In the past, theological education didn’t prepare Latino/a students to minister effectively to their own communities.
Today, new programs are raising up leaders for a growing and diverse Hispanic population.
IT WAS NEVER RUDY MENDEZ’S PLAN TO GO TO college. And yet the 64-year-old, who grew up working for his uncle’s wholesale produce company and drove a delivery truck while raising a family, began coursework in the fall of 2020 for the ecumenical doctor of ministry program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He was launched on this path when he received a certificate of pastoral ministry in diaconal studies at the Mexican American Catholic College (MACC) in San Antonio. The man who was once head of maintenance at nearby Assumption Seminary now serves as a parish deacon in the old neighborhood.
“I’m in a place where I feel called to be. I’ve found a home,” he says of his work in that parish and the Catholic church more broadly. Mendez is fulfilling what he now sees as his spiritual calling: serving the Hispanic Catholic community of San Antonio as a church leader.
Though not regionally accredited, MACC has long had a collaborative degree program with a nearby accredited institution, the University of the Incarnate Word. Students in the bilingual bachelor’s program in pastoral ministry can take classes at both the University of the Incarnate Word and MACC, pursuing concentrations in catechetics, Catholic leadership, or philosophy.
Except for male students pursuing ordained ministry or female students who are members of religious orders, obtaining financial support is a challenge for MACC students. (Sisters and future priests are supported by dioceses or religious communities.) In fact, for Latino/a students in general, the high cost of tuition is one of the primary reasons their college completion rates lag behind those of their white counterparts. As a result, there’s a domino effect, with fewer laypeople credentialed to minister within the Catholic church, which compounds a lack of Spanish-speaking priests.
“We have a real systemic failure with lay ministry in general,” says Dr. Arturo Chavez, MACC’s recently retired president. “The student profile that is growing, and that can [continue to] grow exponentially, is lay leaders.” He says many parish leaders have only a high school diploma and would jump at the chance to further their education, but many can’t afford the tuition.
Nevertheless, a growing number of those lay leaders are students at MACC, preparing themselves to minister alongside priests and religious sisters.
To serve them, MACC offers rigorous certificate programs — like the one Rudy Mendez completed — that can provide a bachelor’s degree equivalency to nontraditional students who have significant parish ministry experience. With a certificate in hand, MACC graduates can enter into master’s studies through the partnership with Incarnate Word and other accredited institutions.
Sister Guadalupe Ramirez, an associate professor of pastoral theology and coordinator of the certificate program at MACC, said students enrolled in the program already have experience in the church. “They’re all already involved in parish ministry but feel they don’t have enough preparation and foundation,” she says. “They may participate in diocesan educational programs that are not academic. What drives them here is that these courses are college accredited, not just courses.”
Ministry in Context
Throughout the United States, there is an ever-increasing need for leadership in growing faith communities anchored in a wide variety of Latin American homelands — not just Puerto Rico and Mexico, but Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Colombia, and more. The desire for academic credentials that will prepare leaders for these thriving and evolving communities has never been greater.
ONE SIZE FITS ALL. That’s how Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, long a voice for multicultural education in the United States, describes the previous state of theological education. What she means is that there was no place in the field that addressed issues specific to the Latino/a population, church, and community. Now a member of the executive team at the Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH), Conde-Frazier says it used to be that when Hispanic students went to seminary, “it was because their denomination required an M.Div. for ordination.” Back then, it was assumed that seminary education would not prepare a student for actual ministry in a Latin context.
She laments that in the past, Bible institutes and Catholic and Protestant seminaries often used outdated textbooks that were translated from English. And some failed to offer precisely the type of training those working with Latino/a parishioners needed: pastoral counseling to deal with immigration problems, trauma, generational challenges, navigating new cultures, conflict management, and community organizing. Even more fundamentally, “the pathway to seminary was difficult,” says Conde-Frazier. Not only was there little funding available for Hispanic theology programs, but in the past, this was a population with a low level of college degree attainment.
