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Transforming Catholic Leadership in Southern California

Through a Pathways for Tomorrow grant funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is leveraging the university’s existing partnership with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to expand opportunities for underrepresented students to receive a theological education, both undergraduate and graduate. The school is training lay leaders as well to address pressing societal issues.

Trish Shea interviewed Dr. Amir Hussain, a professor of theological studies and the project director, who provided some insights into the project.

Can you describe the project in a few sentences?
Our project has a twofold purpose.

First is to increase access to theological education and pastoral formation for underserved and/or younger populations in Southern California. This includes creating pathways for younger prospective students entering LMU as undergraduates, as well as for non-traditional students who have not been able to secure a baccalaureate degree.

The second is to equip Catholic pastoral leaders in Southern California with more tools to address the most challenging aspects of ecclesial life in greater Los Angeles – racial and ethnic injustice, disaffiliation, a lack of understanding about growing religious diversity, and a coming wave of leadership transition as senior Catholic leaders formed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council continue to retire.

What have you learned so far?
In both our graduate program in theological studies and the Center for Religion and Spirituality our goal is to equip a greater diversity of persons in Southern California, not only for ministry but also for leadership within ministry contexts. Our ATS accreditation visit in 2021 underscored our success in cultivating a racially and ethnically diverse student body, and our alumni regularly affirm how their LMU education prepared them to be better ministers, leaders, and preachers. Our hope is to extend that education to a wider audience. The Pathways grant is instrumental in not only achieving this expansion but also reimagining how we innovate and enhance our efforts to better serve the community.

What has surprised you along the way? 
Throughout 2023, our part-time academic support coordinator, funded through the grant, engaged with an increasing number of students. In Fall 2022, she assisted 18 of 57 students. By Fall 2023, she supported 34 students, comprising 58% of the program’s total Fall 2023 enrollment of 59. This included 16 of the 23 new students in the Theological Studies M.A. program.

Two primary challenges have emerged: First, that the need for academic support exceeds the capacity of a part-time position. Second, many of the students are now bilingual or predominately Spanish-speaking. With one class per semester conducted in Spanish and several instructors allowing Spanish writing in English classes, there is a need for additional bilingual support. To address this, we are planning academic skills workshops for 2024, including sessions conducted in Spanish.

What have been a few of your successes?
Thanks to the grant funds, we have directed resources for students toward two critical needs: housing (Los Angeles is one of the most expensive housing markets in the world) and technology assistance (primarily the purchase of laptops for use in online and hybrid courses). Specifically, this has allowed us to fund housing for select international students and assist five additional students with housing or technology needs. Without the support of the Lilly grant, these students wouldn’t be able to be in our M.A. program.

What are you hopeful for?
In April (2024), we had a great meeting with ATS regarding our plans to continue on this work once the grant finishes. We are among the schools participating in the Phase 3 grant awarded to Boston College and the University of Notre Dame, Haciendo Caminos. This partnership will enable us to continue to provide funding to additional students in the future.

What are you learning that could help other schools?
Ensure that the processes you have are adaptable considering potential changes in people. For instance, in the initial two years of our grant, one of our principal investigators relocated out of state to pursue other opportunities, while another stepped down from his position. Additionally, we’ve had faculty turnover. But the work continues, which I think is key. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that the work can progress seamlessly even amidst personnel changes.

Other coverage:
Read the In Trust magazine article, "Cultivating New Ministers," about the project here.

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