Fordham University has been granted state approval to establish a doctoral program in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) that will be tailored to lay ecclesial ministers and other church professionals.
The program, which will have concentrations in pastoral ministry, pastoral counseling and spirituality and spiritual direction, is set to begin enrolling students for the fall semester—making Fordham the only Jesuit university in the country to confer the Doctor of Ministry degree.
“This is quite possibly the most significant development since the school was founded in the mid-1960s,” said the Rev. Anthony Ciorra, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education. “The school was founded for the purpose of serving the church in terms of religious education and we continue in that mission, but the church’s needs have changed because of the diminishing numbers of priests and sisters and as more lay people respond more directly to their baptismal call for service. This degree program is a response to that need.”
The doctoral degree in ministry is different than the research-oriented Ph.D. in religion, in that the former’s focus is on applied theology. Instead of writing a dissertation, as is the case in the Ph.D. program, students pursuing the doctorate in ministry will complete a doctoral project.
Lay ecclesial ministers within the Catholic Church can be men or women and the term does not refer to a specific position or title. Lay parish ministers can serve as anything from youth ministry leaders to directors of liturgy or pastoral music.
According to a 2005 report by National Pastoral Life Center, the number of lay Catholic parish ministers working at least 20 hours per week in paid pastoral positions increased by some 40 percent from 1990 to 2005. There are now more than 30,000 lay ministers and, according to the report, two-thirds of all parishes have paid lay ministers working at least 20 hours per week.
The core curriculum for the program has already been developed, Father Ciorra said, and the initial cohort that will begin in the fall will be limited to 10 to 12 students. After the first year, the program will likely be expanded to allow a larger number of students to enroll, and Father Ciorra said it’s possible that additional faculty members will be hired.
Father Ciorra said that programs in ministry first took root in Protestant seminaries and colleges in the 1970s, most notably at the divinity schools at Harvard and Yale universities. However, since the mid-1990s some Catholic seminaries have begun offering the degree. In New York, Fordham will be the only Catholic university to have a doctoral program in ministry in place.
The development of the program, Father Ciorra said, has been ongoing for about a year-and-a-half and the three concentrations are designed to provide training in some of the most critical areas of need at dioceses and parishes throughout the country.
A key aspect of the program will be its ecumenical nature, he said, and an effort will be made to reach out to potential students of all faiths who would benefit from enrolling in the doctoral program.
“I think that in addition to Catholics, people of many other faith traditions will be interested in this program,” Father Ciorra said. “The program will also deepen our relationship with the church in the surrounding area. It takes the resources of the University and puts them in the service of the church.”
By Victor M. Inzunza