AETH was formed in 1992 in response to those challenges. Its goal is to promote and improve theological education and contribute to the development of the leadership of men and women who work in a Hispanic context. Since 2013, AETH has also certified the quality of programs at Bible institutes and Hispanic ministerial development programs. The certification of otherwise unaccredited programs opens a pathway for graduates of these institutes to be admitted to ATSaccredited graduate-level theology programs.
Today, second- and third-generation Hispanics with varying degrees of Spanish-language proficiency are increasingly prepared for leadership positions within the church. And even as many young people move away from organized religion altogether, theological schools and institutes serving the Hispanic population are innovating to meet the longstanding needs of their community and the new ones of the 21st century.
Sixty miles east of Los Angeles, in the Diocese of San Bernardino, Maria Sedano serves as director of the Ministry Formation Institute, a diocesan theological formation program for lay ministers. Those enrolled are a mix of English and Spanish speakers, with some in a six-month track and about 200 in a five-year advanced leadership program that includes three years of theology and formation and two additional years of specialization.
Sedano says that, currently, all of that training is recognized only at the diocesan level. Colleges and universities, even Catholic ones, have not so far offered credit equivalency that could help launch those who have completed her program into a degree track — that is, to follow the pathway that Mendez took after earning a certificate at MACC.
But this year, the San Bernardino Ministry Formation Institute received certification through AETH. “It is a whole new moment,” says Sedano, whose efforts to gain this sort of recognition for her program are finally paying off.
Four years ago, AETH began a special focus on “Young Lideres” — the phrase is a deliberate amalgam of English and the Spanish word for “leaders” that reflects the bilingual, dual identity of many young Hispanics. According to Dr. Fernando Cascante, AETH’s executive director, the average age of the Hispanic population in the United States is 29, and he sees vast opportunities for young people to be trained for leadership positions.
“We still have significant numbers of young people, but the challenges of losing them are the same as Anglo churches have experienced,” Cascante says. “One of five young people distrust religious institutions. More and more young people are not interested in institutional religion.”
Young Lideres is one intentional effort to engage these second-and third-generation Hispanics, Cascante says, noting that many churches and Bible institutes are led by members of the first generation, for whom Spanish is the native language. To accommodate younger members whose comfort level with Spanish varies, all of AETH’s publications and its website are in Spanish and English.
AETH’s publications cover topics like theology and the history of the church, but they also publish texts that address pastoral needs — the very topics that Conde-Frazier says the old, translated English textbooks never covered.
“You need to know Luther and Aquinas, but what is the real praxis?” asks Cascante. “How does our faith relate to society?” He suggests that more texts are needed that are written by and for Latinos: “Theology and global warming, genetics, the relationship between faith and science, the church and people with disabilities, mental health, and economic stress. We’re discovering there are things we need to be writing more about.”
Daniel Montañez is one of AETH’s Young Lideres. A doctoral student at Boston University, he grew up in Texas in what he describes as a traditional Latino Pentecostal background. Now 29, he is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and sees a future supporting the Latino/ a church in education, ministry, and the public square. Montañez says he has become increasingly aware of the value of educating leaders of local churches.
AETH’s work “connects leaders from seminaries to Bible institute staff to create a support network, to dialogue and think about solutions and resources,” he adds. His own participation in the Young Lideres program has included online discussion groups and book clubs, spaces that allow him and others to “come together and have conversations about the realities that exist in our context. It has really become a place where young Hispanic leaders can engage in a deeper way than they could in their churches or in theological institutions, which usually focus more on Western Christianity and don’t engage critically on issues of race, identity, and faith.”
As someone who was there at the creation of AETH, Conde-Frazier is particularly gratified to see Young Lideres taking the Hispanic church forward — starting new churches, partnering with Hispanic-run businesses, “re-creating church and re-creating spaces for conversations that they need to continue to respond to the callings of God.”
“That calling has been very strong in the Latino community,” she says. “And when people take things into their own hands, it works really well.”
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAN WILLIAMS