ALLOUEZ — When Jamie Whalen was growing up in Greenfield, a southside Milwaukee suburb, he attended the parish where his parents and grandparents had been charter members: Our Lady of Lourdes.
“My grandfather was a parish employee, so I was always hanging around the parish,” Whalen said. As he watched his grandfather work and “hung out with him” in his office, Whalen “began to wonder if I could do something like that.”
He became very involved in the youth ministry program — during what he called “the heyday of youth ministry in the 1980s” — and was even invited to teach a fifth grade religious education group while he was in high school.
One thing led to another and he attended Marquette University where he earned degrees in theology and philosophy, while still serving as a confirmation catechist and an adult youth leader for the youth group. Later, he earned his master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University, New Orleans.
“I was always very interested in how human beings relate to God, how that forms us, how God has shaped us, how God creates us to long for him, to want him and to respond,” Whalen said. He added that “parish work was a great way to help people to do that, to explore that relationship.”
His first paid parish position was in youth ministry at St. Andrew Parish in Delavan. He said that in that position, as it still is with many parish ministers, he ended up dealing with more issues than youth ministry: from “womb to tomb,” as he called it.
“It gave me insight into being a lone ranger (in parish work),” he said, “but also of the need to not be a lone ranger, to support and train and empower volunteers, because no one can do it by themselves.”
He and his wife, Sue, later moved to Madison where he served as campus minister at Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart. After three years, they moved to the Green Bay Diocese, where he served at St. Mary Parish, Greenville, and Nativity Parish in Green Bay.
Last July, he took a position at the diocese as Lay Ministry Formation director. Now, after more than 20 years in parish work, where he received assistance and training from the diocese, he is in the reverse position: becoming a resource to lay ministers for the 157 parishes in the Green Bay Diocese.
“It’s time for me to serve as a mentor, or just offer whatever I can from my experience, to nurture and support new ministers coming in,” Whalen said. “Having been there, I know what it’s like and know that we need good, well-formed Christ-like minsters in this diocese. That’s why I was attracted to this position.”
He oversees the Emmaus program, Discipulos de Cristo, continuing ministry formation and training for the ministry of leading prayer.
Emmaus, which began as “Commissioned Ministry” in 1989, forms and mentors future leaders in parishes such as coordinators of pastoral ministry, liturgy, faith formation, youth ministry, and business managers. Discipulos de Cristo was launched in 2009 to form Hispanic-speaking leaders in parish ministry.
“The purpose for Emmaus is to train and prepare lay ministers for effective parish ministry, either as volunteers or as lay ecclesial ministers (paid position in a parish),” Whalen said, adding that Emmaus and Discipulos are often just the beginning of lifelong formation for many ministers.
Since Emmaus graduates also receive credit via a partnership with Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc, some have continued their college education after Emmaus. Others continued into the Master of Theological Studies program at St. Norbert College in De Pere. Still others receive ongoing training with various diocesan departments, such as Education. Many of the men in diaconal formation complete Emmaus as well.
The support of the Bishop’s Appeal for these programs is a big help, Whalen said. He was a teacher in the Emmaus program while he was in parish ministry, as well as a sponsor for people in formation. In their final stage of Emmaus preparation, each student is paired with a sponsor who is currently serving in their field of ministry at a parish. It is often becomes a long-term relationship — and many graduates become mentors or field advisors themselves.
“It’s a comfort for people and parishes, in an era of limited resources, to know that the call to ministry can be nurtured and supported,” Whalen said. “It’s a gift to this diocese.”
He also cited the dedication of people in these formation programs, calling it “stunning.” Classes are taught on Monday evenings and Saturdays for Emmaus, and on Sundays for Discipulos.
“Many people in Emmaus are working in a different field than ministry (while taking classes),” Whalen said. “I am just amazed at all of their different commitments and how they are still dedicated to learning, to growing and to being formed in ministry because it’s an impulse of generosity; they’re being called to serve.”
Whalen also cited those in the Discipulos program, which is coordinated by Sr. Melanie Maczka. “What characterizes Discipulos is the tremendous growth and need in the Hispanic community,” Whalen said, “the vibrancy of the participants, their enthusiasm, their willingness to give up Sundays throughout the spring and fall, with the support of family members who are often taking care of household responsibilities or children at that time.”
To date, there have been 212 people who have become certified ministers through Emmaus and 87 who have graduated from Discipulos. There are currently 48 students in Emmaus and 27 in Discípulos de Cristo.
Whalen stresses that it is not just about classroom preparation, but far more: “Koinonia, or community, is a huge aspect of this,” he said. “People grow and develop friendships and professional relationships that last far, far beyond certification.”
When he speaks of the various programs and workshops, Whalen’s eyes light up. Whether from on the parish side of the equation, where he was for more than 20 years, or on the diocesan side of preparing offerings and gathering resources, he finds that “these learning communities are just spirit-filled.”
“You see that in ministry of leading prayer, you see it on Sunday afternoons when Hispanics gather — just the buzz, the excitement. And yet always, when class starts, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, the Spirit takes over,” he said.