also gave her an opportunity to reflect upon her experience and training, to see how they’ve come together, she said. Gandolfo noted that she earned an undergraduate degree in social work and a graduate degree in pastoral counseling. Her ministry as a pastoral associate, she said, “ties those together.”

The job description of a pastoral associate varies from parish to parish — it’s one that changes to fit the needs of the community, according to Dr. Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Gandolfo’s work touches nearly all areas of parish life. She works behind the scenes in social outreach to those in material need and in pastoral outreach to those in spiritual need. She also helped lead the parish’s strategic planning process and she works on staff evaluation and development.

But Gandolfo’s ministry is just part of the picture in her parish’s leadership. In addition to the Holy Trinity, the church has another sort of trinity in the parish office. At the helm is the pastor, Father Mark Spalding. The pastoral associate and the parish business manager, Bruce Hines, assist the pastor in leading and guiding the parish. Gandolfo and Hines are there to free the pastor to do his primary work — that of preaching, presiding and providing pastoral care.

Father Spalding and Gandolfo said this model is the result of a vision they shared, one that’s worked well for the parish.

“The pastor has a unique, significant role in the parish that cannot be abdicated in parish leadership,” said Father Spalding, who serves both as pastor of the parish’s 1,400 families and the Archdiocese of Louisville’s vicar general. “But he can, at times, delegate certain responsibilities.

“I believe in this model. You believe and understand what it means to be pastor — shepherd, leader, the canonical role — but you also appreciate and understand the gifts of others being brought to the table as well, empowering them to serve without letting go of responsibilities yourself,” he said.

Gandolfo, in church terms, is a lay ecclesial minister, a ministry role for the laity that was developed after the Second Vatican Council.

Reynolds noted that there are currently about 38,000 lay ministers serving in parishes around the United States. The Archdiocese of Louisville has lay ecclesial ministers of all sorts serving in most of its 111 parishes and missions. About 70 of those lay ministers serve in roles similar to Gandolfo’s, though their titles and duties vary from parish to parish, he said.

“Some of the first lay ecclesial ministers were directors of religious education,” Reynolds said, noting that many pastoral associates today also serve as directors of religious education or, as they’re often called, DRE’s. “They were followed very quickly by youth ministers and parish administrators. A lot of this started after the Second Vatican Council.

“Some of the first DRE’s and others were often sisters who left the school environment. What quickly emerged was the (role of) pastoral associate in places that were looking for more of a generalist rather than a specialist.

“ ‘Pastoral associate,’ in this diocese, is a term used for a significant staff person, often a senior position in the staff,” he added. “But the tasks delegated to them by their pastors are somewhat determined by their particular situation.”

The national pastoral associate certification is the culmination of a great deal of work on the part of Father Joseph Merkt, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville. In the 1990s, he helped develop and write the first standards for lay ecclesial ministry. His work formed the foundation of the standards now used in Gandolfo’s certification and that of other lay ecclesial ministers.

Gandolfo’s certification came from the National Association of Lay Ministry, which grants certification under the umbrella of the Alliance for the Certification of Lay Ecclesial Ministers.

Gandolfo added that she’s grateful for the support of Father Merkt, who encouraged her to pursue the certification, as well as for the confidence various pastors have placed in her. Among those to whom she feels thankful are Fathers Mark Spalding, Wayne Jenkins, Anthony Chandler, Gerry Bell, Tom Boland and B.J. Breen, she said.

“They really taught me to follow my dream and opened the door for that,” she added.

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