(In photo above, Dominican Father Michael Sweeney, left, walks with Deacon Errol and Julie Kissinger at St. Basil Parish in Vallejo.)
“Having participated in many diocesan-sponsored formation programs over the years we really thought we were at the end of our formation life,” admits Deacon Errol Kissinger of St. Dominic Parish in Benicia, referring to how he and his wife Julie had seemingly exhausted the possibilities.
“All of a sudden, we started hearing about the Lay Mission Project and it sounded so different, we couldn’t say no,” Deacon Errol says, sparing no enthusiasm as he distinguishes the program as “the model of formation of the laity for the future.”
Together the couple had completed a range of conventional and academic formation programs throughout the 1990s, including a university program, a diocesan lay ministry program and the diaconate formation program, to advance their own knowledge and formation and to complement their respective ministries.
Julie has served as director of religious education (DRE) for 27 years at St. Basil Parish in Vallejo. In addition to his diaconal ministry, Deacon Errol also serves as director of religious education at St. Dominic.
Deacon Errol and Julie called St. Basil Parish home for decades, where they married and raised three children. When Deacon Errol retired from corporate life and pursued a second career, he accepted the ministry opportunities at St. Dominic as Julie continued as DRE at St. Basil. Now, belonging to both parish communities, they concede it was a challenge to adapt from their “comfort zone” of working together.
“It was a very different experience,” Julie recalls, citing how strange it seemed because Deacon Errol now ministered and worked at another parish.
“That’s when it hit me; ministry is broader than what we do at one parish,” she says, adding that “we have to be out there.” Providentially the Lay Mission Project came along and reinforced Julie’s revelation.
“Everything we had done to that point was service to the church,” Deacon Errol explains, but the Lay Mission Project is “really animating the laity toward service to the world.” They knew they wanted to participate in it together.
Longstanding church teaching
Deacon Errol and Julie quickly point out the role of the lay faithful “has always been church teaching” but the manifestation of the teaching has been limited. “It has certainly eluded us,” Deacon Errol concedes, clarifying that “the purpose of the ordained is service to the baptized and the church, but the purpose of the laity is to go out into the world and bring it the church.”
“As lay people we go to Mass and leave Mass,” Julie explains, hinting that the mission to serve the world gets missed by many. “It’s a huge responsibility to go out to the secular world and be that Christian who draws people to Christ.”
“It’s not an informational program that prepares one to teach the faith,’” Julie adds, indicating that the Lay Mission Project is a formation program that integrates faith and life to transform the world. Using integrated methods, it encourages learning and understanding of the culture.
The three-year program blends self-paced online learning with in-person cohort meetings and periodic retreats and workshops.
“It was designed for the busy working person,” Deacon Errol says, commending the structure as convenient with a realistic time commitment. Participants allocate about two hours per week for the coursework which must be completed by a specified end date. A local discipleship community meets afterwards once or twice a month, and annual workshops and retreats present the full spectrum of learning experiences.
“The laity are very competent in the world, but we’re not really taught how God is present in all dimensions of the world,” Deacon Errol notes, describing how the formation always asks “where is God present in business, economy, science, government and politics, and the arts?”
Deacon Errol further stresses how “God has a purpose and a design in all these things” and how the program’s crowning achievement is its amazing online, video content.
“Esteemed, high level Catholic professionals deliver the lectures,” Deacon Errol says, deeply impressed and honored to learn from revered figures sharing the underlying Catholic principles that unfold in the temporal world. Both Deacon Errol and Julie commend how the courses examine the culture and its symbols encouraging the laity to meet and engage in secular society.
“We just can’t be in a silo in our church and look at the world with indifference,” Deacon Errol says. “We must lean into the world and try to understand its frustrations and its brokenness,” he says applauding the philosophy that only through this level of understanding can laity hope to build relationships and offer Christian witness.
Julie adds, speaking of their local disciple community meetings, “You can feel the Holy Spirit.” The group gave her “the encouragement to do the things I’ve wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”
“It is learning by witnessing each other’s lives,” Deacon Errol says of the profound and in-depth storytelling and revelation. The concrete circumstances of how God works in the world, and in the lives of participants, becomes evidence to convictions and pathways to understanding.
“Academics don’t get into the messiness of life as in a cohort, and for me this is the most fascinating aspect,” Deacon Errol says, expressing how this type of learning forges an appreciation and an understanding that the laity must pursue in secular society. “The cohort conversations are what we should be having out in the world,” Julie insists.
'It’s a game changer'
The Lay Mission Project aims to bring faith into the world one lay person at a time. As Deacon Errol and Julie complete their three-year experience, they reflect on how it has changed their lives.
“It was a paradox for me as ordained clergy,” Deacon Errol admits. “When I first started, I thought ‘why would I do this’?” Now with perspective, he looks back and testifies, “It makes me a better minister of the church. I now understand the true call of the laity and I can now better accompany them, counsel them and pray with them because we now know the laity’s proper trajectory is out in the world.”
Julie sees how it has influenced her work in religious education and in youth ministry. “The Lay Mission Project has made it so much easier to talk and interview confirmation candidates and their parents and families,” she says, emphasizing how they regularly consider what it means to be a disciple and how to “be Christ for others, be present in the world and make a difference.”
“This formation is a game changer,” Deacon Errol insists, because at its heart are essential and relevant components which become tools for placing Christianity into a “much bigger world,” where new cultures, dimensions, classrooms and workplaces benefit.